On the first page of The Road—Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of father/son survival in a post-apocalyptic world—we are introduced to a world of darkness and gray, stinking robes and plastic tarpaulins, bleak lifelessness "like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." But amidst this hell we see a father reaching out to touch his child.
John Hillcoat's film version also opens with this scene, perfectly capturing from the outset the spirit of "love among the ruins" that makes McCarthy's book a true 21st century classic. It's a timeless, ancient story of humanity that recalls the first spark of fire in the primeval caves; but it's also a story of our time, perhaps the truest and most important piece of post-9/11 literature we have. Coming as it does in the waning months of this tumultuous decade, this cinematic adaptation is everything it needs to be and more. This film is of the finest order and an impressively restrained, quietly humane work of art for our fragile times—a triumph of beauty, tragedy, prophecy and redemption.
The film's story—faithfully adapted by playwright Joe Penhall—is simple. Set against the backdrop of an unknown apocalypse, we follow "Man" (Viggo Mortensen in his career-best) and "Boy" (then-11-year-old Kodi Smit-McPhee), unnamed because the world is too far gone for such luxuries as names. The father-son duo are survivors in a not-too-distant future in which nature is dying, fires rage, ash permeates the air, and those who aren't cannibals are relegated to scavenging for dead bugs. The Road follows this pair on their perilous journey to the coast, a place of perpetual hope in which the air might be warmer and the food might be easier. It's an apocalypse film writ small: An intimate portrayal of two people "on the road," trying to live a life that is a little bit more than just avoiding death.
One of many things Hillcoat nails in this film is that it perfectly envisions the literary mood and visceral landscape of McCarthy's book. Hillcoat, whose previous film The Proposition was inspired by McCarthy's Blood Meridian, wisely shot the film in ravaged-by-disaster, real-world locations like Mount St. Helens and post-Katrina New Orleans, capturing the right balance of familiarity (abandoned malls, decaying amusement parks, still-carbonated Coke cans) and apocalyptic horror (smoke and fire on every horizon, rootless trees falling all over the place, graffiti-filled billboards that say "Behold the Valley of Slaughter"). The characters, grimy and tattered in layers of plastic and improvised raincoats, push their carts and look no different than the urban homeless in any contemporary city. They're nomadic and skeletal, moving from haven to haven in search of food and protection from the harsh elements—and harsher bad guys always patrolling the road.
The world of The Road, void as it is of the accoutrements of Western civilization (technology, commerce, healthcare, electricity, etc.), is haunted by the vestiges of its former glory. The man is always having flashbacks to the happier times, when flowers bloomed, the sun shined, and people still played music. Pianos are a prominent symbol of this forgotten place, underscored in Nick Cave's lovely piano-centric score. The man remembers when he and his wife (Charlize Theron, seen only in flashbacks) played piano together, and in one scene he comes across a decrepit upright and can't help but cry out. It's a lament for a world that will never be again.
And what about God? If he exists, "he would have turned his back on humanity long ago," observes one character. And yet despite the apparent godlessness of the dying world, God is still there—even if only in remnants and shards. One of the film's most memorable and touching scenes (which doesn't occur in the book) finds the man and boy taking refuge in an abandoned church, huddled beside a fire that looks like a sacrificial altar, beneath a large bright cross. Hillcoat frames a beautiful, indelible long shot in this scene, capturing within the frame a prominent cross and a father who would sacrifice everything for his son, hiding away under the archways of a church where worship has been absent for many years. And yet the cross still speaks. The fire carries on.
"Carrying the fire" is a big idea in The Road. To carry the fire is to keep the spark of humanity alive. It's what the "good guys" still have. Hillcoat translates the idea both explicitly in the dialogue and symbolically in the motif of fire. One scene in particular when Man and Boy share their dinner around a campfire with an elderly wanderer named Eli (Robert DuVall) gets to the heart of the matter. Duvall delivers a moving speech in which his face is bathed in the light from the campfire, and his cataract-damaged eyes reflect the fire both outside and within. He speaks prophetically (Eli is not a randomly chosen name) about the "warnings," about how "he always believed in it," and about how when he saw the boy, he thought he had died. "I never thought I'd see a child again," he says.
That's the sort of moment that represents "the fire." Three generations of men, sharing a meal together in the worst of times, when "sharing" anything is a fearsome idea. The fire represents sacrificial love. The boy has it the most, even though he was born after the apocalypse and never knew a world of charity. Still, he's the one who begs his father to give food to Eli or take pity on a thief later in the film. As his father becomes increasingly single-minded about surviving at all costs, Boy is the one who reminds him that survival is nothing if we lose our humanity in the process.
If in the debased world of The Road the prevailing ethos is "every man for himself," the spirit of the fire is decidedly in the other direction: It's about the importance of community, of trusting our neighbors and taking the risk of love, even if it costs us our life. It's about putting decency above brute survival and realizing that the best legacy we can leave our children is a model of right living and selfless love. As McCarthy said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, "It is more important to be good than it is to be smart."
It's absolutely fitting that The Road opens out on Thanksgiving weekend. It's an experience that will thrill you, unsettle you, but above all remind you that even in the darkest of times there is much to be thankful for. Midway through the film, Man and Boy stumble upon an abandoned underground cellar fully stocked with food and water. They cook and feast and are momentarily hidden away from the struggle. Shell-shocked by the unexpected and undeserved bounty, the boy instinctively clasps his hands together and offers up a genuine and appropriately nondescript prayer: "Thank you, people."
In the world of The Road, concepts as simple as saying "thank you" are so foreign and forgotten that when the boy says it, it almost seems alien. But thankfulness—like its endangered cousins love, mercy, faith and hope—still lives, pressing on as it ever has, sure as the love between a father and son. Creation has not breathed its last.Discussion starters
- How do you interpret the idea of "carrying the fire" in this film?
- What sets the "good guys" apart from the "bad guys" in the film? At any point does the man become a "bad guy?"
- Evaluate the actions of the boy's mother. Can we blame her for her decision? Is she demonstrating selfishness or compassion on her family?
- Why do you think the film never tells us what is actually happening in the world in terms of the apocalypse?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Road is rated R for violence (though the worst of it occurs offscreen), some language, and a few scenes of brief rear male nudity. Mostly, the rating has to do with the extreme intensity and spirit of dread that pervades the film. It's not easy to watch and might disturb viewers because it so effectively captures the survival struggle of its protagonists. But the questions The Road raises, particularly of the spiritual sort, make it a film worth considering for parents and older teens and up.
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