The Road (2009), directed by John Hillcoat, is based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same title. This is a post-apocalyptic tale of hope and survival near to the bone where life is sweetest (to paraphrase Thoreau). I’m a huge McCarthy fan, which raises the stakes on what I hope for from the movie, and I know that’s all kinds of foolish and overly optimistic. In this case, though, the movie delivers well enough.
The father is played by an exceedingly thin and haggard-looking Viggo Mortensen and the Boy by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Because these two are the main protagonists a lot rides on the rapport between them and it works surprisingly well. One of the main themes of this particular story is the love a father has for his son, and the lengths he’s willing to go to to keep him alive and safe. Another theme is how to keep your humanity in a world where rape and cannibalism are real options for survival.
The father and the boy leave their home to travel south in a world where everything has died and the temperature keeps dropping. The animals are gone, the vegetation is dying, and the sky is darkened by huge ominous clouds. Not only do the survivors have to worry about scavenging humans, they also have to try and stay alive through bitter cold, earthquakes, wildfires, and falling trees. No explanations are given as to what actually happened, but it doesn’t really matter. The uncertainty adds to the sense of overall vulnerability of the few survivors that are still “carrying the fire” and trying to be good guys.
The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) opts out before the man and the boy leave their home to go south. She simply can’t handle it anymore, something the viewer is shown in flashbacks. She does not want to just survive, so instead she walks away, literally. She takes off her hat and coat and heads out into the freezing night, committing suicide by simply giving up. The father can’t follow her because of the boy, but the threat of murder/suicide looms large over the pair, symbolized by a revolver with only two remaining bullets. Death is still better than being raped and eaten and the gun is kept as a kind of talisman to ward off a fate worse than death.
The wondrous thing about all this, no matter how bleak the circumstance, how hostile the environment, is that there are moments of light and hope, like when the pair find a survival shelter full of supplies when they are right at the brink of death by starvation. Every single human being they encounter is a potential threat, though, and that adds to the oppressive mood. On the road they meet many bad people who are trying to kill and eat them, but they also meet an old man (Robert Duvall) who is merely trying to stay alive.
There is also other things to contend with, like the fact that the father starts coughing and keeps getting progressively more ill as they travel on. There is the distinct sense that he keeps himself alive only to keep the boy alive and in that way the boy becomes a symbol for his hope for humanity. It’s all very grim, but the relationship between the boy and the father is still depicted as loving and above all profoundly important as a means of keeping some humanity intact.
This is not a hugely sentimental tale. The dialogue is restrained, the landscape viciously bleak, the characters constantly dwarfed by the mere scale of the devastation, and the interaction between them is tinted by that. The only scenes given richness of texture and color and warmth are the dream sequences showing what life was like for the father and mother before the event. They are a startling contrast and serve mostly to exacerbate the horror of the now. They also act as a reminder that the boy was born after disaster struck and therefore has no idea of what life was like before.
The devotion between the father and son is sincere, but there’s no doubt that the father is moribund. The main question seems to be how to retain your humanity when faced with overwhelming odds and how to go on after disaster has struck.
All McCarthy’s novels are deeply language-driven and The Road is no exception, spare to the point of terseness. It’s difficult to translate that into moving images and not lose something vital, though this film does a decent job of that. The color desaturation and the choice of locations all help to show the scale of the destruction. This tale also ends on a strangely hopeful note, in a way. It’s not that anyone is going to live happily ever after, but more that life will go on as long as there are those that are “carrying the fire.” Sometimes, that is really the best you can hope for.
All in all this is well worth watching, but it’s not easy fare and it’s not supposed to be, which you are well aware of if you’re familiar with the unrelenting nature of McCarthy’s fiction.