Harrowing trip into a bleak nuclear winter of the future offers a cautionary tale for today.
John Hillcoat’s film of Cormac McCarthy’s widely-praised novel (adapted for the screen by Joe Penhall) presents what may well be one of the bleakest and most terrifying stories ever told on the big screen. THE ROAD follows the harrowing post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son, named simply “Man” and “Boy” (played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively). The nature of the apocalypse is never described (nor does the novel explain it any more clearly than the film), but there is neither vegetation nor animals, and the landscape is covered in grey ash. It’s perpetually cloudy or raining, and bitterly cold. People are filthy and hollow-eyed, with ashen skin and torn fingernails, starving, homeless. The Man and the Boy are traveling on foot, pushing their meager belongings in a cart, heading vaguely south, determined to avoid another northern winter. They’re on foot not only because there is so little fuel and the roads are littered with abandoned cars and wrecked semis, but also because being on foot lets them hide easily, and in this post-disaster landscape, kindness and compassion have vanished as surely as apple blossoms and pizza.
Charlize Theron appears in flashback sequences; she is the “Woman” to Man and Boy, a wife and mother who gives birth the same night that the world turns upside down. After a few years, during which, we must assume, food has become scarce and daily existence has become dangerous, she determines that suicide is the only way out for her family. She says that eventually “they” (referring to the apparently-ubiquitous roving bands of murderous thugs: martial law gone real, real bad) will hunt them down, rape her, rape her son, and then kill and eat all three of them. Learning her husband has onlytwo bullets left, she is furious that this plan can’t work, and walks off into the night, alone, after telling her husband to travel south, as they can’t survive another winter where they are. The Man tearfully begs her to stay, but she refuses, emotionless and resigned to her decision. She clearly doesn’t want to die a victim, and yet it’s almost implausible that she could avoid such a fate. The Man has occasional dreams of her, lit with soft, golden light, full of the warm colors that have been drained out of the world in which he now lives.
For this world is a decidedly brutal one: early on the Man and the Boy meet a band of thugs traveling on a big truck, checking abandoned cars for fuel, searching for food. They try to hide but are discovered (by Garret Dillahunt, one of a number of fine actors in memorable cameos in this two-character story). With the Man’s gun trained on him, the thug offers to bring them along, says they have food, but his cracked, desperate smile and rotted teeth reveal he’s lying. He is the first of a number of bloodthirsty mercenaries the Man and Boy encounter. One terrifying sequence brings them to a seemingly deserted farmhouse that turns out to be a stronghold for a group of ruddy-faced villains who spend their days hunting. The signs are vague but unmistakable in the snowy yard: human skulls on spikes, an iron hook, freshly-split wood, a huge black cooking pot, and a pool of blood in varying shades of red, suggesting a series of slaughters over time.
It seems the primary danger in this cowardly new world is cannibalism, and the Boy understands this only too well; perhaps it’s why he’s quicker than his father to share their food with solitary strangers they meet (including Robert Duvall as an elderly, near-blind man shuffling along in shoes crafted of cardboard and plastic). Despite the Man’s insistence that they’re “the good guys” because they would never eat people, he nevertheless is slow to show compassion to others, believing his “every man for himself” approach is the only thing that will keep them alive. But keep them alive for what? There seems to be no imaginable future for them. Even a fortuitous discovery of an enormous cache of packaged foods doesn’t last. Their clothing is not sufficient to keep them warm; thieves take their survival necessities, and even if they reach the coast, it’s not clear anything will improve.
The Man has made it clear he’ll use his remaining bullet on the Boy to save him from a fate worse than fratricide; and the Boy realizes his father’s wracking cough is a harbinger of his uncertain future, when he’ll have to fend for himself. Of course, the Man is trying to give the Boy survival skills for this inevitability; but distrust and brutality don’t come naturally to a ten-year-old, even one who has been raised in a world as cruel and perilous as this one. THE ROAD suggests that human nature will adapt to anything, even the dissolution of humanity.
The film offers an ending that is perhaps more hopeful and redemptive than audiences should expect. But this brief respite from so much relentless brutality and despair cannot erase THE ROAD’s unforgettable imagery and indelible messages. It’s been said that starvation instills desperate behavior in humans. But the cannibalism of this post-apocalyptic world is not the drastic, apologetic action of a Donner Pass traveler. People in this post-disaster world seem to be steeped in aggressive cruelty and selfishness. Or, perhaps, those who still remain are so, because the compassionate and gentle were sacrificed long ago. Dreary weather, massive destruction and pillaging are nothing compared to the savagery of rape, murder, and cannibalism, and these atrocities pervade McCarthy’s vision of our possible future. If the loss of botanical beauty is heartbreaking, then seeing women and children sodomized and eaten is soul-breaking. It’s hard to see how any spiritual belief system could persist in such a world; but the Man talks of God to his Boy, and also sees his son as a god. Is it that the Boy’s innocence makes him holy? Or that blind faith in a once-powerful, all-forgiving deity is the only flicker of light in an utterly dark existence? When the everyday becomes unbearable, the survivors understandably see the beatific in the banal.
Is THE ROAD’s vision of the future plausible? It might be difficult to find an adult who has not contemplated what might happen were it all to come crashing down on us. Our world is full of nukes and chemical weapons and super-germs. One carefully-planned act of biological warfare would easily decimate the population, and one good natural disaster could shut down the pipeline of food and fuel to the world’s largest cities. We could be screwed almost instantly, and FEMA might well leave us, you’ll pardon the expression, high and dry. Cataclysm comes in many forms, and even in a wealthy, cushy country like the United States, our post 9/11, après-Katrina mindset has made disaster a plausible reality. It flashes through our minds every time we stock up on food for a winter storm, or hoard bottled water and batteries during hurricane season.
I’ve often wondered how our lives might look without the constant crutch of accessible personal technology, and how society would break down if it were taken away. What if we really had to fend for ourselves, forage for food, avoid thugs on a daily basis? Maybe some of us have even wondered what clothing we’d wear to venture out into that endless night, what weapons we’d carry, if any, what we’d do if confronted with our own imminent mortality, our humanity erased by the swift evil that descends in the wake of having our comforts and loved ones whisked away in the blink of an eye. Of course, some people in the world already live like this. THE ROAD is a murky harbinger of our future, but perhaps more urgently, a cautionary tale clearly reflecting our present.
THE ROAD (2009). Directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael K. Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Charlize Theron, Bob Jennings.