When I first closed the cover on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel on a plane trip to Latvia, tears welled in my eyes. Katie and I were celebrating our third year of marriage, the idea of having a child barely birthed in our hearts. When I read The Road a second time a week ago in anticipation of the film, I read it through the eyes of fatherhood. The former tears progressed to outright weeping in the late-night darkness of my living room. I held my son that night and thanked God for the charge of loving, guiding, and protecting this tiny person. As I watched the film on its opening day, I was once again reminded of the overwhelming responsibility I have as a father in caring for my son and the painfully beautiful journey that responsibility entails.
This is an apocalyptic story, but that is not the primary purpose. Contrary to end-of-the-world movies meant to entertain us with the inevitable demise of the planet–the CGI-laden 2012being the most recent of the genre–The Road focuses on the relationship between a father and son, the burned-out world serving as a grim backdrop to their odyssey. We’re never sure what caused the destruction, but we do see the aftermath. Darkened skies, burned forests, abandoned cities, and everything seen through a lens of ashen grey. Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, one of the best western films in the past twenty years) shot the film in the mining country of woodland Pennsylvania and the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Mount St. Helens in Washington state. Panoramic shots of abandoned freeways and burning forests paint a sobering picture of a potential future for our world.
Living in this bleak world are the father and son, carrying the spiritual fire of hope. The man (Viggo Mortensen) is pragmatic, resilient, and more than a bit cynical about the dreary environment they inhabit. Narrating in darkly poetic monologues, the man has a deep conflict between wanting to survive and doing what is right. He views every other human through a lens of distrust, telling the boy that “I’ll kill anyone who touches you. That’s my job.” The boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) seems have been born with a more selfless sense of morality; he holds the man accountable, not allowing him to let his inner fire go out. Pale, filthy, and clearly starving, the two share the look of vagrants as they push a rusty shopping cart filled with their meager belongings. The man clutches a revolver with two bullets; this is both their protection and their chance for escape. The idea of suicide is constantly in the back of their minds, with the man wondering if he can pull the trigger if the time comes.
There was a mother once (Charlize Theron), though she is seen in dreams and flashbacks of better times. Overcome by the despair of their situation, she slips into darkness and lives on only in their memory. It’s just the two of them trying to survive, with starvation and roving cannibals all digging at their heels as they head for the supposed safety of the coast. Their journey is filled with danger and fear, especially for the boy. You can see the terror in his eyes whenever they approach another abandoned house or city. And for good reason. Decaying bodies hang in barn rafters, skulls are perched on shafts like a morbid fence line, locked cellars contain unspeakable horrors. This is human depravity set loose on the world, driven by fear and selfishness.
As the man, Mortensen gives one of the finest performances of the year. With world-worn eyes and the decaying look of the homeless, he portrays the father with an honesty and compassion rarely seen on film. Words are rarely spoken, but the concern-filled love of a father is clearly evident in his tired face. Smit-McPhee is a relative newcomer but a fantastic actor. He holds his own with the likes of Mortensen and Theron, and I’m eager to see what else he’ll do in the future. There is a joy between these two that goes beyond acting. When the father and son happily jump into a waterfall or take quick baths in an underground bunker filled with food, you sense the familial connection these two have.
The spiritual undertones of The Road are vast. Deeply meditative, this is a story of contrasts–light and dark, good and evil, hope and despair. The very countryside embodies the spiritually dark world the man and boy traverse, yet they continue to carry the fire of hope. The boy has only ever known the darkness and ash, yet he embodies a selfless compassion that is remarkable. They happen upon a hunched elderly man (Robert Duvall) traveling the road, appropriately named Eli for his prophetic voice. While the man remains wary and aloof, the boy is eager to share their food and time with Eli. The old prophet remarks that he believed the boy to be a sort of angel, that he never thought he’d see a child again. The man replies, “To me he is a god. If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” This isn’t some sort of false idolatry; this is hope incarnated in the son. In a scene not found in the novel, the man and boy are camped out in an abandoned church. Sitting underneath a large window in the shape of a cross, they huddle together as in prayer, a fire between them their altar. Perhaps there is goodness and love to be found in this world after all.
The Road is not an easy film to watch but it’s one of the best films of the year, and perhaps my favorite. As a father, I have no idea what I would do if presented with the straining situations the man and boy find themselves in. Could I press on? Would I end my child’s life if it meant saving him from cannibalization? Could we survive with a sense of hope? Despite it’s overall bleak tone, the haunting message The Road bears is one worth pursuing–that light cannot be overcome by darkness, that love drives out fear, and that the depravity of the world can never overtake the hope found in the best of all Fathers.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898367/