With only a day to go until Thanksgiving, Hollywood’s latest tale of post-catastrophe life ensures that audiences are truly thankful for what they have this year.
“The Road” is the dark post-apocalyptic journey of an unnamed man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they travel from desolate, dangerous middle America toward the east coast. They hope to find remnants of civilized life there and to recreate what they lost in the mysterious unnamed cataclysm–probably a nuclear war–that left the world lifeless. Lifeless, that is, except for roving bands of cannibals and a few other pilgrims, like them, who search for some semblance of the past.
The film is directed by John Hillcoat and adapted by Joe Penhall from Cormac McCarthy‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. While not a classically scary film, I still sat on the edge of my seat for the entire 119 minutes. “Bad guys” rarely appear, but the knowledge that at any point cannibals could find the protagonists is disconcerting, and by the end of the film I was emotionally drained from the tense world in which the man and the boy live.
Much like McCarthy’s other work adapted for the screen, “No Country for Old Men,” a sense of hopelessness pervades this film. Early on, a roving band forces Mortensen to use one of his last two bullets–bullets presumably being saved for a desperate murder-suicide when hope finally runs out. From there, the run-ins with cannibals and a few other travelers never end happily. At best the encounters are bleak. Even at the end of “The Road,” hope for the future is tempered by the chilling terrors of the past, and the knowledge that further horrors await.
Color contributes heavily to this hopelessness. There is hardly any color, only varying shades of gray. The first real color the audience sees is red blood. Aside from the blood, color in the film typically differentiates the warmth of life before the cataclysm and life on the road. Key moments of bliss are highlighted with color. When the man and the boy stumble upon a farm with a stocked cellar of canned goods, the colors of the cans of food are what stick out.
The film’s overriding message deals with paternal love. The man says that he sees God in his son. It is his son that sustains him, gives him hope, gives him a reason to persevere to the coast. His love forces him to be candid with his son, so that when the boy is alone he can still survive. He can still “carry the fire.” The film’s website notes that, “to the boy, that is a process of staying the course.”
Mortensen said that “any parent that cares about their kid has these feelings, these doubts, these fears, these concerns. … What’s going to happen when I’m gone?” The message of love, of the passing of the torch, between a father and son is important and well portrayed, and it is this message that prompts the filmmakers to argue that it ends positively.
But beneath this uplifting message is a much bleaker one, and it is this subtler message that left me feeling hopeless at the end, despite the pseudo-happy ending. The film paints a picture of a God who either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care. The man does not believe in God, though early scenes show him in church with his wife. While he has reason to be bitter for what happened to his wife (she despairs and leaves him, presumably to die alone), the film fails to contrast him with anyone who has kept the faith despite hardships, which churches and individuals around the world prove is possible. This singular view of God as an unknowable, potentially non-existent being, removes any chance at real hope in this world. And while the man still has a god–his son–viewers do not have the same faith in him.
This bleak worldview keeps intimate scenes from feeling truly natural. The film prompts pity, not sorrow, for the boy as he arms himself with his father’s gun and prepares for the future. Even quality acting can’t overcome this message.
“The Road” brings the central question of human existence to the forefront of our minds, but fails to answer it. When you take away everything, what is left to live for? The man lives for his son, his god. It rings empty. Hope cannot be placed solely in the next generation. It must be placed in something greater. If it is, life’s road is not so lonely, or so long.