Fatherhood after the apocalypse

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The Road (MA), 111 minutes. Director: John Hillcoat. Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee

The RoadCormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road is a bleak, beautiful meditation on human existence. Set in a wasted, post-apocalyptic United States, it is horrific — almost a horror novel, though certainly also very 'literary'. McCarthy's icy poetic language makes a bittersweet song of his protagonists' (a Man and his son) helpless, distantly hopeful ramble south.

Australian director John Hillcoat catches both beauty and bleakness in his faithful film adaptation. The haggard grey face of the landscape is reflected in the bristling, decrepit debris of the Man's features, where hope and love dwell against all reason. The problem with the film The Road is that it does not succeed in getting far beyond the surface strata.

This difficulty lies in the shift from book to film. Much of the beauty in the novel hums in the sentence gaps of the Man's internal monologue. It's not just the language, or the vivid evocation of a desolated civilisation and encroaching, deadened wilderness. It's the evidence of the depth of the love and the fear that the Man has for the Boy. And how love and fear morph into something close to awe for his son, the one good thing still blooming amid the waste.

Inhabiting a visual medium, and with sparse dialogue at their disposal, Viggo Mortensen (as the Man) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (the Boy) provide authentic performances that are nonetheless inscrutable. Relieved of depth, the characters' pilgrimage, a quest of mythic proportions in the novel, is reduced to a mere dramatic thriller on film; compelling, but cold.

Hillcoat has previously provided cinematic reflections on the violence in humanity, in Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead (1988) and The Proposition (2005). In The Road he handles the horror elements well, recognising that effective horror lies not in visceral shock and gore but in gripping the deepest fears and discomforts of the human heart.

The film's most intense scene, therefore, comes not upon the discovery of a human abattoir in the basement of a seemingly abandoned house, but moments later, when the house's cannibalistic owners unexpectedly return (cannibalism is rife in this desperate world). For tortuous seconds the Man, not wanting the Boy to meet a profane end at the murderers' hands, believes the time has come for them to carry out the ritual double suicide they have rehearsed for just such evil circumstances. Here we experience the kind of gut-rending dread that good horror is made of.

The scene is indicative of a world where right and wrong seem to have become one grey smudge across the face of existence. Only in such a world could suicide be seen as an act of both survival and love.

This blurring of right and wrong, good and evil in a world where civil structures have disintegrated, is a theme in both novel and film. It is seen most clearly in the Man's escalating wildness; his growing desperation to preserve the life of his son, and his conviction that the end of survival justifies a growing list of dubious means. 

Two scenes in particular underscore this theme. In one, the Man and the Boy encounter an elderly man (Robert Duvall) hungry and helpless, wandering on the road. The Man refuses to share with him their studiously scavenged food, and only grudgingly accedes after much begging and obstinacy from the Boy.

Later, the Man takes cruel revenge on a fellow traveller (Michael K. Williams) who has stolen from them during an uncharacteristic lapse in vigilance. The Boy's protests reveal the rift that has begun to gape between father and son: the Boy has begun to notice the flaws in his father's fatalistic mantra. But whereas in the book these moments signify existential shifts in the relationship, on film they seem merely domestic.

Both film and book end on an ambiguous note. The outcome is hopeful, or sinister, depending how inclined to optimism one can be after the story's dire events. The Boy navigates these final moments with a mixture of the innate distrust of other people that his father has taught him, but also with the knowledge, born of his own maturity, that at some point, trust will be needed for the continuation of his existence.

There is a sense that, whatever happens beyond the closing moments of the film, the boy has at least been equipped with the resilience to survive, and the desire to keep trying to distinguish good from bad, and right from wrong, no matter how grey that indelible smudge becomes.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: The Road, John Hillcoat, Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, robert duvall, charlize theron, guy pearce


 

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Existing comments

It simply isn't possible to capture a novel such as this in a movie, but it is a good effort. Love is the only reason to keep trying.
Moira | 04 February 2010


The book was profound and worth reading ... bleak and occasionally I became lost.
Great review ... thanks Tim
Judy | 04 February 2010


We need both books and films like this, however bleak, to educate or remind us of how huge the stakes are in the climate crisis. Cormac McCsrthy did not specify the cause of his imagined apocalyptic disaster in the USA and world, but it could have been crossing major climate change tipping points as easily as any other disaster e.g. nuclear war or major meteorite strike. That's why The Road joins the canon of great environmental literature.
tony kevin | 04 February 2010


We need both books and films like this, however bleak, to educate or remind us of how huge the stakes are in the climate crisis (Cormac McCsrthy did not specify the cause of his imagined apocalyptic disaster in the USA and world, but it could have been crossing major climate change tipping points as easily as any other disaster eg nuclear war or major meteorite strike. That's why "The Road" joins the canon of great environmental literature.
tony kevin | 04 February 2010


One person's meat ...

Sorry, but I found the book to be one of the most boring reads of recent years. Repetitive, meandering (which may have reflected the journey, I suppose); almost pointless.

There are so many post apocalyptic books that say lots about what it might be like but don't say anything about here and now - this was just another of them.
Erik H | 04 February 2010


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