I recently watched The Road. You should, too.
That is, if you’re a movie person. If you’re repulsed by movies with disturbing content, you should pass. (No, I haven’t read the book. Bad me).You should also know there are spoilers in this review if you haven’t seen the movie.
To be honest, I found myself hesitant to watch. I want the stories I enter to make an attempt at answering a metaphysical question or three—even if I don’t jive with where they end up by the time the curtain falls.
The Road is a slow-motion, excruciating slither into the strangling cesspools of human despair. Give or take.
So why should you watch it? First…
What is The Road about?
Early on, the father (played by a spellbinding Viggo Mortensen) frames the world he lives in:
“The clocks stopped at one seventeen. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. I think it’s October but I can’t be sure. I haven’t kept a calendar for years. Each day is more gray than the one before. It is cold and growing colder as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived, and all the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will fall. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts, and gangs carrying weapons, looking for fuel and food.
“Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food, always food. Food and the cold and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice, difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant, and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”
A father and his boy, struggling to survive after the world’s end. Gripping stuff.
Okay, but why should you watch The Road?
Because the narrative is driven by powerful questions.
What would happen, McCarthy seems to ask, if humanity were thrust into a Lord of the Flies, post-apocalyptic mess? But not merely the morning after. Fast forward. Pick up the trail once we’ve duked it out and most everyone is dead. The world is a vapid, dog-eat-dog wasteland… without any dogs. Or birds. Or anything. What would happen to us then?
To us. To people in general. McCarthy is so focused on this question that he doesn’t abstract the issue by giving his characters names. And while the physical struggles are visceral and real, the “what would happen to us?” question is directed deeper, into our emotional, mental, and spiritual fate. What would happen to our soul? Our humanity? What would happen to me?
Many survivors in McCarthy’s world have resorted to cannibalism, and that image—humanity devouring itself like the proverbial shrinking snake swallowing its own tail—is terrifying. Most people in the story remind me of C.S. Lewis’ “unman” from his sci-fi opus, Perelandra. These are people, sort of—but somehow less than people. After killing a threatening bandit to protect his son, the father tries to explain his actions:
The Man: Listen, we have to talk. That man back there… There’s not many good guys left, that’s all. We have to watch out for the bad guys. We have to just… keep carrying the fire.
The Boy: What fire?
The Man: The fire inside you.
The Boy: Are we still the good guys?
The Man: Yes, we’re still the good guys. Of course we are.
The Boy: And we always will be? No matter what happens?
The Man: Always will.
These themes—good guys, bad guys, the fire inside—are the real road the father and son are travelling.
Viggo is so consumed with protecting his boy from danger that his own soul begins to break down. The weary fire inside him (his humanity) is gradually smothered by the incessant drip-dripping of life and death decisions greased by the slick compromises he feels compelled to make along the way. It rarely stops raining in his outer world, and eventually his heart gives in to it’s seeping power. He starts to become, in a sense, one of the bad guys.
The persistent cough that eventually kills him is a bloody symbol of his slow inner death. Without the fire inside, he is no longer a worthy ward of the sacred fire rising within his son. It is a mercy that he dies physically before his spiritual descent is complete.
Right. So why should you watch The Road?
Because you’re on it too.
We all are. Good guys, bad guys, the fire inside. This is the real road we’re travelling. Being a dignified human being is a choice we must all make—and keep on making, day after day.
Don’t be fooled by shopping malls and lawn care and iced lattes. The world is a dark place that drip-drip-drips its psychic bile onto the fragile fire inside us, trying to smother our humanity by tempting us with an endless stream of compromises. Raw consumerism, I think, is a form of cannibalism.
Bottom line, we become less than human when we let go of the fire inside us—the image of God stamped on our heart. Our glorious identity can be extinguished by darkness. It can be snuffed out unless we choose to shake off evil and choose to shine no matter what the cost.
This film is dreary, depressing, horrific, and yet somehow triumphant. It clings to the bones. I found myself choked up at the ending, where despair bottlenecks with love and love squeezes through the narrow opening. In the end, there is sunshine and hope, fragile as they may be.
So why should you watch The Road? I’ll speak for myself:
I saw in myself the temptation to be less than I am. To sell out. To give up by settling for less. To compromise and cannibalize. And I also sensed God’s call to be so much more. So I answered the call afresh.
I’m glad I watched The Road, because God used it to stoke the fire inside of me.
Have you seen The Road? What did you think? How’s your inner fire faring right now?
Great review, Brad. I enjoyed The Road as well (though I’m not sure “enjoy” is the right word). I like your analysis of the overall theme and message. Despite being such a bleak film, it is ultimately a film of hope.
As an aside, you might want to mention to folks who haven’t seen it yet that your review contains spoilers (specifically referring to the fate of the father). Maybe it’s just me, but giving away that piece of information could significantly alter a person’s experience of the film if they’ve never seen it before. 😉
Good point, Tom. I will do that!
i loved this book. and it took me a whole year after reading it to agree to see the movie. i was worried the movie would be too “hard” but it was so so good.
Sarah, thanks for stopping by! Maybe I should I read the book. Whew!
I saw the preview to this a long time back, and was intrigued. I enjoyed Viggo’s performance in LOTR and figured that it was going to be a good one. I heard about a bleak movie and ending, but unlike my wife, I would still want to watch it and do plan to.
I like to see a movie that explores someone holding on to their humanity. I am currently watching the Falling Skies series, which has an appealing element of that as well. You may want to check that one out as well, if you have not already.
Another LOTR actor crossover film I like is from actor Ian McKellen (Gandolf). The title is Neverwas. It is about a son who discovers who his Dad was from an eccentric institutionalized man (McKellen) after his father had passed.
Thanks for review and the reminder.
Thanks brother! I’ll have to check out Falling Skies too.
Well written Brad. You have an amazing way to make your descriptions tangible. I don’t remember what the circumstances were but I ended up watching “The Book of Eli” and “The Road” in the same night. Between the mind-blowing ending of “The Book of Eli” and the emotional turmoil that “The Road” left me in…I’m sure you could have stuck a fork in me and called me done. It was, however, very interesting to watch two movies based in a post-apocalyptic world.
I think the moment when The Boy finds the bug in the amusement park…that moment where the viewer is allowed to believe that hope can return to a desolate wasteland. I couldn’t help but feeling very wary of the family at the end that took The Boy in…like their motives weren’t pure. Therein lies a very hard question though when I look at my own path and the path that He would have me walk sometimes – how often I look upon it with skepticism and then, as a result, look for ways to control my own life? How does that affect my fire? What is feeding it then?
And now for something completely unrelated…
Any way you would be willing to do a movie review of Pitch Black?
Thanks Courtney. It’s encouraging to know others are tending their fires, guarding their hearts. On your question: Pitch Black, as in Vin Diesel?