I read The Road when it had already become a best seller. I purchased the book because it was listed in a top 10 survival-story list and I’m into that kind of stuff. Imagine my dismay when it arrived with a commendation printed on the cover from Oprah’s Book Club. I groaned, but read the book anyway. It was fantastic. It was such a story that McCarthy was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 2007. I was overjoyed to see it made into a feature film and promptly ordered my own copy.
John Hillcoat directs the 2009 film, The Road, based on Cormack McCarthy’s best seller. The tale follows a father and his son as they seek the southern shores in a post-cataclysmic world. The event that essentially killed the world is never explicitly stated, but it seems like a cataclysmic meteor strike. Whatever it was sent ash into the sky such that the sun was obscured. As we all know, when the sun is obscured, nothing lives. All plants are dead, and everything is gray. Earthquakes and fires are constant, and the landscape is one of doomsday. The survivors are few, those that exist are of course very dangerous. Bands of roving groups have turned to cannibalism.
Though there is never mention of God, the obvious flaw in mankind is rightly highlighted – he is a sinner by nature, and evil. When things turn ugly, men will turn uglier. Man is generally a bad guy.
The story follows the man and the boy, we do not know their names, after they left the woman and mother figure, who committed suicide by simply walking away one night. The man is just “Papa.” His sole purpose in life is to get his son prepared to live without him, as he is slowly dying. In order to give his some a good chance, he and the boy head south, living in various abandoned places and vehicles, brushing up with groups of murderous men, and generally creeping upon the face of the earth. The south has a shore, and that shore, somehow, has become a promising goal. If there is life to be found and hope to be had, it will be at the shore. The man and boy keep on.
Hillcoat directs some thrilling scenes of tense encounters – these successfully keep us on the edge of our seats. I groaned with great dismay as the man had to use one of his two remaining rounds in his revolver to defend his son. These last two rounds were earmarked for the son and the man should they become captured. But I sighed with relief when the man found safety.
But the real beauty of the story is the love of father to son. I do not know much about McCarthy, so I read a little about him. My suspicions proved correct. He is the father of two sons, one of whom was born later in his life. I too have a son born beyond what many would consider the canonical age to have a child, and in my older age, I have become sensitive to the sublime delicacies of boyhood. The buy in the film is a heart-wrenching picture of a young boy’s tender and vulnerable heart. He needs his father’s affirmation, assurance and protection so much that is hurts. One of his great concerns is the assurance that they are the good guys:
Man: “There’s not many good guys left, that’s all. Have to watch out for the bad guys…”
Boy: “Are we still the good guys?”
Man: “Yes. We’re still the good guys. ‘Course we are.”
Boy: “And… we always will be? No matter what happens?”
Man: “Always will be.”
The beautiful simplicity of childhood, the black and white ethics, the need for security, the need for goodness, the need for affirmation – all are perfectly seen here. This scene broke my heart. Kodi Smit-McPhee, who played the boy, really shines as a young actor here.
There are many tender and anguishing moments that reveal the torment of loss under the surface of these tragic characters. One simple dialog showed how deeply the loss of the woman was for both.
Man: “You have to stop thinking about her. We both do.”
Boy: “How do we do that?”’
The impossibility of erasing such a focal point of love, the wife and mother herself, is impossible for any man or boy. Added to the grief is that sense of rejection present when a loved one willingly, selfishly, abandons a family for death. How these two are grieving! And all of this sorrow in the face of a dying and ashen world filled with danger!
There is a persistent notion of the afterlife when faced with death: “Please take me with you papa,” for example. Yet a concrete and absolute, or systematically spelled out idea of an afterlife is absent in this film. This absence drives the theme of simply staying alive as the greatest goal of man. What a hopeless, dank and empty goal. Such a theme always leaves a soul empty. But there is a scene designed to give great hope. They pair find a living creature, a green beetle, near the coast. It is alive and flying! Yet, that temporal life is but a fleeting dream, and while some may view it as a symbol of hope for the future – and surely it is intended to be – the fact remains that the beetle will die some day, as all of man will. Hope cannot be tied to dust, it must be tied to love, the ultimate Love Himself.
In the end, the film features a touching goodbye scene when the father dies, and a hope-giving union of the boy finding a new family, one that “carries the fire.” There is a great satisfaction in this ending, and the bittersweet hopelessness of the days before us do indeed diminish. It is a fabulous tale, and filled with lessons.
This is a deeply moving story of love, dependency, doing right, and the ever-present hope for a brighter day tomorrow.