When you’re one of the last human beings on a devastated, cannibal-infested earth, is life worth living? This is the central question in John Hillcoat’s “The Road,” a father and son tale that takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Cormac McCarthy. The actual cause of the apocalypse is unknown, but this is not a problem when enjoying – or surviving – the movie. In fact, watching this movie is as much a journey of survival as the one the characters experience on the screen.
This movie is lacking in dialogue, color, and most importantly, hope. The viewer watches in horror as these two heroes struggle to survive in a hostile, dead environment. Every time you think they’re safe, there’s some danger lurking around the corner. They sleep in abandoned cars, hide in abandoned houses and wander the abandoned streets, looking ahead with binoculars in case another human should cross their path and constantly leaving their last refuge once other survivors show up.
Anyone can be an enemy – it is hard for the two to separate the “good guys” (people like themselves who just want to live and let live) and everyone else (people that will eat you if they get the chance).
Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee do a superb job as two of the only humans to survive not only the initial disaster but the subsequent challenges of starvation, harsh weather, and their hungry fellow humans. The man (Viggo Mortensen – no one in this movie actually has a name) spends his days trying to teach his son the essential skills needed to survive in post-apocalyptic Earth: that he cannot trust everyone he sees, that he must never give up, and that he must always “carry the fire.”
In flashbacks we see that the man’s wife (played by Charlize Theron) couldn’t keep her fire alive. She decided to wander into the darkness one night after failing to convince her husband to give up.
Although the man also teaches his son the proper way to commit suicide should things ever go from bad to worse, he never ceases trying to move South so that he can find a better life for himself and his son.
But what is the point? The earth no longer has animals, is covered in charred dying trees, suffers from daily earthquakes and spontaneous fires, and has scarcely a person that is willing to engage in conversation and not try to eat you. There is no solution in this movie – the world as we know it has come to an end and life is simply a matter of surviving to see the next bleak, hopeless day.
I can’t blame the wife for wanting to give up and leave that awful world behind. Maybe the man should be applauded for persevering and trying to keep humanity alive, but on the other hand, maybe it is just a fruitless exercise.
The movie does succeed in illustrating one of the most fundamental questions of our existence: what does it mean to be human? What separates us from the animals? Those that did not perish in whatever event brought about the end of the world find their humanity in peril as they resort to horrible acts to survive.
In trying to avoid danger and protect his son, the man is very cold to his fellow man, causing his son to wonder just how different they are from the “bad guys” surrounding them. The movie is at its best when these questions of morality arise – can you give the old man down the road one of your only cans of food when you have no way of knowing how long it will be before you will get more?
The movie is faithfully adapted from its source material. If you are a fan of McCarthy’s work (which also includes the novel “No Country for Old Men,” whose movie adaptation won the Best Picture Oscar in 2007), then you will be very pleased with how well the movie brought the book to life. The setting is arguably the greatest part of the book-to-movie translation, and viewers get a taste of McCarthy’s poetic style through Mortensen’s voiceover work throughout the film.
But the very same question the movie asks about survival can be made about the movie itself: what is the point? There is no payoff to be had for the viewer – there is no happy ending to this movie.
While it may cause one to take pause and wonder about what was seen, it has no solution, no suggestion for how to cope with the reality it shows – it just is what it is. “The Road” is a very provocative, very compelling movie, but unlike the novel is only a good surface read.