This might seem like an odd parallel to make. The author Harper Lee’s child’s eye view of small town life in Alabama, and her heroic depiction of a widowed father confronting Southern racism – along with the 1962 black-and-white film which starred Gregory Peck as the supremely noble embodiment of that figure, the attorney-at-law Atticus Finch – have an idealistic 1950s sheen to them. So much so that every Father’s Day Gregory Peck is still recalled in various polls and magazine articles as our iconic image of fatherhood: modest, upright, warm, he suggests a man’s finest hours have little to do with machismo and much to do with tenderness.
Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic vision of our future in The Road would appear a world away from this reassuring feminine ideal (based in fact on Harper Lee’s own childhood). In it an unnamed father and his son trudge south across a waste-land towards the coast. They push a shopping trolley full of scavenged supplies as they flee the onset of what seems to be a nuclear winter, though we are never sure what brought our civilization down into its ashes. McCarthy prefers to concentrate on the journey the father and son make, dispensing with any back-story in a few Spartan sentences: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions.”
The film similarly elides explanations, using precisely the same words in a voice-over by a wolfishly lean Viggo Mortensen as the father. More than anything it’s Mortensen’s vaguely hyper-thyroidic eyes that capture you with their imagined depths, a physical attribute that has made the Danish-American actor a standout in projects as varied as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Eastern Promises and Indian Runner. As The Road begins a screen door bangs shut on a life of humid colour and we are jolted awake, out of his dream of the past and into a shadowy present where the father clutches at his son with a mix of animal fear and ferocious affection, “each the other’s world entire”. The son is played by the 11 year old Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who last tore our hearts out as the boy who bore witness to adultery, madness and self-destruction in Romulus, My Father. Charlize Theron appears in flashbacks as the mother: languidly beautiful and lost as a summer of love; then increasingly sallow and wrought till she gives birth at home while a destroyed world waits outside her door. There in memory she will stay.
Father and son must make their pilgrimage to survive through a charred landscape veiled by rain and snow, past poisoned rivers and dead forests vertiginously shaken by earthquakes, through the monochrome misery of deserted cities and on towards hollow-feeling skies split by far-off lightning. An environmental apocalypse as much as any man-made explosion is heavily implied. This rupture to the natural order has the stage pitch of Shakespearian tragedy, with close-ups by lamp and fire light sketched by Samuel Beckett – as well as an authenticity that might give even the most ardent climate-change doubter pause for thought. Cynics will see it another way, as nothing but a downer, and yet another art experience capitalizing on the zeitgeist of fear around us now prompting a rash of anxiety disorders among our children about the state of the environment.
As a science fiction film set in the near-future this gives The Road a sobriety and believability that is unsettling. That the pluming smoke in one scene was taken from September 11 and grafted into the background only adds to the film’s claustrophobic tethers on the collective unconscious, though some of these post-production techniques, including the de-colourizing of the natural landscape for heightened bleakness, have subtracted from this emphatic realism and created a synthetic, photo-realist quality. This may well be intentional, creating an iconic look that is quasi-medieval and fable-like at times, qualities reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish film about “the silence of God”, The Seventh Seal.
On the road father and son endure starvation, elemental deprivation, and the threat of ragged gangs reduced to robbery, rape and cannibalism. This is a world where starvation and brutality are the facts of life; where everyone is ‘homeless’, worn-out shoes and soiled clothing lined with plastic bags for protection. The father’s greatest gift in this existential horror story – and the story is best seen as a frontier Gothic horror tale rather than a sci-fi experience – would appear to be a gun with two bullets.
One of the first ‘sharing’ moments is a scene where the father explains to the boy how to cock this gun, place it in his mouth, tilt it upwards and blow his own brains out. “Like this. See?” Deep down the father knows the boy is incapable of suicide. But he does his best to prepare him all the while he must be willing to do the deed himself. We hear Mortensen’s thoughts again in voice-over, a God-said-to-Abraham voice where there is no God above, and no consoling or compelling faith to support the sacrifice of his son into oblivion: “Can you do it? When the time comes? Can you?”
That anybody should be surprised this material might form difficult subject matter for a film defies common sense. The problems of translating the myriad nuances of event and character and thought patterns that a novel can embrace, let alone the mysterious enchantments of language itself – in McCarthy’s case a chant-like undertow to his story-teller’s voice that is either prayerfully hypnotic or overbearingly portentious depending on whether you enjoyed reading the The Road or not – creates a whole other strata of difficulties that could kill even the best intentions.
A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2007, McCarthy’s novel crossed over into the mainstream to become a literary best-seller. In doing so it gained the imprimatur of no less a house-hold icon than Oprah Winfrey, whose attachment to the cadences of McCarthy’s Biblical language reflects her own church upbringing in the South and the ringing power of what might be termed pulpit oratory. It’s no great coincidence that she and McCarthy are both Tennessee raised – and that two years earlier her Book Club had revived interest in three classic novels in a row by William Faulkner, the author to whom McCarthy is most often compared.
But The Road was not just ‘popular’; it penetrated in the deepest, word-of-mouth ways. People, particularly men, felt shaken to the core by its reflections on fatherhood, love, family and the future of the planet for our children in this time of terror, war and ecological dysfunction. The book was duly heralded as the most important American novel of the last hundred years, even as an end note to American and perhaps Western civilization itself. At the most raw level it had the power to frighten those who read it into loving better, to remind us that love is both an act and a responsibility rather than some fuzzy romantic feeling we can allow to drift about us. To read the novel was to renew one’s vows as a parent, to being in the world and caring, and to recognize the need to do something with and about that love, or risk losing it.
Repeated delays in the release date of the adaptation, and with it whispers that it might not receive a cinema outing at all (that dreaded yoke around its neck: “a straight to DVD release”), hinted at not only the obvious darkness of the story itself, but a deeper flaw: an indulgence in that darkness, an immersion in all the worst horrors of McCarthy’s novelistic vision without the pay-off of those final cathartic, run-to-your-children-and-love-them emotions.
The construction of a deceptive preview trailer that has sought to hide this darkness by promoting it as one of those end-of-the-world nightmare spectaculars in the vein of films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, utilizing panicky news-reel footage and explosive snippets that are not actually seen in the film – with shots of Charlize Theron looking beautiful and scared – did not assuage concerns. A dog’s breakfast seemed the inevitable outcome of these competing ambitions and pressures.
Instead the film is neither a fetishistic art-house indulgence of McCarthy’s most miserable extremes, or an entertainment-on-steroids compromise that bastardizes the original work. No, against all the odds it strikes towards the deepest core of the book’s appeal, and emerges as a grand cinematic poem about love, about what we give and what we teach and how this is carried on between generations. Any father, mother, or ‘child’ knows this territory. And like the book, the film’s ultimate reverberations are restorative precisely because it pushes us towards love – and sacrifice. The outcome in the film then is the same as that of the novel: hope, not decimation.
Those bright powers observed it would be deceptive not to warn people of the film’s more confronting scenes. A basement with half-alive, partially dismembered, naked figures recalls the Holocaust in writhing miniature, though it is the sounds from this same house later at night rather than anything you witness that curdles the stomach. But then who would go see a story like this without expecting a shadow or five? One might say the poor fools who get sucked in by the trailer, which may be just as well, and in its way a brilliant marketing ploy, however compromised its motives. For it is certainly true we are too easily entertained by those things that should trouble us, by what Saul Bellow once described as “the ecstasies of destruction” inherent in our shallower entertainment past-times. These days even what troubles us is mere grist for the entertainment mill as video game manufacturers market extreme war-game violence with pop songs like Tears for Fears ‘Mad World’, as if romanticized depression and nihilistic inertia might serve for a conscience to excuse your pleasure in slaughtering whoever whenever any time you like.
As an author, McCarthy has hardly been immune from criticisms of unnecessary violence, and of relishing it in his work. In fact it’s hard to think of a more violent author in the history of American letters. Prior to The Road the book on which his critical reputation most powerfully rested was Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), a spectacular and endless succession of nightmare scenes depicting a teenage boy’s involvement with a hunting party collecting Indian scalps in the American West. Here McCarthy’s language spewed off the page with Old Testament power, long declarative sentences joined by one ‘and’ after another, no quotation marks, and a seeming resentment of commas into the bargain.
His greatest commercial success is now No Country for Old Men, which stripped back the engine, paring down the archaic language and long, coagulating scenes into something ready-made and revved-up for cinematic adaptation. Fans saw it as McCarthy-lite; the old devil going soft and cleaning up his style. But the same bitter messages dominated both the book and the film it spawned: evil and violence win; the world is savage and sad. My feeling is this message hollows out both that novel and the Coen Brothers adaptation, and makes them lower experiences, even if the spare, vicious momentum of No Country for Old Men cleared the way for the prayerful, rhythmic simplicity and power of The Road.
It’s interesting to note that McCarthy’s favourite novel is Moby Dick. When Herman Melville wrote it he told his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as a lamb.” McCarthy has enjoyed similar sins over his startling novelistic career. If Blood Meridian was indeed McCarthy’s wicked book, The Road might well be said to be his blessed one. The difference is one of both content and intention. McCarthy dedicated The Road to his own then 7 year old son John Francis. It may be that The Road is the first book McCarthy ever truly wrote for someone apart from himself, the first he ever wrote for the world rather than against it (or at best grieving whatever innocence it could have had). McCarthy’s sense of mortality as an old man in his 70s may have also increased the urgency with which he delivered it to us, spare as a book of hymns about forgiveness for our sins and maybe his.
A look at the director John Hillcoat’s earlier work on The Proposition meanwhile makes it obvious why he has been the perfect choice to direct The Road. Apart from the fact Hillcoat cited Blood Median as an inspiration for The Proposition, there are similar lyrical qualities to the way he has people emerge out of a primal landscape, qualities that drew from singer Nick Cave’s script and were enhanced by the latter’s accompanying soundtrack work with Warren Ellis. A closing scene in The Proposition, where two brothers sit, side by side, one bleeding to death from the other’s gun shot wounds, recalls nothing less than the unleashing of of Bob Dylan's ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ in Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. It’s a moment that brings a genuine poetic majesty to The Proposition after so much violence and bloodshed.
Hillcoat has wisely chosen Cave and Ellis again as the composers for The Road and they deliver a stirring soundtrack. Even so I did not think the director was capable of what he has achieved here. I had assumed that like McCarthy in his most pessimistic incarnations, Hillcoat would be too caught up in his passions for melodrama and baroque flourishes of brutality to produce something this spiritual and warm. I was very wrong. In tune with the great old man of American literature, John Hillcoat has created a masterpiece in The Road that transcends his dark materials and takes us on into something pure and possible. Like the father who loves his son, like the extreme nature of the novel itself, the experience will reassure you of cinema’s capacity to stoke “the fire inside you”.
- Mark Mordue