Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Charlize Theron
US theatrical: 25 Nov 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 8 Jan 2010 (General release)
The road stretches endlessly before the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). As they walk and walk and walk, the dreary horizon is illuminated occasionally by fires, backed constantly by sounds of destruction—thunder, cracking infrastructure, falling trees. The road offers no possible respite, only more of the same.
This bleak scenario is the foundation of The Road, John Hillcoat’s adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic saga. As father and son make their way across what’s left of the land, they embody myth and the harshest of realities at once, the apparent end of possibility, hope, and imagination. And yet, of course, they also embody exactly the opposite of that, as the Man struggles to help the Boy survive, by describing what may be, heading him toward an elsewhere, and fighting off not only weather and environmental wreckage, but also the few other survivors they meet, mostly thieves and cannibals.
For all the desperation and tragedy, then, the film offers a kind of heroism, set against a frankly grim but also frequently poetic backdrop. he perpetually smoky sky and craggy ground are beautiful in their way, echoing the Man’s internal state as much as they constitute an implacable opposition to him, both tangible and abstract. The movie makes clear the pain he feels every minute in images that seem universal and dreadfully intimate. The Boy looks to him for comfort and reassurance, impossible but necessary too. Because they’ve been on the road for some months, they’re learning how to judge others they might meet, and lucky for them, the cretins and villains tend to show themselves, their bulging eyes, broken teeth, and slack jaws indicating their capacity for soulless survival at any cost.
This is how the world ends, you know, badly.
It’s telling, in some sad, fierce, and conventional way, that this end is contingent on the Man’s bad memories of the Wife (Charlize Theron). To start, she has no generic status apart from the Man (she is not, for instance, the Woman). She doesn’t even have a specific relation to the Boy, who was a baby when she “left” 10 years ago. And in the flashbacks that suggest the storms and mayhem that destroyed the physical world, she is early on fearful and unimaginative—or more precisely, all she can imagine is appalling. The film doesn’t suggest that this has to do with her personal experience (she has none apart from what the Man remembers of her) or her existence as a woman (except that she is pregnant in his memory and fears being raped—markers of her femaleness in a culture that seems not to have ended with the world).
As he remembers—again and again, in a structural departure from the book’s single flashback—she was early on overwhelmed by her fears of what might happen, and so turned depressed and suicidal. That he was unable to convince her to “carry the fire,” as the Man and the Boy describe their own determination to go on, makes the man miserable. Not only does he feel her loss (the scene where she wanders off into the blackness, so that her suicide is both unseen and likely a fulfillment of her/his worst nightmare), but he also feels guilty for her loss. Bad Wife. She didn’t hold on for her son or fight for her husband. Instead, she gave up, succumbing to womanish emotion and lack of faith, yielding to worst impulses. (Granted, the Man and the Boy do come upon occasional women who have lived, but until the last, least convincing one, these tend to be groveling, nattering, scary flesh-eaters, tagging along with their dominant male companions.)
That the Man is afflicted by the Wife-as-memory is reinforced repeatedly, until he finally conducts his own divorce ritual, pushing his ring off the railing of a highway overpass, so that it tumbles into an endless void (not unlike the disposal of the Precious, though without Golem’s entertaining histrionics). He does so to rid himself of his sense of defeat and more specifically, her. As poignant and insistent as the Wife appears in his dimming recollections, she is the vestige of a past, neither inspirational nor nostalgic.
After a decade of teaching the Boy to look ahead (or at least pretend to do so), the Man is reaching his own sort of end, his frustration with their utter lack of everything molding his ability to train and inspire his son. And yet, as the Boy observes a shift in his moral inclination, their differences offer hope for a next generation—should that generation survive and serve as foundation for another, certainly not a given in this saga. When they meet an Old Man (Robert Duvall) or must deal with a Thief (Michael K. Williams), the Boy is inclined to be generous, where the Man is not. While this difference surely resonates symbolically—regarding the future versus the past, or youth versus age—it leans at least in part on the Man’s experience, his distrust emerging out of damage done to him, while he has somehow been able to preserve the Boy’s seemingly innate optimism.
“Are we the good guys?” the Boy asks. The Man nods, yes, they are. While the Boy must think this through, wonder about how good and bad are configured in the only world he’s known, he will go on. He will also, as the film hopes for him, find girls who are not his mother.