“The Frailty of Everything Revealed at Last.”
The Road is a mosaic of a nameless Man’s devotion to his innocent son as they travel together across America, struggling constantly with the rigours of survival in a squandered world plagued by the dark heart of humanity in the death throes of extinction.
In crystal-clear clarity, director John Hillcoat has successfully managed to harness the underlying human narrative at the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s epic novel.
As such, the film’s immense, moving power derives from its ability to focus unflinchingly on the immediate; the pressing search for food and warmth, the “great fear” of succumbing to cannibalism, the ruthless, indifferent crucible of nature.
The past, and with it the causes of the present, remain shrouded in ambiguity, glimpsed only in half-caught dreams and recollections too harrowing to pursue.
In this harsh lexicon of bare survival, The journey of the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leads to numerous encounters with equally nameless characters whom are neatly polarised as “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Each of these are archetypal in their Americanisms; from Michael K Williams’ victimised, black loner, to Guy Pearce’s gruff, soulful huntsmen, to the sallow, nightmarishly violent gangs of redneck bandits.
But the film and novel as a whole is equally steeped in the nation’s cinematic and literary traditions. The Road possesses tropes of the pioneering Western canon whilst inversing its basic premise; the Man and the Boy are heading East on a road already trod by a people now passed.
As such, The Road can undoubtably be regarded as one of the noughties’ truly masterful portrayals of Americana.
But parallels can be drawn from further afield. The Road expresses the American sensibility as Children of Men expressed that of the British – both dystopias are sculpted by their residual societal traits.
The narrative of Children of Men is sustained through Clive Owen’s journey from pacified resignation to proactive protector. In The Road, the Man’s commitment to a better future is never in question. As such, the film is given a freer licence to explore the theological aspects of an anarchy born of near apocalypse.
Talking of his Boy, the Man says:
“If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.”
This theistic proclamation is refuted by Robert Duvall’s old man, who mistook the boy for an angelic bringer of death.
“God has left us,” he tells the Man in the darkness of night.
The scene recalls Primo Levi’s dismissal of his fellow prisoner’s prayers in the depths of Auschwitz after a round of selections for the gas chamber. As he writes in If This Is a Man:
“If I were God, I would spit on his prayers.”
This is not to say The Road is without fault. In a quest to adequately dramatize McCarthy’s elegiac prose, director John Hillcoat does at times allow the film to stray too far from the source material. Some vignettes linger longer than they should, whilst others conclude prematurely.
Joe Penhall has also chosen to create Viggo Mortensen’s voice-over narration, only lifting occasional lines directly from the novel. A literal retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s original prose would have elevated the film to a more poetical plain. But Penhall’s transparent adaption at times belies a guilty appeasement of the populist ethic.
In a similar vein, Nick Cave’s musical score imposes itself a little needily on occasion, and the sometimes syrupy melodies that punctuate The Road seem to be an overcompensation for the scoring of The Assassination of Jesse James, which verged on the oblique and the alienating.
But travelling home tonight, with the road covered in week-old slush hardening with the arctic temperatures of nightfall, it became clear how poignantly relevant this film is, and how abundant and transient our shared existence is.
It is the embers of civilisation that the Man and his Boy carry with them and hold so dear, the same civilisation with which we so restlessly immerse ourselves, and which acts as such a pacifying prozac.
Who knows which way our road will lead, or what decisions we will have to make, but at this current juncture we still possess a choice so nakedly stripped of the inhabitants of McCarthy’s apocalypse.
In this sense, The Road may not be an abstract illustration or a hypothetical illusion, but a secular presage.
Equally evocative of an eternal Americana, Robert Frost writes the following:
“…long I stood, and looked down a road as far as I could, to where it bent in the undergrowth…I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence…”