On the road
HOLLYWOOD is often accused of giving depressing dramas unrealistic and unnecessary happy endings. Not so with The Road, the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same title. I would’ve flogged my gold filling to get some smiles.
In what is easily the most depressing – and thus challenging – film I have ever seen, the author and director have created a gruelling fable which asks a very big question – what is the point of living?
At some point in the near future a father and son are pushing a makeshift trolley through dead forests under leaden skies in a post-apocalyptic landscape drained of any colour. We are never told what caused the earth to die, but through the father’s voiceover and flashbacks we slowly realise why they left their home and where they are going.
The road links them to their past and holds some hope for what lies ahead. Hope, like food and clean water, is in short supply. After roughly 10 years, people have grown desperate. Humans are the only living creatures left and thus a valuable source of food. As a result of their harrowing encounters with marauding cannibals, the father is wary of any others they meet along the way, reminding his son at night how the two of them are the good guys – that they ‘carry the fire inside them’.
McCarthy as in No Country for Old Men, his other book turned movie, portrays life as a fragile state, subject to the brutish power of nature and the callous violence of mankind. Life is short, death is often random, there are no patterns or logic in the suffering around us. It claims both good and bad guys. His characters would not view the recent disaster in Haiti as a surprise, nor search their souls as to why it could have happened.
All of which makes the tenderness between the father and child all the more remarkable and moving. Despite their hostile environment the father will sacrifice everything to protect his son, making sure to read him stories at night, keep him warm and deny himself food so the boy doesn’t starve.
But even then there is a harsh edge – together they carry one pistol with two bullets – enough to kill themselves should they be caught by the scavengers or left mortally wounded. Death is an escape from the crushing daily struggle they endure. It is the only control they feel they have over their lives – they can decide when to end it. There is no more harrowing scene than when the father teaches the boy how to best place the cold barrel in his mouth. Every day the question is raised – why do they go on?
The Road provides very few real answers. The need to survive hammers the humanity out of everyday people, forcing them to make decisions which slowly corrupt their souls. Yet, McCarthy suggests, there are those who hold onto their ‘fire’ however dim because that is who they are. They are vital because they remind others of its importance – such as when the boy persuades his father to share their food with an old half-blind man called Eli (there are such subtle Biblical references sprinkled throughout).
So why go and watch The Road if it’s so depressing, you may well ask.
For starters, it’s a powerful warning about the consequences of messing up the environment (a seriously inconvenient truth). It’s well-made, well acted and contains genuine truth – the kind which reveals itself to you over time. The more I reflect on the film the greater its impact. I would argue that it is its absolute bleakness which means it must be seen. The Road makes you uncomfortable, forcing you to face up to the reality of death and your life’s meaning.
When your whole life is stripped away, what is the point of living? Only you can answer that. What you find may reassure, comfort and inspire you. But it may also frighten and unsettle, perhaps making you search for real answers for the first time in your life.