Director: John Hillcoat, 2009. (R)
Man and boy are walking alone on the road in a cold and barren land. The sky is gray. Cold, they huddle in parkas and blankets. Together, they are struggling to survive. But their love and the dwindling flame of humanity is enough to keep them going.
In one of the longest soliloquies in this oft-quiet movie, Father (Viggo Mortenson, The Return of the King), gives us as much explanation as we will get or need:
The clocks stopped at one seventeen one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions. Within a year there were fires on the ridges and deranged chanting. By day the dead impaled on spikes along the road. I think it's October but I can't be sure. I haven't kept a calender for five years. Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker - beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen. The roads are peopled by refugees towing carts and road gangs looking for fuel and food. There has been cannibalism. Cannibalism is the great fear. Mostly I worry about food. Always food. Food and our shoes. Sometimes I tell the boy old stories of courage and justice - difficult as they are to remember. All I know is the child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke.We never know what caused the apocalypse. We simply see the effects.
Hillcoat has given vision to Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same name. Like another of his books turned into film (No Country for Old Men), this is bleak and depressing. But unlike the former, which had no trace of grace or hope, here this is a flicker of hope.
Unlike other post-apocalyptic films, the story is leaner and focused on character not plot. Whereas The Book of Eli had an epic western feel, The Road is the story of father and son. It is raw and immediate, with an emotional depth. Characters are few, other than Father and Son, and they have very short screen times. And to underscore the allegorical aspect of the tale, all the characters remain nameless.
Indeed, the power of the film comes in the acting. Mortensen gives a powerful performance, starving himself to become thin and straggly, a survivor who faces constant hunger. Matching him is newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee as Boy. They carry this film, being in almost every scene and delivering the emotional intensity it demands. Their chemistry is exceptional. Charlize Theron shows up in flashback only, as Woman the mother of Boy. In contrast to the almost monochrome cinematography, color shows up in these rare dream-like sequences of the woman that keeps Man going but could not handle the extremes required to survive. Robert Duvall appears almost unrecognizable as Old Man, and Guy Pearce (Memento), too, has a few moments at the end as the Final Man.
Hillcoat chose to shoot the movie on location in places that had experienced man-made and natural disasters: Louisiana, the site of Hurricane Katrina disaster, and Mt. St. Helens in Washington feature prominently. Indeed, the desolate environment perfectly conveys the brokenness in the world. With dead trees all around, simply waiting to topple, the world and life itself seems to be dying.
This picture of ravaged nature, either burning or falling, parallels, to some degree, the biblical account. Nature has experienced a fall (Gen. 3:17-18). The world is broken, and not how it was meant to be. Paul tells us the world is waiting to be redeemed and restored to its former glory and beauty (Rom. 8:19-21). More than this, when Jesus the redeemer returns for his church he will leave the world alone for a brief period during which horrors and tribulations will come (Rev. 6). In this post-apocalyptic period, even the current beauties of nature will be tainted and destroyed leaving little to take joy in.
Early on, the boy asks his father, "We're the good guys, right?" He is young and sees life as black and white, with him and his father on the right side. His father affirms this, but as the film progresses it comes into question. Will trials and tribulations eventually wear us down, so that any remaining aspects of moral humanity are sacrificed on the altar of expediency and need? With little food, harsh weather, and the peril of cannibals ever-present, can there be any level of trust?
Yet, a key interchange between Father and Son identifies the possibility of humanity. The man tells his son, "You have to keep carrying the fire." Not knowing if this is literal or not, the boy asks, "What fire?" "The fire inside you." This fire represents the idea of humanity. The father realizes he has to pass on the core of humanity to his son.
This idea of the fire of humanity is representative of the core idea of the imago dei, the image of God that was poured into mankind at creation (Gen. 1:26). Though it has been tainted and distorted by sin, it still remains, a shadow of its former self (Jas. 3:9). But we draw on this in terrible times. When others succumb and become savage, gang-members who cruelly rape and murder to feed their own desires and stomachs, the image of God calls us to retain our humanity and dignity. That is what the Father wanted for his Son.
One scene demonstrates this clearly. Father and Son are walking along the road after finding a store of food when they encounter an Old Man (Duvall). Father, starting to lose his humanity, selfishly wants to keep the food to themselves. Son, however, realizes this is selfish and calls on Father to share. This simple act of sharing is symbolic of humanity. We remain human as we share and care. When we become hard-hearted and selfish we are losing the flame.
Ultimately, Father realized that hope lay in his Son. Though they were making for the South and warmer climates, their destination was an unknown and their destiny an enigma. Yet, even in his early monologue the Man foresaw the Son as the word of God. He would carry the hope of the world in his heart.
This points us to the earlier Son who was sent to the world by the Father (Jn. 3:16). Jesus became man to bring hope to all mankind. In his life and through his death and resurrection we can find life and hope (Tit. 3:7). We may not know our present destinations and our destinies may appear uncertain, but as we put our trust in the Savior of the World we can know that life flickers inside us and there will be a hope for our future (Jer. 29:11).
At one point, the Man says, "If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different. And so I have you. . . . I have you." This is exactly what God has said. He has made the world the way he wanted it and the choices of man have caused it to become broken and desolate. We see this all around us, and in the news accounts of the oil despoilation of nature. Yet, God would not have made it any different. And he made us, that he might have us to enjoy a mutual relationship together. He wants us. Will we let him have this relationship? Will we allow the flame of true life in Jesus to burn in us? Even if we were the last person alive, we would still face this question on the road we call our life.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs