Because This “Road” Leads Nowhere

Posted by Webster

I’ll wager that only an atheist or a child will shed a tear over “The Road,” the new film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel. Like the book, the movie describes a post-apocalyptic world so godforsaken that not only is there no Second Coming, there was never even a First. In “The Road,” God isn’t dead; He was never born.

The story is grim and uniformly gray. A father (Viggo Mortensen) and preteen son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) wander through a desolate landscape that has been stripped of life by an unknown global catastrophe. Nuclear war? An environmental disaster? A meteor shower? Neither McCarthy nor screenwriter Joe Penhall offers conclusive clues. What’s clear is that the world is ending, first in calamity, then in cannibalism. Because animal and plant life have been wiped out, the only fresh food is human flesh. Most of the shocks in “The Road” are delivered with all the subtlety of a slasher film whenever a would-be cannibal gang appears.

Steering clear of these gangs when they can, father and son walk south, away from the cold and toward the sea, seemingly a symbol of hope. But when they get to the coast, the water is not blue, as the father promised, but another shade of gray. “What’s on the other side?” the son asks. “Nothing,” the father says, “or maybe it’s another father and son.” When I typed that line, I thought for a second, maybe Father and Son were meant to be capitalized. But then I thought, naaah; what the line is describing is a solipsistic world in which humans look back at humans, with no higher power anywhere in sight.

Father’s moral code is to save his son. The son speaks repeatedly of the “good guys” and says the two of them are “carrying the fire.” But the only values in this world, and they aren’t enduring or dependable, are creature comforts and human companionship—as long as your companions are “good guys.”

The remarkable thing, the sad thing about McCarthy’s novel and director John Hillcoat’s film version is that God isn’t even part of the discussion. There’s a mumbled reference or two to God by Robert Duvall, wonderfully cast as a grizzled loner whom father and son run into, then leave, but the references are more imprecation than imploring. When Mortensen and son find a huge cache of food in an underground shelter, they fold their hands and say a little “prayer,” thanking not God but—“friends”? And when our antiheroes take refuge in the bombed-out shell of a church building, where the frcscoes look more Roman than Christian, a brief shot of sunlight coming through a cross-shaped window looks more like an effect than a symbol. If symbol, it’s in stark contrast to every other detail in the film. The storytellers might at least have placed faith in the discussion by making one of the wandering characters a priest or someone who had lost their faith. But there’s nothing here to suggest that human beings once believed.

Why did I bother going to see “The Road”? Because I had read several of McCarthy’s novels, including this one, before my conversion to Catholicism, and I had been duped by the hype about this novelist of violence in a godless world. That hype culminated with Oprah recommending “The Road.” Now I can only wonder, What was she thinking?! The cynic in me says Oprah chose this book not because she thought it was any good but because in choosing it, she went so dramatically counter to her viewers’ expectations that she created tremendous publicity for . . . Oprah.

My thoughts about movies and other art forms have changed radically since I became a Catholic. Ten years ago, I might have seen “The Road” and left talking about the artistic filmmaking, the acting, the script, the Oscar potential. Now, I only see emptiness. There is nothing to be gained from seeing this film; Catholics may not be moved by it at all, they may be annoyed, they may yawn. A world without even a hint of belief in God is a false world—like looking at a modern painting in which the sky is not blue but fuchsia, a baseball game played without bat, ball, or even players.

Conceivably, an atheist might cry at the ending of the movie, which offers scant consolation, but consolation all the same—if you don’t believe in God, that is. Children will cry because the film is scary in a primal way. With the boy of the film, children will whimper, “I’m scared, Daddy.”

Catholics, meanwhile, should take a detour and avoid this “Road.”

  • James

    Darn, that looked like a good movie.

  • Jason Patterson

    I am of mixed opinion about McCarthy's Road. I personally like the book, and like McCarthy. I'll agree with you that it is an incredibly bleak world, but there are themes in this book (not sure about the film) that Catholics can relate to: the love of the father and son that rises above the nihilism of this godforsaken world; the sacrifice analogies withing the Father/Son relationship; the discussion of morality (the son wanting to help other survivors while the father wants just to survive); and keeping the spark of hope alive. Yes, it seems absent of God, but I do believe you can see the book/film as a bleak answer to the question "What does the world look like when God is absent? And what takes His place?" the answer is nihilism. It is a cautionary tale in that sense.

  • EPG

    I remember liking "All the Pretty Horses," although I don't remember much about it now. I read the "Crossing," and found it bleak, excessively violent, and pretentious. Never bothered with anything he's written since.

  • Webster Bull

    James,Yeah, that's what I thought. I added a paragraph this morning after sleeping on it. Because I realized that while many have imagined a world without God, usually He comes up for discussion at least, if only to point up his absence. Here, God isn't even in the conversation.

  • Webster Bull

    Jason, I agree to an extent. For me the key is how my tastes have changed since I became Catholic. I want something in a book or movie that offers me hope. Yes, the father's love for his son may be inspiring, but is it redeeming? There's no redemption in this world, which I suppose is your "nihilism." So then I say, why should I spend two hours absorbing a purely nihilist message. I'm too old for that stuff.

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, Now that you mention it, I've gotta admit I liked "No Country for Old Men," the movie. But at least it was entertaining, and Tommy Lee Jones had one of the best lines in cinema history. When his deputy, coming upon the massacre in the desert says, "Some mess, hunh, Sherriff?" TLJ answers, "If it ain't, it'll have to do 'til the mess gets here." There ain't a single line as good as that in "The Road."

  • Anonymous

    Webster,I've been following your blog for a while now, but never posted. Thanks for what you do.I felt compelled to write here because I had the exact same impression of The Road when I read the book. When I first saw the trailer in the theatre I was shocked that they would make a movie out of something so bleak. Scary how much influence we allow Oprah to have, huh?As an aside, I find McCarthy somewhat schizophrenic in his writing. For most of the book I stumbled along through clumsy dialogue and seemingly disconnected thoughts, but occasionally – maybe once every chapter or so – I would read a paragraph of some of the most beautiful writing I've ever experienced. Usually I wouldn't realize how good it was until it had ended, and then I would go back and re-read it to experience it again. Unfortunately, the beautifully written parts just called attention to the wasteland that was the rest of the book.Thanks for giving me an opportunity to throw in my two cents. Keep up the good work.

  • Webster Bull

    Anonymous,Thanks for your kind ocmments. I agree that there is poetry in McCarthy's prose, in places. After all, he is talented; the sad thing is the end to which the talented is put and who that is monetized by his publisher, Oprah, et al. Here's something I find incredibly annoying about his work: He never tells you who's talking. Open "All the Pretty Horses" and you come upon pages of dialog where you have to make the effort to figure out who's talking. You know, Cormac? Maybe some of us aren't as smart as you! Could you just say, Billy said . . . ? But so much of "modern" literature seems to say openly to its reader, "You stupid person, I'm way smarter than you." (Am I sounding like a Philistine? Good.)Your use of the term wasteland makes me think of the poem by that name, by Eliot. OK, maybe he meant to say that the world had become a wasteland, spiritually and culturally, after the First World War, but at least Eliot alluded (famously) to Scripture and religious traditions from Christianity to Buddhism. As if to say, See what we're missing, folks? There's nothing missing in "The Road." It's a barren desert. Which is hardly nurturing to me.