Because This “Road” Leads Nowhere

Because This “Road” Leads Nowhere December 2, 2009

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.”

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