The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

The Road

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The Road is ugly. Every setting is caked in ash and grime. Every window is seemingly shattered, and shards of glass are scattered everywhere. Auto bodies are mutilated and rusted down to the tires, which are blown out or slashed. Weeds poke up through cracks in asphalt and cement. Entire forests are denuded; felled logs clog rivers. Human and animal carcasses frequently litter the ground, or are gathered in piles. The few humans that populate the bleak landscape are in no better condition. To a person, they have grimy skin and greasy, matted, hair. Their teeth are black or missing, and all too often they have amputated limbs or digits gnawed off at the knuckle.

If you can look past all that, The Road is worth seeing. I watched in last week, but not before driving to Evanston because the film is inexplicably not in wide release. That’s hard to fathom given its star billing (Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron); if that’s not enough, the source material won the Pulitzer Prize, and the previous Cormac McCarthy novel that hit the screen (No Country For Old Men, 2007) raked in 4 Oscars, including Best Picture. Nonetheless, The Road is out there for the viewing, even if you have to travel further than your local cineplex. The story takes place a decade or so after an unspecified apocalypse has wiped out all plant and animal life save a handful of humans. A character known only as “the man” roams the abandoned highways with his son (“the boy”), searching for the last vestiges of humanity. Others still alive are generally on the move to merely survive, which means not only finding food and shelter, but also eluding cannibalistic clans that rape and pillage their way across the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

This is one of the rare books I’ve read in recent years that has been turned into a film, and I’m glad for that because my familiarity with the text proved to be a good basis by which to judge the film. And the film doesn’t disappoint. The story remains mostly intact, at least as much as a story can when it goes from paper to celluloid and has to operate within a Hollywood system that generates far more turds than treasures. Like the book, the film strives to define what it means to be human even in the face of the most unimaginable horror. The man is unwilling to concede his life or his belief that good people remain in the world. However, it’s a delicate balance throughout. He carries a pistol with two bullets remaining: One for the boy and one for himself if things should reach the point where death is the best option. Early on (and throughout the film), he tutors the boy in the best way to kill himself using the pistol. At one point, he has the weapon pressed against his son’s head with the hammer cocked as cannibals close in on them. It’s the film’s willingness to create those scenes that helps it have an impact the likes of which the book achieved, even though the film isn’t as brutal or violent as the book.

As can be expected given the setting, the film is full of dillemas that would be ethical if only there were still ethics in a post-apocalyptic world. The man is forced to kill another person in direct sight of his son on several occassions; at other times he has to withhold food, clothing, or mercy from other travelers in order for him and his son to survive. In this regard, it’s no surprise that that cinematographically there is so much gray in the sky and physical surroundings; everything is a gray area, all the way down to the basic beliefs held by the man and his son.

Unfortunately, the film is unable to convey two important elements of style that McCarthy employs in the novel. One is the fragmented narrative structure that subtextually conveys so much about post-apocalyptic human existence. All that is left of the world are fragments of what we used to know: pieces of roads, buildings, ships, humanity. Throughout the book, McCarthy writes in short passages that are frequently only a paragraph or two; there are no chapter or section divisions. The closest the film comes to parallelling McCarthy’s structure is the backstory that explains what happened to the mother who was part of the family structure before the boy and his father set off down the road. Her story comes to the audience by way of several flashbacks throughout the film (it’s odd to think, however, that Charlise Theron “stars” in the film as the mother; she’s only in it for about 5 minutes).

Another issue is the dissolution of language. Even a decade after the apocalypse, chunks of language have dissolved into non-existence. The father has to explain at several points what even some of the simplest objects are (a can of Coca-Cola, for instance). The film touches only briefly on this idea. It does this most effectively at one point in which the boy and father make a horrible discovery at a farmhouse. The father is unaware that the residents of the house are returning, and as the boy watches them approach, he seems unable to find even the most basic words to convey the approaching danger.

One thing I found compelling, and that was in both the book and film, was a scene in which the man and boy stumble upon an unused fallout shelter, fully stocked with canned food and clean water. They make a big scene out of bathing themselves, which in the world of literary analysis is a symbolic baptism that is usually followed by a drastic change in the character’s circumstances. McCarthy, however, reverses that expectation by following it with scenes in which their lives don’t just remain the same– they get worse. The scene pushes the story further into the realm of post-modernism in that it represents a reversal in the standard expectations we have with most any literature we experience.

In the end, the film did exactly what I hoped it would do for me, which was to make itself inseparable from the book. It’s hard for me to recommend it without attaching the novel to it. Each enhances the other, and together they make a satisfying (if disturbing) package that manages to make deep, meaningful commentary on the human condition.

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Written by seeker70

December 8, 2009 at 2:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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