I’ve been thinking about The Road a bit of late. I’d been turned off from reading the book when it first came out because my friend told me it was too emotionally stressful and I, being emotionally distressed by half empty (full?) coffee cups decided to protect myself and read BoingBoing.net daily instead.
Well, that same friend came to me when the movie’s (delayed) release was ‘fast’ approaching and said “you really should read the book before you see the movie.” Had I grown in my emotional maturity? No, I think not. But I believe that the friend had been able to process the simple beauty of the tale and see it as a hard story with a redeeming and ultimately positive message. So I read it and I loved it and have since read two other of Cormac McCarthy’s corpus and they’re all amazing. So I admit: my love for the book and the creative mind behind The Road coloured my experience of the film but I will say that it is a solidly enjoyable filmic experience.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m positive and hopeful almost to a fault. It would come as no surprise to those who know my style that I find this movie uplifting and hopeful. I know that the film looks bleak. Heck, its done in a color scheme of four different shades of gray and everything around them is dead! Its like a travelogue of Eastern Colorado! This film summarizes Cormac’s view of the indomitible human spirit and the courage and tender heart that is necessary to live what he often offers as the closest thing to a ‘good life’.

Art acts as an anvil. It confronts us and decides us. Art is crisis and like an anvil, we each crash upon an individual art piece (in this case a movie) and through our experience, interpretation, and response to it, the art is given a life in us. How that will look is different to each person and of course will differ as we reapproach the same piece. The Road works very well to demonstrate this phenomenon. I would be very interested to hear from those who think it bleak, dark, or depressing. Do they feel the same about “The Pianist”, “Schindler’s List”, “Alive”, or “Cast Away”? I mention these movies because I feel that they, like The Road depict humanity at the edges and yet triumphing. Each is about human dignity, the ethics that some live by even when all circumstances would allow them to be tossed aside, and the deep conviction that life is worth it–even in great darkness.

The word ‘apocalyptic’ has been thrown around a lot it seems in recent years. And it seems that some have spoken of this movie as being ‘an apocalyptic vision’. Well, properly speaking, it isn’t apocalyptic genre (or Apoc Lit for your biblical scholasticizing shorthand needs) and I would say it also is not prophetic literature. Surely, it is prophetic in the true sense that it is speaking to culture with themes of justice and righteousness–but the power of The Road comes from the intimacy of it and its tight focus on the Man and Boy. That makes this film a spiritual story set in a dystopian frame.

The Road–its title recalls the ‘path’ that we can undertake in our spiritual journeys or even the name given to early Christian movements “The Way”. It is a roadmovie and as most roadmovies, the journey is interior and the destination (here: South) is not important geographically, but spiritually.
The spiritual crisis is located primarily within the Boy. He is pitted against two positions: his disposition towards the world, and the worldview of his father. It is a crisis that many are familiar with: the LGBTQ young person growing up in a bigoted family, a young one who loves across class or ethnic boundaries that their family disagrees with, the youth who chooses to leave the religious tradition of their family,….and really the life of every youth to some degree in their process of individuation and personal agency.
The Boy displays trust, compassion, and inclusivity versus his Father’s antagonistic fear, eye-for-eye ethic, and isolationism. But let us not be naive–the Boy’s view of others and the world is truly dangerous. In his world and ours. This is the beauty of the movie. It is risky to be as trusting and compassionate as the Boy regardless of the context. That is why there is a spiritual attraction to great figures of compassion-Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, Annie Besant, etc. They challenge the very ‘red in tooth and claw’ “law” of nature which seems so intuitive and unarguable.

The question that comes with the film that I find very attractive to think about is ‘what is civilization’? Is it about technology, amenities, organization of large groups of people? This movie allows a tighter focus than even Lord of the Flies in terms of roots of civilization and the ‘rules of engagement’ in relationships. What makes a ‘civil’ person? Or civil society?
Is America civil? America is said to be a Christian nation by some (and what that means and why some folks think that I’m not sure) but is it an ethical or civil nation? Our consumption, warring, imperial thuggery, death penalty, injustice towards the Original Nations, white supremicist culture, and class structure would be points of contending that indeed we are not.

What makes the movie work is the Father as an Anti-Hero. And by antihero, I mean ‘human’. Heroes in film have a way of often being idealized caricatures of our virtues and hence becoming less real, flawed, complex, morally gray, and ‘human’. (Watch Mel Gibson’s Passion to get a feel for what I’m talking about). Here the Father is so delicious to watch because he is acting out of best intentions and with his Son’s best interests in mind. He is willing to sacrifice so much for the love (or “god”) of his life–with the exception of showing vulnerability and trust. I know: he does give in to his Son–helping Eli (a blind prophet! Ha!) and the Man who stole their belongings on the beach–but it is only after his Son’s badgering.
There is a conservativism that comes with being a parent. Risk and novelty become seen in a different light with the entrance of a child into a person’s life. The Father here is no different than anyone else and I imagine that many parents wouldn’t do anything differently than he.
This leads me to what I see as the thrust of the film: the need to conquer our previous generations’ determinations of ‘safety’. Our world changes much too much in each generation for anyone to really impart the correct worldview that will be best suited for the world of their young. We are continuously at odds with the lives and lifestyles of our ancestors. We are held to the bigotries and denialism that they bore–to the creations they’ve made (napalm, lead based paint, meth, 5.56 mm round, etc.) and we are only alive in part because of there being some worth to their fears.
That’s right. When it comes down to brass tacks, there is a level of survival merit to a degree of skepticism towards others and fear of risk. “Mom, can I eat some shellfish?” “Nope.” “Why?” “Either because there’s honest to goodness chance of bacteria and toxins or God says so.” “Okay.”

But the lesson to be learned is clear: when the grasp of the previous generation is let go, a new community is available. It makes me wonder about my own life: who and what is out there waiting for me to give up my baggage? It is a challenge that the movie leaves with everyone–what are you missing out on? What would happen if you gave up on your fears and distrust?

Bonus Section For Those Who Read The Book
-Hilcoat, director, took an easy way out by starting the film with a flashback, don’t you think? I would have liked to see the film start right-off to allow the audience to question what kind of person the Father is, not be made to feel safe with him by showing him frolicking with a horse and Charlize (one of the best looking people in Hollywood).
-It would have been nice to have more time in the waterfall scene methinks. Here we have some playful joy available and we could see a different facet of the Father/Son relationship. And how’s about that rainbow in the waterfall? God’s promise to not flood the earth has been kept…
-Letting the audience off easy again at the end by having Guy Pierce (one of the best looking people in Hollywood) and (sheesh!) a nuclear family complete with dog was a bit much. I liked in the book how the New Man signifies his moral fiber by burying the Father and that’s all you get for evidence to trust him.
-Also: what’s up with writing in the idea that this mystery family has been following the Father/Son for much of the last half of the movie? I urge Mr. Hilcoat to challenge us even more in his next film. Show us some trust–that’s what the Son would want you to do!

Thanks for reading. May you have many happy days along your own road!