“The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s book of the same name (see my review, Jan.-Feb. 2009), opens with a sunlit closeup of a beautiful garden. A radiant, smiling woman (Charlize Theron), sunlight and domesticity personified, clips a flower as the camera pans out to reveal a lovely, sun- drenched home. But the scene ends in the blink of an eye. A haggard, grizzled Man (Viggo Mortensen) awakes with a start from this delightful dream to the nightmare of his bleak, post-apocalyptic existence. A permanent cloud of smog and ash now hides the sun. Trees are bare. Vegetation is gone. Nothing remains but bleak, gray, hardened men and women struggling to survive.
The Man and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sleep fitfully in caves and underbrush, always listening for marauding strangers who would rape the boy, then eat them both if given half a chance. Their gun is always at the
ready, not just to kill the enemy but to tum it on themselves if they should be caught. Anarchy is not the road to prosperity and harmony, at least not accord- ing to this film.
The Man and the Boy are traveling along what is left of a highway, heading for the Atlantic coast. We don’t know why they are heading for the ocean or what they expect to find there, only that they are indefatigable in their determination to reach the shore.
This film strips away all the non- essentials and explores what really matters in life: a place to sleep, food to eat, and most of all, a relationship to nurture. In many ways, “The Road” is a metaphor for the need to have a goal, a purpose in life, a reason to get up and keep moving. For the Man, that purpose is to protect his son from the evil around him and teach him what he needs to know in order to survive on his own some day. As he tells the Boy, “I will kill anyone who touches you. Because that’s my job.”
For the Boy, the goal is different. He doesn’t merely want to survive; he wants to be “one of the good guys.” For the man, being “one of the good guys” is simple: “We don’t eat people. No matter what.” For the boy, it requires more. Somehow, instinctively, despite being born into a world where no one is kind, he wants to share food, find a friend, be kind to strangers. His job is “to carry the fire” and bring hope to a hopeless condition.
If Anton Chigurh in McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” is the personification of evil (see my review, May 2008), the Boy in “The Road” is the personification of goodness. No one has taught him to “play nice” or say “please” and “thank you.” He has grown up in a system of kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, steal or be stolen from. Yet he is angry when his father refuses to give an old man (Robert Duvall) a can of food, and horrified when his father forces a man who has stolen their goods (Michael K. Williams) not only to return their property but to strip and give them his own clothes as well. In both cases, the Boy wins out.
Despite its bleak setting and some- times horrifying scenes, “The Road” offers a powerful message of hope, love, goodness, and individual self-determination. It remains true to the novel (one of my all-time favorites) and trans- lates surprisingly well to the screen. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee demonstrate a deep and believable bond as father and son, showing emotion that never turns treacly. Small roles – played by Duvall, Williams, and Guy Pearce as the Veteran – are made large by their deeply resonant performances. This film is a gem.