In “The Road,” directed by John Hillcoat, written by Cormac McCarthy and Joe Penhall, based on the book by McCarthy, something cataclysmic, unnamed – and more terrifying because it’s unnamed – has decimated the planet. All we know is that there was a sheaf of bright light and a rumble of the Earth, and then, nothing. All animals are dead, anything green has been obliterated, and the metallic gray sky roils with a miasmic fury. Nothing but desolation – Is it Judgment Day? Was it man-caused? And most of the population is dead, either as a result of the thing that happened or else via suicide, a viable alternative given the rampant cannibalism.
The movie recounts the post-apocalyptic odyssey of Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) south to the ocean, to warmer climes. It’s a chilling, agonizing journey because so much is unknown and, in the absence of evidence, our minds are wired to assume the worst. This movie's worse than the worst.
The movie’s visuals are brilliant. Along the journey, scenes of depravity litter the charred landscape. Skulls on pikes border the entrance to an abandoned home. Barely alive people are kept in a squalid cellar awaiting death, the only difference between them and pigs is that pigs are fattened before slaughter. On the side of the Road lay the chewed over remains of someone unfortunate enough to take a leak in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the destination – the end of the Road – isn’t much better: the ash gray ocean blends into the murky sky. Interspersed betwixt these scenes of desolation – and serving to make them even more monstrous - are littered flashbacks to when the world was hopeful, green, and dewy, the Woman (Charlize Theron) stunningly beautiful, she and the Man wonderfully in love. Their future was now.
The performances are, um, to die for. The two wanderers are desperate, bedraggled; they seem to emaciate before our eyes. We manage to identify with them because of the character they possess. The Man is not just interested in the basic tasks of survival, he wants to show the Boy how to live when he’s no longer around. And it’s not just skills to stave off hunger and cold, it’s the reconstruction of a moral code.
We don’t know anything about these two pilgrims, except that they used to live north and now they’re heading south. Perhaps the Man’s a doctor, maybe not. He certainly is practical: he fills up the bathtub just after the event, not to clean himself but, as he told his wife, to ensure a ready supply of potable water.
They had a wife, a mother, but she chose to die, not wishing to take a chance in a world in which all bets were off. One effect, a very effective one, of our not knowing anything about anything is that we are witness, via this film, to what happens when we find ourselves at Ground Zero, when conduct and behavior consist of a blank slate and everything has to be re-calibrated.
So much comes at you at once: will the Boy become some brigand’s appetizer, will those occasional but powerful tremblers eventually destroy the rest of the planet, are there even any Good Guys left?
In the end, though, it’s clear the arc of the story is how, if we're to survive, much less thrive, a moral philosophy (the flame we all carry within) has to be passed from one generation to the next. In this new world, the world is broken down to Good Guys and Bad Guys. You can’t tell one from the other by their looks because everyone is gaunt, crazy-eyed, and shell-shocked. You have to judge people for what they do. Good Guys carry and pass the fire, like relay racers passing the Olympic torch. The Bad Guys eat people, period. You seek Good Guys, you flee from Bad Guys. If you can’t flee, you kill them. Why? Because you have to (all bets are off, remember).
And so, this miraculously well-directed, -acted, and -designed story ends with the Son, now alone, asking the right questions, having the right frame of mind. His Father taught him well. We still don’t know if the world’s going to burst into flames, if new births will be able to stay ahead of deaths but, in the absence of not-knowing, we do know this: without an attitude adjustment, we’re toast, literally or otherwise.