I’m talking about The Road, a story about a father shepherding his 11-year-old son through a post-apocalyptic America reduced to rubble, and about their relentless grind of cold, hunger, thirst, and the terror of being attacked, murdered and eaten by other starving survivors.
My son wanted to see it, maybe thinking it would be a post-apocalyptic action flick, like 2012, I Am Legend, or the Terminator movies. Or maybe he hoped it would be as great as the 2006 film, Children of Men, which we watched recently and to me counts as one of the best films of the last decade.
So, we went to see it, and we were both on the edge of our seats and totally engrossed in this relentlessly bleak story, based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning 2007 novel. The father and son keep going, south, towards the coast, thinking, hoping that maybe they will find warmth, food, and other “good guys” like them. There’s little indication that will happen, but father and son keep pushing on, and you’re left to ponder profound questions about survival, what it means to be human, what you would do if you lost everything, and, if you are reduced to nothing, what is there left to believe in?
The unnamed father, played by the quiet, thoughtful Viggo Mortensen, pushes on, because he loves his son and because he believes that God has appointed him to look after the boy. He assures his son that they must keep going because they are “carrying the fire.” With this father-son relationship and in their interactions with other desperate survivors they encounter, the film also asks whether human qualities of love, compassion, and generosity can survive amid such horror.
(Such questions, no doubt, have been asked countless times before—in times of war and during episodes of genocide, in the Nazi or Khmer Rouge concentration camps, or in Rwanda in 1994.)
As we left the theater, my son declared “That was great!” And he was excited to talk about all the big questions the film raised. I didn’t cry as I watched the final, heartbreaking scenes. I was too awestruck by the beauty and fragility of the images and emotions I was witnessing.
Later, driving away from the movie, I started to cry, and I’ve been haunted by the film and the story ever since.
My son immediately went to Barnes and Noble and bought the book, but he let me read it this week. I can say that I have finally read a Cormac McCarthy book. It’s about time, right? He is supposed to be one of America’s finest writers. Now, my son is reading it. With the exception of some minor plot changes, the film captures the mood and spare poetry of McCarthy’s prose. It also captures the author’s vision of a ceaselessly cold, wet landscape, offering little chance of shelter or sustenance, and of its human inhabitants, reduced to the skin, bones, and trying, in each moment, to find a reason to live amid the despair.
Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, the young actor playing his son, wear matted hair, dirty old down coats, and other rags. Pushing their shopping cart down the road, which holds their tarp, a few blankets, and their few cans of food, they look like street junkies—or like some of the homeless we see pushing carts along the streets of Walnut Creek.
No, the film and book are not pick-me-ups, and the film is definitely not uplifting in the way that, say, It’s A Wonderful Life or other usual-suspect Christmas movies are. But if you’re at all interested in a cinematic opportunity for a meditation about humanity, survival, love, and faith—those qualities we’re supposed to be focusing on this holiday season—this movie offers a great jumping-off point.
Interestingly, there is a concerted effort to market The Road to Christian audiences. Studio executives are apparently working with A. Larry Ross, the founder of a Christian public relations firm that helped market Passion of the Christ. I didn’t know about the outreach to Christian audiences until after I saw the movie and was reading reviews of it. Funny, how I, a non-religious, non-Christian, could get hooked into a story that could potentially appeal to those religious Christians who dare to put themselves through this difficult, unsettling story.
According to an article in the Orange County Register, a Southern California pastor is using this dark and grisly tale as a tool for helping parishioners examine their own faith and for reaching out to friends and neighbors who are less biblically inclined. Less biblically inclined? That definitely is me, as I wrote in my previous post about whether Christmas should just be for Christians.
Although the father in the story believes is has been “appointed” by God to take care of his son, the book and film are for the most part secular. “If religious themes are there, they must be read into,” the Orange County register story says. Yes, The Road presents an opportunity for a religious discussion, even though it isn’t a religious film.
Phil Hotsenpiller, the aforementioned pastor at Yorba Linda Friends Church, has come up with a study guide to spur discussion about religious and other themes in the book. They include spirituality and God; death; life; love; good vs. evil; survival and the environment.
Whether you’re religious or not, these sound like worthy topics for discussion this time of year.