“Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
When I was 15 or 16, they shipped us in buses out of school to see The Day After, an American TV movie about the effects of a nuclear strike on a town in Kansas. You had already heard about the nuclear winter, the idea that the attack itself wasn’t going to be the worst of it. Those things you had read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bright flash and the hot blast? When it came -- and in those days you were sure it would, sooner or later -- you were going to wish it was like that. The nuclear winter quickly became part of our greater, shared nightmare about nuclear war in the early 1980s: what would the world look like afterwards and for how long?
You pictured ash, so much ash that it blanketed fields, stopped crops from growing, got into lungs, blocked sunlight. Clouds of ash. Ash and bone. I pictured this dead grey world all over again when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2007. The novel puts two survivors -- a man and his son, both unnamed -- into a North American landscape as bleak as any we could have imagined at the very worst of our 80s nuclear anxiety.
Each day is more gray than the one before. Each night is darker - beyond darkness. The world gets colder week by week as the world slowly dies. No animals have survived. All the crops are long gone. Someday all the trees in the world will have fallen.Recently, the “world-without-us” genre of speculative writing has proposed a post-human planet upon which plant and animal life will get a chance again. Trees will crack concrete, deer will run in packs through city streets, eagles will nest in towers. There are hints of this comeback of the wild in the most recent film version of I Am Legend and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men; Werner Herzog touches on it at the end of his otherwise puzzling Wild Blue Yonder. The idea that if and when we go, things might get better for everything else is an idea that could give doomed humans some consolation, but McCarthy doesn’t entertain any of that. Some humans live -- and only just -- in the world he describes. But no birds, no grass, no plants, no flowers, no fish. There’s just one dog that we know of. And really -- what kind of optimist would you need to be to even think of keeping a pet in the world McCarthy imagines?
Anyway, maybe the thing is that few books have come alive so easily and completely in the imagination as The Road. You could see this stuff; it unspooled as a movie as you read it. John Hillcoat’s dutiful film adaptation gives us a world even darker than the one I had pictured, a world you have to squint to see into. A world dimming away. Crepuscular is the word.
"Some people thought it was a con. I always believed in it."
That line is spoken in Hillcoat’s film and it might be the only time that the dialogue differs meaningfully from the book (otherwise, this adaptation treats McCarthy’s novel as borderline sacred). The line is delivered by Ely -- an old blind man the father and son meet on the road and share a meal with, the only character in the story who gets a name. Robert Duvall plays him and it’s one of two cameos (Guy Pearce being the other) in which name actors are so well-disguised by their apocalyptic situations that you may not recognise them. In the book, Ely says: “I knew this was coming … This or something like it. I always believed in it.” But he says nothing about a con. So the inference is obvious: Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall want to add climate change to the list of possible causes of the unnamed catastrophe that has left these few alive. But what kind of catastrophe is the book’s God-crazed Ely talking about? What was he ready for?
“There is no God and we are his prophets.”
A few writers have talked about Gnosticism. The man and his son are moving through a world from which God has removed himself and they wonder about his absence, or they feel it acutely. They speculate. These aren’t 21st century mindsets; these are much older. All the Old Testament struggle and violence and blood of earlier McCarthy characters are in these guys too. Wrath, vengeance, punishment -- this is the stuff that Hillcoat also worked with so effectively in his Australian western The Proposition (blood on your hands, blood on the sand). But there is also Gnosticism: this world is a fallen world and there is no way of redeeming it or seeing beyond it, something the thick, shielding layers of ash in the sky even seem to symbolise (there’s no seeing beyond it in a more prosaic way too: The Road is rare among disaster films for refusing to give us a broad overview of the situation, a global picture, a timeline and news montage; its point-of-view is very tightly reduced).
Both book and film are framed around a long walk. A pilgrimage to no set destination. They are heading to the Atlantic coast and heading south, and as winter is coming that’s a wise thing to do, but there is no expectation that there is a community of back-to-the-land survivors to get to, the usual consoling destination of apocalyptic sci-fi (absurdly rendered in the last I Am Legend). Staying alive is the only reason to stay alive. There is a Manichean reduction of the few that remain into good guys and bad guys.
There are other religious intimations. “He only knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The bleak suggestion that God never spoke is Gnostic in itself. But we get this imagery a few times: the boy “carrying the fire”, the boy needing to survive. The boy saying, “I am the one”. When Viggo Mortensen’s character, the father – bearded, pale, thin, serious -- splashes in the water, we get an intimation of John the Baptist. Which is not to say that this thing is a straight forward religious allegory, a kind of nuclear winter Narnia movie -- instead, Christian ideas are deep in its characters and in the culture of the novelist (for the Australian Hillcoat and British Penhall, perhaps less so). And the peculiar thing about this Hillcoat/Penhall adaptation is that once you reduce McCarthy’s minimalism even further, peel back his many ways of describing grey land and dead trees and hunger, the simplicity of his themes becomes starker still. Religion and ethics – or a diminishing idea of human “goodness” and a concern about whether it can survive or has just been a luxury we have allowed ourselves -- is one of them.
“Can you do it? When the time comes?”
What would you do for your children? What sacrifices would you make? What fears do you have? All parents have thoughts like this, about whether their kids are safe in the world, whether they will be able to go on without us. This is the other big theme of The Road. The story goes that McCarthy was inspired by watching his young son as he slept: parental love, parental fear. Imagine the worst. So here are father and son facing that worst, fighting for their lives, starving and scavenging. The father has two bullets in a revolver and can take both their lives if he needs to. He has shown his son how to put the barrel in his mouth, how to pull the trigger.
This is what we tell our children about: good people and bad people. But can being a parent make you more distrustful than you should be? One of the ideas to come out of the film more strongly than the book is the suggestion that the man may be seeing more threats than are actually there. To him, this world is all-against-all. There is no goodness, no sense that the remnants of humanity can re-organise themselves back into communities. Resources are too scarce. People are eating other people. It is pure competition. Throughout the book, the man suspects that people are following them. Perhaps they are but the surprise of the ending is that those who have been following seem to have good intentions. They have been watching and worrying.
This last scene hints at some remnants of what the man assumed was a lost goodness. It’s a hard-won moment in the novel. But in the film it comes to seem needlessly sentimental, perhaps a moment dwelt on too long, a softening by Hillcoat of the harder, starker edges of the story. Like the other softening Hillcoat makes: flashbacks to the man’s dead wife, the son’s dead mother, played by Charlize Theron.
McCarthy caught the terrible longing for a world that has gone and can never be brought back more effectively in the book’s very last paragraph. It is a piece of writing that has no equivalent in the film:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.“They plodded on, thin and filthy as street addicts.”
The central image of The Road – book and film – is a man pushing a shopping trolley loaded with whatever he can scavenge. Scraps, clothes, plastic bags. You need good shoes. Any kind of food. Hillcoat has talked about Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves as an influence – a man and his boy scouring the streets of post-war Rome for the bike that was stolen. The Road’s man and boy have the same kind of dejection in a world that seems indifferent. Depression-era photos by Dorothea Lange are in there too.
The shopping trolley is an important part of all this. The two immediately resemble the homeless of contemporary American cities pushing what little they have in shopping trolleys, looking for shelter, avoiding violence – viewers of The Wire will be thinking of the character of Bubbles (and so it doesn’t seem surprising that one of the others they encounter on the road is played by Michael K Williams, famous as The Wire’s Omar Little). Maybe The Road is really about homelessness on an epic scale -- homelessness without any home to be found anywhere in the world.
It's less a great film than a satisfactory rendering of a great novel. Hillcoat and Chris Kennedy’s production design is a match for the strong images McCarthy gave us. Wrecked bridges in abandoned cities. Row after row of bent powerlines. Fires on the hills at night. Empty houses and earth tremors. Falling trees – not even the marauding redneck cannibals that could be out of George Romero are as terrifying as a scene in which one heavy tree after another crashes down. The locations include post-Katrina New Orleans, Mount St Helens and some of the abandoned neighbourhoods of north-eastern American industrial cities, where houses have been vacated and factories fallen into disuse. The film’s use of places like New Orleans and Pittsburgh lets you read it as potentially allegorical for the kind of despair that follows when communities and work and social agencies start to disappear from cities. In some ways – its questions about God, its Gnostic speculations – the world of The Road can seem ancient, largely symbolic and perhaps remote. But in other ways, it can seem like a very easy extrapolation of the present.