December 14, 2009

Somewhere near the middle of The Road, the two protagonists, a father and his son, stumble on a barn at the top of a snow swept hill.  As they tentatively open the barn door they are exposed to a frightening sight: three bodies, two adults and an adolescent, hang from the rafters.  The camera focuses on the son’s face as he registers the tragedy. 

“ You know why they are dead,” the father mutters, almost matter-of-factly.The boy doesn’t answer.  But the sorrow is clearly etched on his face. 

The three died, it is revealed, for either of two reasons:   Either to pre-empt the certainty of a slow death by starvation; or else a defiance of the resort to cannibalism – almost the only means of sustaining life in a land where nothing grows.   

Its easy to see why Cormac McCarthy’s novel, transferred to the screen, is viewed as yet another tall tale in a long line of films depicting man pitted against man and man against nature.  But that would be to miss the film’s deeper and more pointed meaning. For The Road is no mere survival film but a portrait of humanity on the brink of extinction and the immutable fact that human survival depends not only on physical nourishment but on fundamental moral choices.      

As the father and son (never identified with names in either the book or the movie) wander across the desolate American landscape, they must contend with what it means to be human and the overarching question of whether survival is worth the moral cost of abandoning all human values.   

The movie could therefore have easily have been titled The Test. 

That is because the two are driven to extremes, as their sense of human decency is repeatedly stretched to the limit by the situations they encounter and the individuals they meet.  After the father is forced to kill another man to save the boy’s life, both are visited with the deepest dread of the implications of the deed.  A starving elderly man, who asks for nothing, is given food nonetheless, after the boy implores his father to do so.  A wild child, glimpsed through a window in a deserted town, becomes the subject of  a heated exchange between father and son as the latter beseeches his father to find the child and bring him along with them; a thief who steals all their possessions is hunted down and rather than being killed, is forced to disrobe and left to stand naked in the wind and rain.  Only after hours of pleading from the boy does the father return to the spot where they first caught up with him, to deposit the items of clothing on the ground in the hope the thief will return to reclaim them.   

In the clash between the father’s drive to protect his son and the almost febrile articulation of the boy’s moral consciousness, we are given a parable of the deep tension which has afflicted western civilization for the past 100 years:  the struggle between the demand for fulfillment of individual needs and the quest for social responsibility.   

McCarthy, himself, has never sounded so assured in his defense of humanity.   While the world may well have been annihilated by human hand, he seems to believe in an ultimate goodness for which the task of regenerating mankind is made all the more worthwhile.   This is the “fire” the man urges his boy to carry, a symbol of life and goodness that separates “the good guys”  from “the bad guys” and is the clearest statement yet in a McCarthy novel of the demarcation between absolute goodness and ultimate evil .   In this way The Road is a fundamental departure from other McCarthy works such as No Country for Old Men, Suttree and Blood Meridian  – all of which display a deep ambivalence about humanity and its purpose.    

For all its inherent bleakness, The Road is a profoundly uplifting movie. While it recognizes that there are two forces of evil that prevail upon us -one from within and the other from without –  it also suggests that with sufficient vigilance and preparedness both can be defeated.    

The two main characters emerge, then, as symbols of  this drive. 

The boy comes to represent the virtues of principle and idealism.  He nudges his father’s conscience and repeatedly forces him to face the prospect of his own descent into inhumanity.   The father, on the other hand, represents deep faith tempered by experience. He presents as a model of human resilience in the face of catastrophe. It is, after all, his unflinching vision of a better life which drives the two onward toward their uncertain, obscure future. 

But even more impressive than this is the deep bond of love that binds father to son as they grapple with the exigencies of survival.  It is evident in the final moments of both book and film, in one of the most touching scenes I have ever read on a page or viewed on screen.  When everything is lost, when there seems little reason for either hope or faith, can love survive and become a source for both?  Countless anecdotes from the Holocaust have suggested that it can.   

It is a question to which The Road seems to respond resoundingly in the affirmative. 

At a time in history when man’s failures to maintain peace are wrathfully condemned by our elites and human interference with nature regarded as a blight on earth, it is good to see a film which pulls no punches in exploring the potential for human goodness and celebrates the cause of human exceptionalism.

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