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Sunday, November 29, 2009

The End of Civilization and Its Discontents:
A Review of The Road

by Gary Westfahl

Privy to no inside information, I cannot be sure why John Hillcoat's The Road, originally scheduled for release in December, 2008, has been repeatedly held back before finally appearing in late November, 2009 (just in time to ruin the Westfahl family Thanksgiving); certainly, there is no evidence of last-minute rewrites or hastily added scenes in a film that is, for the most part, a remarkably faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. But one factor may have been current events: at a time when the world seemed on the brink of an economic meltdown, executives may have reasoned, filmgoers might not have been in the mood for a depressing vision of the total collapse of global civilization in the near future. Now that the economic news is finally getting a little better, perhaps the producers thought audiences would be more willing to endure two hours of artistically crafted gloom and doom.

Be that as it may, it remains the case that, whether you are feeling poor or prosperous, The Road is a film that stretches the definition of "entertainment": in a world devastated by an unspecified catastrophe, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McGhee) wander through a bleak, lifeless environment desperately searching for food, like other scattered survivors, and the one thing separating the "good guys" from the "bad guys," it seems, is that the good guys are unwilling to resort to cannibalism. The only glimpses of bright color come in the Mortensen character's vivid dreams of a happier past, and there is one — precisely one — line in the film that will provoke laughter (strategically occurring during the film's modestly uplifting concluding scene). Everything else is grim: since no food is available, everyone must constantly wander in search of food and thus become homeless people, so the Mortensen character carries his and his son's belongings in the iconic device of the homeless, a shopping cart; they walk past money and jewelry lying on the ground since such things have no value in a world without food; and with gasoline no longer available, abandoned cars are nothing more than convenient shelters on cold and rainy nights. And this may be another reason why this film was originally planned, and ended up, as an end-of-the-year release: to lure people to a film that so conspicuously fails to match conventional expectations of what audiences like, the most viable strategy may be to launch it during awards season and hope that it garners, say, a few Golden Globe or Academy Award nominations to feature in advertisements.

Readers and filmgoers familiar with science fiction, of course, have visited post-holocaust societies many times in the past, and they will be intrigued by the ways in which this film, and the novel it is based upon, are in dialogue with previous depictions of future worlds driven back to primitivism. Oddly enough, though, the first science fiction film that The Road brought to my mind was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), obviously not part of the post-holocaust subgenre. But its opening scenes also depicted thin, hungry representatives of humanity whose lives are a constant struggle to find enough food and avoid deadly predators. What saved Moon-Watcher and his tribe from threatened extinction was an alien monolith that taught them how to use tools that could kill animals (and would subsequently help them plant crops) to provide ample food, a boon emphasized in the film's numerous later scenes of people eating healthy meals. Their civilization may have many sources of discontentment, as Sigmund Freud noted, but widespread hunger isn't one of them. What has ruined the lives of the film's father and son is that, in a world without animals or plants, their ability to use tools is no longer helpful in obtaining food — except on rare occasions when a shovel can smash the lock to an underground chamber that might contain an unlooted cache of canned goods to temporarily stave off starvation. Both films, then, share a central point: the basis of human civilization is simply having sufficient food to eat, and when there isn't enough food, a civilization can't be built or maintained. One telling image in the film is the piano, a traditional icon of a frontier becoming civilized in American westerns: in the flashbacks showing the Mortensen character and his late wife (Charlize Theron), who committed suicide rather than carry on the struggle for survival, we see them playing a piano in their house, and the wife is described as an excellent player. Later, while rummaging through yet another house in search of food, the man lifts up a cloth and finds a piano; he stares at it, plays a few measures, and then covers it up again and walks away. Clearly, he is now living in a world that has no place for pianos (which may be why it is also a world where his music-loving wife could no longer bear to keep living).

Other science fiction stories about post-holocaust societies may include similar remnants of a happier, more civilized past — Walter Van Tilburg Clark's "The Portable Phonograph" (1941) also uses music, recorded on a vinyl disk, to represent the beauties that humanity had lost — but reminders of yesterday typically evoke other emotions as well: regret about the folly that drove people to destroy everything they had built, anger at the specific persons responsible for the disaster, and a determination to begin the process of reconstructing their vanished technological society. These stories manifest a desire, in other words, to impose a narrative of progress onto a narrative of apparent regression: mistakes have been made, lessons have been learned, and humanity now can again start moving forward toward a glorious future. McCarthy's novel, and this film, have no intimations of this kind. McCarthy refuses to say anything at all about what caused his world to fall apart; the film includes scenes of ongoing earthquakes and firestorms vaguely suggesting that it might have been a purely natural disaster but otherwise is also silent about exactly what happened. Thus, there are no fools or villains to condemn for humanity's sufferings who would logically inspire the hope that wiser, better people could do better in the future. There is in addition no suggestion that anybody is planning, or dreaming about, a restoration of civilization; the Mortensen character abandons the piano and throws away a picture of his wife and his wedding ring, essentially rejecting his and humanity's history as irrelevant to his current situation. When he says to his son, born after the catastrophe, that "You think I come from another world," he also seems to acknowledge that it is a world he can never return to.

The Road might be said, then, to recall George R. Stewart's Earth Abides (1949), a classic novel wherein most of humanity is wiped out and the survivors first prove unable, and eventually unwilling, to rebuild their vanished civilization. Yet Stewart's hero Ish is at least able to gradually assemble a community of like-minded people that evolves into a happy tribe, living off a still-verdant land using primitive tools like a bow and arrow. In contrast, the Mortensen character resolutely refuses to expand his two-person team. A telling moment comes when he and his son encounter an old man (Robert Duvall) who clearly represents a good-hearted soul and a third set of eyes and hands that might have proved useful to the pair of travelers; but instead of inviting him to join their family, the father grudgingly lets him share one meal, at the insistence of his son, and then sends him on his way, probably to die. Thus, the most heartening aspect of the film's conclusion may be that we encounter another small family which is, unlike the father, more than willing to take in additional members and will perhaps continue expanding to become a community like Ish's.

The question then becomes: why is the Mortensen character so unrelentingly hostile to people like the old man and, later, a principled thief (Michael Kenneth Williams) who might have become his helpful companions? One answer would be the issue of severe deprivation, which not only eliminates civilization but may even impel people to resist bonding with others as they fight to keep themselves alive. Ish, after all, found himself in a bountiful world where he never had to miss a meal and hence had no reason to feel competitive when encountering others. So, to explain why the other family was more open to strangers, one might seize upon the film's one sign of a coming revival of life, even though it is not a flourishing green plant (like the one which signaled Earth's rebirth in Wallâ–ªE [review here]) or a soaring eagle, but rather a tiny beetle that flies from an empty tin can up into the sky. True, one might describe this image as a deliberately feeble and far from inspirational indication that the environment might be recovering from disaster, but it does offer modest hope that conditions may be changing so as to again allow people to stop fearing and fighting others and start befriending them.

But there is another possible explanation, one which may have been on the minds of the people who voted to give McCarthy's novel the Pulitzer Prize. Arguably, the Mortensen character is simply acting in the way that increasing numbers of people in contemporary Western society are acting: while perhaps fiercely protective of family members and close friends, they otherwise live solitary and cloistered lives, "cocooning" by themselves and regarding strangers with indifference or hostility. They certainly aren't starving, but they are, one could say, emotionally deprived. Following this line of thinking, then, the dreary, miserable world that the Mortensen character finds himself in is a metaphor for the sad, empty lives that isolated individuals in our own world are now experiencing; and his tragic fate represents a warning to such people that they need to change their ways and start behaving more like the adults in the other family who survive.

The only problem with these interpretations of the story is that all the communities that we do observe in this film are evil: a roving band of gun-toting looters, another band that hunts down and captures a fleeing woman, and a house filled with cannibals and their intended victims. Could it be, then, that the film is actually arguing that staying isolated is beneficial while forming communities is dangerous? If the Mortensen character had indeed invited others to join his little group, would they all have ended up bonding with each other by becoming well-fed cannibals? Are audiences, like the son is initially, supposed to be suspicious of the motives of that other family and see their apparent benevolence as nothing more than a flimsy disguise for their sinister plans? Such ideas seem counterintuitive, to say the least, but it appears possible to argue that, according to the visible logic of this film, individuals or small groups can generally remain good (although they may, like the protagonist, feel compelled to do cruel things in order to survive), whereas larger organizations invariably become wicked, which would make the Mortensen character a role model, not a cautionary tale.

It is also possible, admittedly, to downplay its posited broad arguments about civilization and human behavior and maintain that The Road is a simple story about a father's overpowering love for a son, which compels him to continue his journey and do everything he can to keep his son alive in a world where he would otherwise, like his late wife, prefer to die. However, while this theme is manifestly central to McCarthy's novel, it is the aspect of the film that I find least persuasive, which might account for the fact that, as my wife noted, the whole story is somehow less emotionally involving than one would expect. Despite a remarkable performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee, the son is not really a believable character; as anyone who has spent time with boys will attest, he is too patient, too stoic, too gosh-darn good to be true. When his father describes him as an "angel" and a "god," it signals that the character is more a symbol of all the values that the father wishes to cling to against all odds than a living, breathing person. Indeed, while I would never say this about the novel, it is possible to imagine the film concluding with a plot twist not unlike those in The Other (1972) or Fight Club (1999), with the boy revealed to be nothing but an illusion created by the father as a device to motivate him to maintain his struggle for survival.

In stark contrast to all of the portentous ideas that might emerge from pondering The Road, there are subtle signs that someone involved in the making of this film had a strange sense of humor, although the references are of a nature that will not immediately amuse filmgoers and thus spoil the film's mood; rather, one has to remember and think about them. Consider: soon after the son gets his father to affirm that they are indeed the "good guys" who are "carrying the fire" of civilized ethics, the son blows out a small torch they were using for illumination, putting out the fire. At one point, for no particular reason, the father takes his son to the house where he grew up and starts pointing out where his family put the Christmas tree and the Christmas stockings; thus, however marginally, The Road can be considered a Christmas film, befitting its holiday season release, even though it is otherwise the complete antithesis of everything associated with that subgenre. Like the novel, the film is deliberately vague about precisely where in America the man and son are traveling south, but in one scene the father shows his son a fragment of a map to indicate their progress toward the coast, and we see that they are approaching a coastal city named Outland. Because I can locate no evidence that such a coastal city actually exists, this may be a reference to Berkeley Breathed's sardonic comic strip about small-town America, Outland (1989-1995), to the 1981 film Outland (a version of High Noon in outer space featuring a lonely hero surrounded by villains), or to the World of Warcraft game's "extradimensional realm" Outland, constructed out of the shattered remains of an orc planet. And buried within the typically interminable credits is a line crediting the film's "Cranes" to one "Ichabod Crane"; and since no one of that name can be found in the Internet Movie Database, this must be a reference to the protagonist of Washington Irving's 1820 story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," another solitary traveler beset by evil forces.

Overall, in both large and small ways, The Road may not be an enjoyable film to watch — it will be quite a while before I will want to see it again — but it is a very pleasurable film to talk about and think about after you have watched it. In the milieu of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, then, it definitely represents the road less traveled.

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Please note: a correspondent has pointed out that the credit for "Ichabod Crane" probably actually refers to a company, Ichabod Crane, Inc., which provides films with equipment. — Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two collections of essays -- Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell -- the Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature, and its companion text The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993.

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Cormac Mccarthy

Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McGhee, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, Molly Parker, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Charlize Theron

Official Website: The Road - In Theaters November 25

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Blogger Michael said...

Or the "Ichabod Crane" reference in the credits might be to Ichabod Crane, Inc., a New York based film equipment rental company (see for contact info. I think you're overthinking that one, Westfahl.

November 30, 2009 10:50 AM  

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