Movies about the apocalypse are commonplace. Late last year, audiences were “treated” to the latest in a long line of films which contemplated the end of the world, namely “2012”, which was based on a ridiculous misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar. Like many of its ilk, it was little more than a demonstration of advanced digital effects and as a result was thoroughly unmemorable.
In contrast, it is much rarer for films to address the “world after the end of the world”: i.e., what would be it be like to live after an earth shattering disaster, assuming any sort of life is possible? How would people interact? What would they do? “The Road”, a new film based on the book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, tries to address these questions and does so with a grim, determined realism.
The film begins by showing a father and son proceeding along a deserted road; we are told that the weather is getting colder, and the washed out greys and browns of the scene speak of a perpetual winter. Somehow, the planet has been made uninhabitable. No birds sing nor disturb the background scenery. Plants and trees are withered. A father, played by Viggo Mortensen, and son, portrayed by Kodi Smit-McPhee, cling desperately to an old shopping trolley which carries the sum of their worldly possessions.
This is a world in which survivors can take two routes in order to prolong their existence: the first is to try and live off of the detritus of the civilisation which has just collapsed. The second is a descent into cannibalism. The father and son, who are living off of the withered carcass of the world, are living in fear of the cannibals. Theirs is a journey born out of the last words of the boy’s mother (expertly portrayed by Charlize Theron), to head south and towards the coast.
Flashbacks are used wisely to explain the plot; we see that the father and mother had an almost idyllic existence in a rural home. Small reminders of this life pop up in the bleak present: the presence of a piano spurs the father’s memory of playing a duet with his wife, for example. We see the fallout of the disaster through the prism of his memory, the increasingly desperate conditions as demonstrated by Ms. Theron eating the contents of canned food hungrily, and the subsequent birth of the son amidst pain and candlelight.
The film is very believable as it shows civilisation’s fragility: small touches assist in the process. The father and son raid an abandoned shopping mall: an open cash register stuffed with $100 dollar bills is not valuable, a can of Coke fished out of the wreckage of a vending machine is a precious treat. A shower, made possible by finding supplies in a hidden bunker, is a luxury, as is discovering a hoard of canned goods. Furthermore, the father’s sense of paranoia is palpable as demonstrated by his willingness to perk up his ears at the slightest sound, his hand constantly on his near-empty revolver, and his determination to shoot first and ask questions later. He is not some hero of the apocalypse, rather, he is a very ordinary man with no training or preparation trying to survive as best he can.
Perhaps the film is made all the more believable because the disaster itself is not explained. Thanks to a cameo by Robert Duvall as an aged wanderer named Ely, we are given a hint that it was ecological in nature: he states that he believed “it” was coming when others did not. There are no markers of nuclear war either: the sole hints as to the nature of the calamity are provided by an earthquake which fells a group of rotten trees. It may not have been the director’s intent, but I interpreted it as the earth trying to shake off parasites, rather like a dog would try to rid itself of gnawing insects. That said, the lack of specificity is key: had it been explained, it is likely that the audience’s attention would have been fixed on the cause rather than the result.
It is disturbing to say this, but the work perhaps also contains an air of truth because of its no-holds-barred view of humanity. Yes, in this scenario, some have kept their morals in spite of the world coming to an end: the father urges his son to keep “the fire burning”. However, we see that more people have degenerated into cannibalism: the father’s discovery of a makeshift prison for human “food” was one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever seen, the father and son hearing the distant screams of “dinner” being “processed” later on was just as brilliantly dreadful.
It may not have been the intent of the film makers nor the author, but “The Road” makes a great many philosophical points that are central to Green thinking: human beings have the capacity to destroy themselves both by debauching the physical world and by not having a strong community which solves problems rather than descends into a mad free-for-all. Indeed, are we not engaged in a form of cannibalism now, in which predators, albeit it in pinstripe suits and wielding laptops as opposed to axes, eat out the substance of their neighbours? Are we conditioned, on a subtle level, to exist in the world that “The Road” shows us?
While the post-apocalyptic nightmare shown in this film is a distant possibility, a possibility it remains: no one I saw emerged from the cinema laughing at the absurdity of its plot. When I stepped out, I was walking amidst the snow and ice of a winter’s day: teenagers were talking on mobile phones and children were walking hand in hand with their parents to the local bowling alley. The establishments were brightly lit, the scents of freshly cooked food were in the air, people were warm, safe and dry: it’s easy to take such a state of affairs for granted and ignore the currents in human affairs that lie beneath. The Road is an unpleasant masterpiece because precisely it reminds how lucky we are and that there are possibilities for change…for the moment.