I’m not opposed in principle to the post-apocalyptic in entertainment, but I’m not one that can just appreciate the devastation for its own artistic merit; I need a human element as well otherwise it feels as if the apocalypse is being fetishised, as in a Roland Emmerich film; all special effects and showboating and rubbing one’s thighs as we see famous monuments pulverised.
The novel Riddley Walker is set thousands of years after the apocalypse in a society and culture that’s grown out of the old. The novel A Canticle for Leibowitz tells a similar story. In film there’s Silent Running that, with its space-faring bottled forests, only hints at the state of the planet left behind. Soylent Green takes place as the human race is approaching its end, rather than after, but still focuses on the people rather than the event. Even WALL·E manages to make the post-apocalypse seem hopeful. It’s a mistake to think that the apocalypse itself is anything more than a catalyst in narrative terms. What’s interesting is how humanity deals with it.
This brings me to The Road, adapted for the screen by John Hillcoat (previously of the excellent Australian western The Proposition) from the novel by Cormac McCarthy. In The Road, the worst has happened. An unspecified cataclysm has cremated the planet, wiping out almost all animal and plant life and leaving humanity to scrape an existence out of leftover tinned food and rampant cannibalism. We see glimpses of the event in flashback but there’s nothing concrete, no forced exposition where characters sit around and discuss what happened and why.
It’s a bleak and sparse piece, and there’s thankfully little of the impassioned ranting at the sky — “You maniacs! You finally did it! You blew it all up!” — that you might expect from a post-apocalyptic film, nor is there any reason there should be. The end of the world is old news to these people, so the spectacle of a dead forest spontaneously combusting is, within the film, just something that disturbs one’s sleep.
Instead, this is a story about an unnamed father and son, trekking across the wasteland on a quest to reach the southern coast of the states just on the belief that it may be warmer there. The father is haunted by memories of his wife; the son is haunted by the possibility that they may not be the good guys after all, as his father insists. Though we’re treated to some spectacular scenes of ghost towns and dried-up shipyards, the heart of the film is with the father and his increasingly desperate and brutal attempts to protect his son from the worst of the world.
Performances by Viggo Mortensen and Robert Duvall as the father and an old man respectively are typically strong; cameos from Guy Pearce and Michael K. William (Omar of The Wire fame) are distracting but only if you recognise them, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son copes admirably with the grim script, getting a pistol stuck in his mouth every other scene yet still seeming safely grounded, though by the end of the film his relentless cries of “Papa, no!” were starting to grate a little. Mind you, I’m not really child-friendly at the best of times. In an apocalypse I’d probably have eaten him.
Generally the film is a success despite its hopeless situation but I have mixed feelings about the film’s end, where the boy — freshly-orphaned — seems to spend about 20 minutes grieving before happily joining another group — a man, his wife, their two children and a dog. On the surface it seems like it’s trying to be a happy ending but it feels tacked on, contrived and more than a little cloying. Looking deeper, though, it’s actually as grim as the rest of the film. Not only is it left open as to whether these new people are good or bad but when they reveal that they had been following the boy and his father for some time it sheds light on an earlier event that led to the boy’s father abandoning a well-stocked shelter, a decision that eventually leads to his death. Thanks for that.
Throughout the film, the father struggles to keep his boy safe and away from strangers. By the end of the film, the father is dead and the boy joins a group of strangers and it’s hard to see what the father achieved. I don’t think it gets much bleaker than that, no matter how many uplifting arrangements you play over the scene.