THE ROAD B
USA (112 mi) 2009 ‘Scope d: John Hillcoat
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
—The Beatitudes, Matthew 5: 3 – 10
Well, now we know the end of the world looks like Mount St. Helens, the side of the mountain that blew off with the last volcanic eruption, leaving behind devastation and ruin in its wake, namely gray rivers of dead trees and ash caught in an avalanche of mud. Life as we knew it is all but gone, only traces left in the few people that roam the countryside. Haunting, yet quietly affecting, this is as grim as movies can get showing a frightening post apocalyptic vision of the planet in which the living envy the dead, honed down to the barest essentials of what’s left of humanity as thugs with guns roam the countryside constantly searching for food, resorting to cannibalism, keeping helpless victims alive through enslavement, eating them piece by piece. But this is no zombie movie, this is real life, or what’s left of it, carefully guarded by the keepers of the flame who are “carrying the fire,” a father and son duo who identify themselves as the good guys, both of whom would rather starve to death than resort to ravaging fellow humans. With quiet reverential piano music by Nick Cave, this feels like a memorial tribute to the fallen victims who have been left behind, all lost due to inexplicable circumstances, still left in the fragmented memories of those who can remember while they’re wandering the earth trying to stay alive. Viggo Mortensen is the Man with binoculars who scouts out every building before they investigate, always searching inside for something useful, followed by his young 10-year old son, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who becomes an angelic presence by his side. The spare narration by Mortensen has an almost sacred feel to it, describing a world through memories that are gone, haunted by feelings that are no longer useful in this world, where life has become a harsh and brutal game of survival with few, if any, real choices left, only life or death. The love that exists between the father and son has a Biblical aura to it, where the presence of God guides their path, but like Jesus in human form, they are tormented by the hideous world all around them.
This is likely a film experience that would benefit from reading the Cormac McCarthy novel ahead of time, as the rich textures underneath the eerie landscape would certainly elevate this work to poetic heights that the film fails to reach, spending the entirety of the movie in the grim details of eternal struggle, caught up in the disease and horror of the age, where the father in describing a corpse lying under the sheets in a bedroom tells his son that “it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.” The two are on a road to nowhere, described in the book as “tattered gods slouching in their rags across the waste.” There’s nothing stagy here, no signature moments, instead there’s a long, slow push leading them both towards the inevitable end of the road, a point of no return, a finality that registers internally with all the raw anguish of a fallen soldier lost in the brush, soon to be replaced by another, and then another, until there are no more left to fight as sickness and death are all around them, with no hope or salvation for their efforts. Shot in Oregon, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, this has a rugged, almost cursed look to it, where in an odd moment surrounded by nothing but the dead they actually discover another living creature, an insect that quickly flies away, taking them both by surprise, almost like a miracle. Every single shot bears a similarity to the working class despair and anguish expressed by Béla Tarr, where man’s unheeded, reckless actions lead him inevitably to a state of hopelessness, where the mystical images of Tarkovsky intrude, where an empty well and the vast and endless ocean seem to coincide, all connected by neverending torrents of rain.
It’s interesting how the balance of power between the father and son changes as the film goes on, as we get darker into this labyrinth of Hell on earth, where the father has unquestioned authority, but the son’s sense of decency and human kindness is emotionally gripping, as there’s nothing else like that in the entire picture, like light shining in an otherwise darkened corner. The importance of the son is beautifully recognized only at the end, where even the father seems to understand that he’s taught him all that he can, that the roles have reversed, and the son suddenly has a strange and powerful impact on his father’s actions, suggesting people can change even under the direst of circumstances and at any stage in their lives, and that instead of the strongest and most vile, it is the weakest among us who shall inherit the earth. All of this really does have a Biblical context set in the bleakest of human conditions, where man’s travails are tested like never before. It’s pretty clear that as darkness falls across the land where there’s a war outside raging, it’s the interior battles that will determine the ultimate outcome. Who or what could be more saintly than the thoughts of a child whose innocence seen in this light is utterly captivating. It’s very much like the final scene in the mystical realms of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) where the father witnesses a miracle performed by his own child. A minimalist exercise on man’s fate, a great portion of which is spent considering the option of suicide or facing the dread of impending doom, but it does finally lead us into transcendent territory where the depths of emotion are matched by the simplicity of its depiction. If ever there was a film about faith, this is it.