Somewhere between catastrophe and apocalypse, Erik Jaccard examines Corman McCarthy’s characteristic ambiguity in the 2009 adaptation of The Road.
A few months ago, when I initially chose to review The Road, I did so for three reasons and three reasons only. The first was the simple fact that it’s a post-apocalyptic story. Back when I was an academic, I studied those because I believe that how cultures frame narratives about the end of the world says a lot about who those cultures are, and how their values inform the worlds they build. The second was that the story is adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, and I am fond of Cormac McCarthy. The third is that the film was directed by Australian John Hillcoat and scored by his frequent collaborator, the Australian musician Nick Cave. This might make it sound like I’m obsessed with Australians. But, really, it’s just that I adore Cave, and I’m quite fond of Hillcoat’s 2006 Australian western The Proposition, for which Cave wrote the screenplay. Taken together, these reasons form a perfect storm of interests, an amalgamated condition of emergence for a film I definitely should enjoy—even if only in intellectual terms—and for a re-view I should have no trouble writing.
And yet, on first re-watching The Road, I was really bothered by the fact that there seemed so little to say. I took very few notes while watching, which is rare in itself, and more than once I found my mind wandering. Later, having finished, I recalled experiencing more or less the same sensation after my initial viewing in 2009, when everything seemed so nicely done precisely because it was so on point and evocative of McCarthy’s novel. The characters were more or less as I’d imagined them, the scenery was spot-on, gray post-apocalyptic wasteland perfect, and the tender father-son moments were equally moving. And so on. Thinking about it now, I wonder whether this seeming equivalence between the two is the real question: What does the film add that the novel doesn’t already provide?
Before I get to this, I’ll begin by noting that there is little in the film that might change or shift in ten years, or, at least, not in the ten years between 2009 and 2019. As I discuss below, both this film and McCarthy’s story are so scrubbed of reference and place and positioning that they could really occur anywhere and anytime. The language, in both film and novel, is incredibly spare; there is nothing to index the dialogue as unique to the 21st century, and, indeed, there are times when the man and boy seem to speak in a quaint and almost antiquated vernacular. The lack of names (they are just “the man” and “the boy”) reinforces this decontextualization, depriving us—purposefully, it would seem—of the specificity in personality we’re accustomed to using as familiarizing markers. While, yes, there is definitely a 20th/21st century overtone to the setting—it’s recognizably a world marred by thermonuclear war—the world into which we’re thrust is more pre- than post-historic. Just as it does in many other post-apocalyptic narratives, disaster has here moved us backward. Unlike many such stories, however, it moves almost so far back that what we see are a collection of walking proto-ideas—man/father, boy/son—searching a scorched landscape for original, rather than new meaning. Now, I do think there was a time when this type of story was more prevalent, but that was 50 years ago, when the US-Soviet arms race gave us reasons to explore what a post-World War III world might look like. Since then, we’ve grown frighteningly, if not surprisingly, comfortable with the thought that we live in the constant shadow of our own nuclear demise. Given these conditions, then, I’m not inclined to pursue arguments about the how the film has changed.
This leaves me with two ways forward: stick to those original three reasons and see what I can do with them, or chart a path by following the question of what the film adds to the story we know. For my part, I think I’ll try to blend these two approaches, using the first to add context to the question described in the second. However, I also realize that, in some ways, I’ve already said what I want to say about both McCarthy (in my 2011 re-view of All the Pretty Horses) and Hillcoat and Cave (in my 2016 re-view of The Proposition). Rather than trying to reinvent my own wheel, then, I’m going to let those earlier pieces do some of the talking for me and focus on my first reason: The Road as a post-apocalyptic story.
“The sacred idiom shorn of its referent, and thus of its reality”: The Road as post-apocalypse
The quotation I integrate into my subtitle above comes from McCarthy’s novel, and it describes a world in which no actual things—no referents—survive to guarantee the language we’ve created to describe them. Instead, in the world of The Road, we’re left with a collection of free-floating symbols of those now non-existent things. One of the most notable aspects of The Road’s depiction of post-catastrophe is this referent-less, de-symbolized quality. While we know we are in what used to be called the United States of America because of certain residual signs (the use of American English, brief flashbacks to a pre-disaster USA, visible civilizational detritus), the world the film depicts has otherwise been scrubbed clean of nearly all systems of meaning. Economics and Politics? Gone. Social bonds, cultural bonds, and familiar bonds? Gone, or going. Even language—one of the first and most resilient of human meaning-making systems—has been reduced to a shell of its former self. As my friend, the very smart Jeremy Wattles, once wrote of the novel, “The narrative is stripped down to the barest essentials of survival and human emotion, to the point that there is not only an apocalypse of form…but of mythology, anthropocentrism, characters, even our basic language apparatus for understanding the world.” I find this reading an incredibly apt explanation of how and why both book and film move the way they do, towards a slow, sour unravelling of the human story, right down to its potentially vacant core.
Unlike a large majority of post-catastrophe narratives, The Road isn’t a story about rebuilding or rebirth, both of which require the survival of some basic systems of symbolic and material exchange. Nor, thankfully is it about the hackneyed, colonialist ideology which would have us believe that, deep down, we are all “savages” merely constrained by the always-crumbling veneer of civilization. Nor, even, is it really about the dangers inherent in our systems: in a toxic patriarchy that would rather kill than lose; in a capitalism that would rather consume its own conditions of being than modify itself; in a scientific rationalism that conflates Enlightenment with domination. We are, of course, free to project these critiques onto the story, as some almost certainly already have. They are surely there in the absent cause behind the film’s catastrophe, which is never really explained. Somehow, this story arrives with all of these critiques already embedded. The lack of explanation almost seems to say indirectly that no explanation is needed; if it wasn’t nuclear war, it would be some other means; if it wasn’t this end, it would be some other terminus. As Jeremy also notes in his essay, unlike the continual unraveling and rebuilding of the Yeatsian gyre (McCarthy poaches his title for No Country for Old Men from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”), McCarthy focuses instead on whether it is even possible to, as the man puts it in The Road, “carry the fire” of human possibility into the darkening horizon.
We’ve seen a lot of post-catastrophe stories in our time raise these existential questions, often in blunter and less poignant terms, and recalling this fact does remind one that what The Road is doing is not terribly new. However, one thing that sets it apart is its focus on the human beings at the center of its story, who it can privilege because it casts aside so much of the technofetishism in (particularly American) genre science fiction about the end of the world. Responding to this obsession more than 60 years ago, the English speculative fiction author John Wyndham commented in a 1950s essay that “stories are not about things, they are about people.” Over the course of that decade, he used this understanding of what sf stories could and should do to create quiet, character-driven stories of social collapse as registered by actual, everyday people. Now, what he did is very different from what’s going on in The Road. Nevertheless, The Road is still, at its core, a story about people, and about the origins—and possibility—of decency, tenderness, and love between them. Moreover, it is a story about how these things flourish or die when all exterior systems which have traditionally reinforced them have gone.
In this sense, I think it more appropriate to label The Road a post-apocalyptic story rather than a post-catastrophic one, and not simply in terms of descriptive detail. Both words signify disaster, and are thus often used interchangeably. However, catastrophe has traditionally also been used to describe the circularity of revolution, an upending of one order and its replacement by another. The distinction to make here is that, most often in a catastrophe, the conditions for the survival of orders more generally still abide. However, understood in its original biblical context, an apocalypse is a revelation, a lifting or uncovering, a totalizing break with the idea and possibility of orders altogether. In The Road, what we see when we lift the veil on our world is the simple fact of two people trying to single-handedly create meaning in a landscape wiped clean of old associations, of old reasons for living, loving, creating new life, and even for dying
The nuclear family unit (pun intended, I guess?) at the story’s center seem designed to illustrate the schisms between catastrophe and apocalypse as they pertain to this condition. Both the man (a pretty perfectly cast Viggo Mortensen) and his wife (Charlize Theron) are quite clearly catastrophic subjects. They exist in that haunting and haunted space between worlds, with a full knowledge of what has been destroyed, and possibly even why it has been destroyed. Their consciousnesses linger together at the margins of that world, though their reactions to catastrophe differ noticeably. The man, who seems to have been the responsible, anxious, and uxorious type in the former world, clings to whatever sense of normality he can retain, even in the face of obvious cataclysm. For him, something can and must go on. He is, in other words, the more conventional catastrophe survivor of disaster fictions past. The woman, on the other hand, seems haunted from the first time we meet her, as though she’d always known it would end like that, that there would be no sense trying to do anything good because the bad had already won out. Having basically given up, she is depicted in one of the film’s early flashbacks wandering into a snowstorm alone, presumably to become one with the void to which the world has been reduced. Unlike his parents, the boy (then-newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an apocalyptic subject. Born just after the disaster, he lacks the basic social and symbolic consciousness necessary to mourn the fallen world. Since disaster is all he knows, he lacks a basic faith in the systems—moral, social, cultural—on which his parents leaned for support. As such, he is undisturbed by their absence. His reasons for living are, by contrast, seemingly pure and more innocent, governed by a simple moral binary between the good and bad he has learned from his father. If there is any residual hope in The Road, it clusters around the boy, whose earnest and unselfconsciously mythological commitment to “carrying the fire” lends his existence a refreshingly simple, if clearly artificial, purpose. As he and the man forge onwards into nothingness, they—and especially the boy—represent the slim possibility of creating the world anew, of protecting a spark in a blizzard.
To its credit, the film’s script communicates the tenacity of this spark in tense snatches of tenderness between father and son, in the boy’s acts of kindness toward a lonely, bedraggled itinerant the pair encounters, and between the boy and his own hope, as they trudge toward a destination we all know will offer nothing of the sort. I also thought that, if we look at the boy as the symbolically immature creature I’ve outlined above, then we must also see his wanderings through the film’s graying, decaying landscape as an implicit search for a new grammar, a new way of making sense. However, because the narrative (in both novel and screenplay) is so spare, much of this energy is displaced onto the visual arena, where it is instead Javier Aguirresarobe’s camerawork which is called on to communicate the difficulty in making something out of nothing. The film accomplishes this by emphasizing the minute in a world designed to force our attention toward the macroscopic. Nearly every disaster film asks its audience to marvel at the sublimity of large-scale destruction, and, for our part, we’d probably admit the difficulty in looking beyond the spectacle of a destruction so total as to render all individual struggles meaningless. As I wrote in yet another re-view (28 Days Later, 2013), there is a certain thrill to this form of affective terror. However, The Road tries to push this experience as far into the background as possible in order to foreground how the man and boy’s love for one another grounds their attempts to see hope in the hopeless.
It’s there in the peace of a parent’s hand on his child’s back, or in the horrible intimacy of a mutual suicide pact. The world depicted in The Road is not one we’re necessarily invited to gape at in awe, but rather one that are intended to solemnly recognize as true in some way, though perhaps not in all ways, or at least not forever.
I believe that we are, however, intended to question the nature and value of the “fire” the man and boy purport to carry. Readings sympathetic to humanity will, of course, see in this metaphor all that is good in people, and this is probably what the man intends, and what he has trained the boy to believe is true. However, the unavoidable ambivalence surrounding the symbol lies in its association with the scorched earth that surrounds them. Whatever spark we carry contains within it as much potential for destruction as it does for peace, as much predilection to evil as tendency to good. McCarthy’s moral geometry, as least as far back as Blood Meridian (1985), has always contained this ambiguity, and, at times, has even seemed to suggest a symmetry between the malign designs of the world’s barbaric spaces and the inner recesses of the human heart. For McCarthy, the evil was always there, waiting for a vessel through which it might be channeled. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, for us, the real terror has not been the fact of this evil itself, but rather that it remains without origin or motive. As The Road draws dourly to a close, it invites us to contemplate, just as the boy must, whether the half-smile on a seemingly kind stranger’s face portends a new fanning of an old but valuable flame, or whether it is simply the next twisting knife in the side our hopes, forever thwarted by an ancient darkness from which we would always prefer to avert our eyes.
— Erik Jaccard