The Road To Nowhere
I picked up a copy of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak, post-apocalyptic novel, ‘The Road’ in a charity shop’s ten bob box about 5 years ago. Until that point I’d never read anything by McCarthy and only knew of him, as most people did, through the Coen Brothers adaptation of ‘No Country For All Men.’ Reading ‘The Road’ was something of a double edged sword as his prose style is pretty unique, deliberately boring in its repetitiveness yet punctuated by profound, almost Biblical poetic interludes. It’s hard work but somehow compelling.
The story of a man and a boy called er, ‘The Man’ and ‘The Boy’ travelling across a dying, rain sodden landscape collecting tree ‘limbs’ to burn and avoiding armed gangs could’ve been played for Mad Max sci-fi cliche yet the existential, moral and practical issues that face the father and son become the stuff of real nightmares.
The son has been born after an unspecified armageddon and the father’s one mission is to keep him alive even though he knows he himself is dying and that his son will be left to fend for himself once they reach the coast, where he hopes there will some hope of salvation.
The boy’s mother has killed herself years earlier out of hopelessness and, as the pair struggle to keep moving with their few possessions shoved into a shopping trolley, they try to steer clear of killers, cannibals and other desperadoes eeking out a living in a food free world where everything is dead or dying.
It asks the question; ‘what would I do in the same position?’ and undoubtedly the answer would be to kill your kid and yourself rather than face the terrible possibility of ending up like the living but amputated human ‘meals’ they discover locked in the basement of a house. There are only a few ‘action’ sequences in the book yet this makes them even more shocking and when it was decided to make a film of the novel, I shuddered at how it would turn out.
No Country… was a very good film and perhaps one of the Coens’ best for many years but there was something missing, the poetic voice of McCarthy and this is the same problem in The Road and other McCarthy adaptations such as ‘All The Pretty Horses’. His first novel ‘The Orchard Keeper’ is a complex web of inter-connected plots and timeframes and Mccarthy’s aversion to quotation marks his dialogue difficult to follow but that’s half the fun I suppose.
‘The Road’ must’ve been a difficult film to sell to Hollywood and went through many delays before being finally released in 2009 and it wasn’t until last week that I actually watched it. John Hillcoat’s direction shifs the narrative back and forth between the immediate aftermath of the holocaust and their day to day journey across the cauterised, decaying land.
Yet, if anything the true horror of the novel is played down; the chained catamites and pregnant women who are used as sexual playthings and food producers for the cannibal gangs is completely missed out. The roasting children they find obviously points towards why these women are being impregnated and this makes the man’s dilemma even more horrific.
The landscape is captured with skill, the monotonous grey wash over everything yet in the novel, the air is filled with choking dust or ashes. The deserted towns and cities, the ruined highways and collapsing forests, the utter devastation is captured with a marvellous eye for dusty detail. In today’s Hollywood of trite re-writings and happy endings, the film stayed true to the bleak yet ultimately hopeful tone of the novel. The beetle they see hints at re-generation and recovery but it’s still dog eat dog, a world where pity and kindness are weaknesses and the only morality is survival.
Viggo Mortensen as The Man and Kodi Smit-McPhee as The Boy do a tremendous job of portraying fear and determination, the human desire to survive despite the potentially terrible consequences of this need to find hope and salvation. It’s perhaps McCarthy’s most catholic novel, the thoughts of an old man with a young son himself. There has to be light at the end of the tunnel surely? What happens when I’m not around to protect my son, who will care for him? Do I trust to God for protection and redemption or decide on life and death in a brutal world without law and morality?
After reading ‘The Road’ I read McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ which if anything is even more bleak and brutal, more poetic and profound and, as it’s based on the true story of the Indian clearances in Texas and New Mexico in the late 19th century, is even more distrurbing. It is perhaps an unfilmable novel but would make a great 3D animated film if any producer had the courage to depict the paedophile preacher Judge Holden in all his hairless, satanic glory.
Hey but I’m not really interested in all that redemptive quest for humanity amongst savagery, look at Viggo’s boss parka!