Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning story of utmost tenderness and utter brutality inserts a man and his son into a desperately treacherous post-apocalyptic world.
"The clocked stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions."
That’s all we ever learn of the apocalypse that has decimated creation in The Road. Only a remnant of roving, ravaged—and ravaging—survivors remains to scavenge in the ruins of humanity.
"Each day is more gray than the one before," says one survivor, known simply as the Man, "as the world slowly dies."
All has perished. There are no crops. No vegetation. No animals. But the Man, we learn, has something to live for: his son, whom he lovingly calls the Boy. Though there is no hope, the Man and the Boy (who’s perhaps 9 years old and who was born after the apocalypse) soldier on, foraging for scraps of nourishment—a lone can of soda, a frozen grasshopper—that might sustain them another day.
Their goal is to make it to the coast, where things might somehow be better. But the road south is a long and treacherous one.
The Road is a bleak film that focuses your attention on what it means to hold on to your hope, your humanity and your family in a world bent on devouring all three.
Most of the movie revolves around the Man seeking to protect and provide for his son. That means finding food and huddling together under old blankets in the rain. It means washing the Boy’s hair and cutting it for the first time ever when they find a bunker full of supplies. And it means protecting him from roving gangs of cannibals. "I’ll kill anyone who touches you," he tells the Boy, "’cause that’s my job." The stark brutality of the post-cataclysmic world they live in is matched—or perhaps exceeded—by the Man’s tender care for his charge.
The Man also works to impart something of a moral core to his son as they wander. "Sometimes I tell the Boy stories of courage and justice, he says. He tells his son, "There aren’t many good guys left. … Keep carrying the fire," a reference to trying, against all odds, to maintain something like optimism and human decency in their desperate situation.
The Boy internalizes those lessons. When the subject of cannibalism comes up, he says, "We would never eat anybody, would we? No matter how hungry we are? ’Cause we’re the good guys, and we’re carrying the fire."
The Boy’s compassion is evident in two situations. It’s his idea to share food with an old man they meet. And when he and his dad catch a thief who’s stolen all their possessions, it’s the Boy’s good heart that prevails. The Man forces the interloper to relinquish their stuff and strip naked. When the Thief protests, "I’m begging, you ain’t got to do me like this," the Man replies, "I’m going to leave you here the way you left us." But the Boy will have none of it, and eventually convinces his father to return the man’s clothes and give him a bit of food.
The Man’s dogged determination to survive contrasts with that of his wife, whom, we learn, eventually surrendered the will to live. Despite the fact that the Man tells her, "We will survive this. We are not going to quit," she walks out into the cold one night to die.
The Man refuses to do that.
When a killing cough creeps into the Man’s chest, he redoubles his efforts to remind his son of all the things he needs to know to survive. As the Man nears death, the Boy cries, "You said you wouldn’t leave me." And his father replies, "I’m sorry. Oh my boy, my boy. You have my whole heart. You always did."
[Spoiler Warning] After the Man’s passing, the Boy meets a family that adopts him. The Boy quizzes them, asking if they eat people, if they’re the good guys, and if they have the fire inside. The family, a military veteran, his wife and two children, assure him that they’re not cannibals and tell him that he was lucky to have had such a caring father. The Boy’s final words to his deceased father are, "I’ll talk to you every day. And I won’t forget, no matter what. No matter what, Papa."
The Man implies that his son’s existence is somehow proof of God, saying, "If he is not the word of God, then God never spoke."
While dreaming about his wife in better days, the Man says, "If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different."
Later, the travelers encounter a nearly blind old man who says of the Boy, "I never thought I’d see a child again. He’s an angel, a god." The Man agrees, saying, "To me he’s a god."
The Man and the Old Man also ponder God’s role in what’s happened. "Maybe God would know," the Man suggests. To which the bitter Old Man says, "God would know what? Whoever made humanity will find no humanity here."
A couple of conversations allude to seeing loved ones again in the afterlife.
Flashbacks and dreams show the Wife in clingy shirts and thin pajamas. The Man dreams of running his hand up his wife’s skirt at a concert of some kind.
Two scenes show the Man’s naked backside (and a bit more than that in one shot) as he swims. When he asks the thief to strip, we see the man’s bare front very briefly, and then glimpse him from the side, naked, as he covers his privates.
The Wife says of the people apparently pursuing them, "They’re going to catch up to us and they’re going to kill us. They’re going to rape me. They’re going to rape your son. They’re going to kill us. And they’re going to eat us."
Her fears are well-founded. When a gang of cannibals discovers the Man and the Boy, one of them looks at the young lad and smacks his lips before grabbing him and putting a knife to his neck. The Man shoots their assailant in the head.
Father and son find what they think is an abandoned house, but it turns out that a number of near-naked, zombie-like victims are imprisoned in the cellar—food for the four cannibals who live there. Visible wounds on the prisoners’ bodies indicate that they’re perhaps eating each other, too.
Given the prospect of such treatment, the Man coaches the boy in detail how to take his own life with their pistol should the need arise. The Man also ponders if he could go through with taking his son’s life if doing so meant sparing him from the cannibals.
It’s an exceedingly grim subject, and it's driven home as we watch the Man put the pistol to his terrified son's forehead during a moment of extreme danger.
We are shown what’s left of a victim’s entrails. We see three bodies hanging in a barn, a decomposed corpse in a bed and blood on the snow. We hear the screams of a woman and child who’ve fallen into the clutches of a hungry gang.
The Man gets hit in the leg with an arrow; after the attack, he digs out the head and staples the wound shut. His assailant ends up dead on the receiving end of a flare gun. We also witness the Man vomit blood a couple of times. Trees fall on the Man and the Boy during an earthquake. We hear the Wife screaming as she gives birth.
Crude or Profane Language
Four or five f-words. (One is paired with "mother.") At least one s-word. God’s name is take in vain a half-dozen times, usually in combination with "d‑‑n." Jesus’ name is misused once. We hear one extremely harsh slang reference to oral sex.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Man smokes a cigarette once and sips from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. When the Boy asks for a drink, his father tells him he wouldn’t like it.
Other Negative Elements
The Wife says that her "heart was ripped out" the night their son was born. "I don’t want to do this," she says after her water breaks. "What kind of life is this?" Before she commits suicide, she tries to convince her husband to let her take the Boy’s life as well to spare him the presumed horrors of his future. "Other families are doing it," she desperately says.
Tenderness and brutality, as a general rule, don’t share the same screen during an action movie. The Road, then, is not your typical apocalyptic thriller.
There are no skyscrapers toppling. No tectonic plates smashing into the sea. No fireballs from the sky. No aircraft carriers being swept by tsunamis into the White House. In contrast to its peers, The Road (based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2006 novel) is a study in understatement and soul-numbing psychological tension.
It’s a tale of one human being trying to protect another from unthinkable threats. It’s the story of a father preparing his son for the day his dad will no longer be around. And as this father and son seek to eke out an existence in a wasteland that used to be our world (much of the movie was filmed near Mount St. Helens and in areas of Louisiana ravaged by Hurricane Katrina), three moral mires emerge: suicide, cannibalism and mercy killing.
The Wife’s suicide is shown to obviously, deeply and permanently hurt those who love her. And cannibalism clearly extinguishes the "fire" inside. Which leaves us to deal more extensively with the last of the three: mercy killing.
The Man’s multifaceted love for the Boy tugs at the heartstrings in a way that feels at times like an old Disney movie. But no father in an old Disney movie ever taught his son how to put a pistol in his mouth just the right way. So there’s far more here to process than flowery feelings of familial love.
We never actually witness anyone eat anyone else. But just the thought of it is chilling enough … and chilling enough to cause this loving father to contemplate taking his own son’s life. Might it be the more loving thing to do should they fall into the wrong hands? he wonders.
He’s clearly ready to go through with it when things look grim. But circumstances spare him from finally pulling the trigger.
And that brings us back to tenderness and brutality. The tenderness of wanting to ensure that a loved one never has to suffer. And the brutality we sometimes start thinking might be required to make sure they won’t.
It’s an increasingly popular subject these days. And Hollywood is increasingly including it as a plot point. The list of films that have recently dealt with it is long; The Descent, The Beach, The Life of David Gale, Harsh Times, The Sea Inside and Alexander are all on it. Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby essentially presents mercy killing as an evil deed that does so much good one’s very soul is worth losing in its wake.
The Road takes a different path. It lets you wonder what you might do if you were facing such supreme despair. Then it introduces hope in the Man's final breaths. The Boy begs to go with his father as he dies. His father refuses. "I thought I could," he says. "But I can't."
The Man and the Wife have both lived and died fearing the very worst. What the Boy finds is that sometimes it's not the devil creeping up behind you. It's the good guys. Maybe it's even God.
A postscript: Ultimately mercy killing is a theological issue more than a sociological one. And it’s an issue this review fails to adequately address. Instead, it can merely hint at one aspect that’s worth considering, especially when it comes to entertainment: Very often onscreen renderings allow extreme circumstances to dictate our emotional responses.
That creates an obvious straw man diverting attention away from the theological truth that life’s sanctity is not determined by context—even an unthinkable one. And beyond that, we’re simply fallible creatures who don’t have the wherewithal to make God-like decisions of life and death. What happens, one has to ponder, if deliverance comes three seconds after you pull the trigger?