John Hillcoat’s The Road is a faithful cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic world. It is almost unrelentingly grim because it is unsparing about the bitter truths of a world in which food and morality are both in short supply: existence is a mere step up from the eventual slow death that awaits most; its contours are brutal and painful at the best of times.
Cinematic and literary post-apocalyptic visions have been the rage for a while; indeed, one might even see them as a testing and training ground of sorts for a very particular breed of auteur. Perhaps one’s imaginative vision and conception of the world we live in can best be captured by trying to imagine its end, its destruction, its breakdown in the face of disaster. Our normal weekday world and its human relationships are covered and disguised by layers of artifice; perhaps its ‘true nature’ will be discovered only when all excuses for pretense are absent; that stage is most likely in a post-apocalypse world. (There are interesting fictions at play here about ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ of course, but they’ll do for the time being.)
The Road captures several aspects of the post-apocalyptic world far better than that contemporary icon of popular culture, The Walking Dead. It is more skeptical about the chances of obtaining food and more cognizant of the possibilities of malnutrition and starvation; the danger from other survivors is greater (the Governor looks like a pretty friendly gentleman compared to the cannibalistic marauding predators in The Road); the question of why continued existence is meaningful is more present (and as the suicides show, it is often answered in the negative). To be entirely fair to The Walking Dead, it is set much earlier in the aftermath of the ‘end of the world as we know it’; its treatment might have been darker too, were it as late in the post-apocalypse period as The Road is.
The Road is grimmer than The Walking Dead in its palette too, which is gray, somber, and cold, one only intermittently illuminated by a sun that struggles fitfully to break through the all-enveloping haze; trees are broken, burnt and devastated as are cars, homes, bodies and minds. Its world is deathly quiet; the interruptions to this silence are almost always unwelcome because they speak not of company and solace, but of greater danger. There is detritus strewn around; the humans are just as twisted and disfigured as their surroundings. Once the world is done doing its worst to people, the humans will continue to do its dirty work.
It would seem bizarre to suggest that a movie like The Road could have a ‘happy ending’ in the conventional sense of the word. Yet so cruel has the movie’s vision been till its closing stages that its final resolution is perhaps its most hopeful moment, one that offers some relief, a minor respite, after we have been allowed to imagine a loneliness that might be more painful than any death. Small mercies indeed.