Two or three weeks into a study of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in graduate school, I slowly began to appreciate that the pilgrimage itself held the key to the narrative. As these wonderful characters travel from the Tabard Inn to Canterbury cathedral, each telling a story to pass the time, they reveal more of the human condition, and thus more about each of us as we travel from our earthly dwelling place to heaven. It’s a great trip, with fascinating companions, a few hearty laughs—many at our own expense—and, of course, the occasional moment of tragedy to remind us of the seriousness of our journey.
This background served quite well when some years later I taught a class on “La Strada,” Federico Fellini’s masterpiece of 1954. As was the case with Chaucer’s great work, it was easy to get lost in the characters, the waiflike Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and her brutish antagonist, the circus strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn), and forget that the title of the film was “The Road,” a clear indication of the importance of that image. The two misfits ride a battered motorbike and trailer along the back roads of postwar Italy in search of meaning, love and, ultimately, redemption. The road of life has much to teach them. Gelsomina learns quickly; Zampanò resists until the very end.
The Road, a new American film based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, rarely allows its characters to learn much about anything. As a journey film, it is oddly static. The two main characters, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), maintain their stoic demeanor while all sorts of terrible things go on around them. The old “indomitable human spirit” theme pushes the boundaries of cliché unless it has substantial characters and a credible conflict, which this film does not. It reduces the journey of life to two hours of unrelieved misery, without the ribaldry of the Wife of Bath or the endearing innocence of Gelsomina.
The action begins some years after an unexplained catastrophe has destroyed all living things on earth, except for a few ingenious human survivors. The absence of any vegetation and animal life creates an extreme famine for those who live on. Perpetual winter has descended over the rubble where once cities and villages stood. Sky and soil alike are the color of stale rice pudding. The Man and the Boy push a luggage cart through the snow in an effort to preserve a few relics of their past life and some necessities of the present. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that the Boy was born on the night of the great event, perhaps 10 years earlier, and also why the Wife (Charlize Theron) has not joined them on their journey. They push their way through this landscape of death southward toward the sea, where they may be able to find food or something else that is not altogether clear. On their way, they gather what supplies they can from a past civilization: a few grains of wheat in an abandoned barn or a dusty can of Coca-Cola.
Competition for provisions drives the survivors to desperation. Pockets of armed scavengers have been driven to cannibalism, and the Man and the Boy find themselves hunted like game animals. They elude a band of hunters who surround them like a pack of horror-film zombies, and when they find refuge in a well-preserved mansion, they discover the implements of a slaughterhouse and an underground holding pen for captured food sources. Despera-tion has drained the last drops of humanity from the survivors. Their condition gives new meaning to the “dog-eat-dog” concept. The Boy seeks assurances from his father that they are “the good guys” and would never eat other human beings. He takes comfort in the belief that he and his father are “keepers of the flame,” an interior spirit of humanity, but that flame flickers dangerously low. Their most valuable possession is a revolver with two bullets. They rehearse their plans for suicide in case, at some time, it may be the only alternative to being captured by other travelers.
The vestiges of humanity remain, but barely. Near the end of their journey the two meet a 90-year-old pilgrim (Robert Duvall), and after a brief debate, the Boy persuades his father to give the old man a single can of beans from their dwindling supply of food. It is a futile act, since after their shared meal, the Old Man wanders off alone to die in the cold. In another scene a starving man tries to steal their food, but the Man overtakes him and, at gunpoint, forces him to strip naked to await death from starvation and the cold. The Boy protests his father’s action but can do nothing to stop him. He’s no longer certain that they can continue as “the good guys.”
Realizing that such a grim tale may get Oscar nominations but certainly will not attract much box-office during the holiday season, the creators chose to end the story with an unconvincing and meaningless coda.
Meaning rarely comes easily in apocalyptic fiction. This allegorical tale invites several interpretations, none of them persuasive. Is this a cautionary tale, warning us of the inevitable result of ecological irresponsibility or nuclear war, or does it point out the fragility of human life in a brutal universe that cares little for our paltry concerns? Does our finite planet succumb to the impact of a random asteroid, or does it finally begin to crumble of its own internal fatigue? Although the action seems to be set sometime in the unidentifiable future, the images and artifacts emerge from the present time. Perhaps we should ponder the possibility that we already live in an apocalyptic age on a planet that has entered its twilight, with humanity so compromised that our heroic struggle for survival has become pointless. Are such pathetic cannibals and scavengers worth the trouble? One scene takes place in an abandoned church with a cruciform light streaming through an empty window frame. Are we to conclude that God still offers some hope, or does the empty, ruined church suggest that even if there were a God, he too has abandoned this once-glorious pinnacle of creation?
The leaden skies, grimy snow and filthy puddles of stagnant water provide the perfect visual context for this grim message. The production design by Chris Kennedy, as captured by the cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe, states the theme as eloquently as the spare script of Joe Penhall and the equally spare performance of Viggo Mortensen, who creates an embo-diment of weariness in the Man.
I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy’s novel, but if the film adaptation accurately reflects the original, I think I’d prefer “The Miller’s Tale” from Chaucer for my winter reading.