Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, translated into film, opened in scattered theaters this week. In the Bay Area only two houses were projecting it. After a brief, sweet opening scene of a loving couple, The Road sweeps on with some of the most thrilling scenes of the aftermath of destruction ever filmed: roaring forest fires, ash laden skies, mountain sides of dead trees, not a bird, beast or insect — until the closing minutes– alive. If, as Paul Goodman once claimed, anti-war films are pornography for pacifists, The Road is surely that for environmentalists — a place to go to enjoy all that they fear.


George Monbiot, the well known environmental dystopian, believes the novel is “the most important environmental book ever written.” (Yep.) I hate to remind George, but anti-war films, much less books, have done precious little to slow the slaughter on seven continents (well, six, since Antarctica is, so far, excluded from the killing fields.) It is also unlikely that The Road will juice the battle to save the planet.

Though neither the film, nor the book, specifies what is, or what brought on, the cataclysm, it looks from the evidence in the movie as though it has nothing to do with human agency. Late in the film the earth heaves, buckles and throws down enormous trees. This, and the smoke filled skies, forests ablaze and freezing weather would indicate a Yellowstone like super volcano, of the mammoth proportions the earth has experienced many times in its existence. The area of the ash cloud, the depth of the ash fall and the toxic gases released could well cause scenes like those of the film (and worse), or of McCarthy’s imagination. Such events however, have nothing to do, with mankind’s dangerous environmental folly and that folly, even in the worst case scenarios — say of Greenland ice sheet melting– is not predicted to cause scenes like the film presents us with. If McCarthy’s concern and the film-maker’s intent was to warn us about human caused environmental collapse, it needs to be re-imagined to something not as totalized but in its own way, locally and viciously picking winners as losers, as wrenching and fearful.

Leaving aside claims of who caused it, what really interests McCarthy is how we respond to it — and in his view, not too well at all. A mother commits suicide rather than living to try to protect her son; roving bands of marauders, starving, are on the look out for flesh, any flesh but young is better; the last two bullets in the doting father’s gun are saved for murder-suicide.

The cannibalism looms large in the telling — and not only that it is happening, but that it happens in the most cruel and bloody ways; that it is not mere necessity that drives it but that the moral order has completely collapsed — somewhat at odds with what is known about cannibalism in human history, where it is (always?) part of a rigid moral order. Eating your enemy, or part of him, is done in highly ritualized ways, not only for nutrition but to prevent his return, or to claim his strength. Not for McCarthy, Penhall (script) and Hillcoat (director.) The scenes seem lifted from teen-popular horror movies.

The Road is worth seeing, with a few dodges behind the hands, for the incredible death-of-nature, death-of-cities scenes and for the very good make-up work. Robert Duval, though still Duval, is a wonder of aging, starving, cataract blindness. Prosthetic teeth give great verisimilitude. The filth and squalor of the road are entirely believable. You will appreciate your shower and warm reading lights when you go home.

The images of starvation are less successful. Many of the faces are gaunt and drawn, but not more so, for example, than in many spaghetti-like westerns. One scene, as Vigo Mortenson strips off his clothes to swim, improbably, through rough seas to a listing freighter, shows his ribs as starving distended, but on the whole the bodies do not match the entire lack of eating we are shown. The two main characters are able to walk with some spring in their steps, months after the cataclysm. People still have their teeth. We, of the 20th century, know what starving and emaciated bodies look like; the film has none of them.

The emotions of love and bonding between father and son, also, don’t entirely work for me. There is something odd about many of the scenes between them, often revealed in the script or their expression of it. It’s as though the director has said, “can you punch it up a bit there?” There is, to my ear, an unnatural rhythm or word-stress in expressions of care and tenderness, perhaps a lack of the urgency and despair that under-gird all the rest of the movie. And, I kept thinking, as the tenderness continued, when was the father going to help the son into the toughness that he needed? When would the lessons begin? This is how you sharpen a stick, son. This is how you defend yourself. These are the places on the body that will disable a man when hit. This is how you kill a gopher should you ever see one, and practice! Practice! Practice! I wondered more than once, how a Native American father, in the wilderness of his world, would be showing his son the means of survival they had at hand. Childhood is a relatively late invention. For millennia ten olds have been considered merely not quite full grown adults, and capable of about the same percentage of work, alertness, toughness as that growth. The ratio of heart to body size in young adolescents is the highest of the entire life-span, and as such they can exceed adult effort in many things. It would seem the necessity of the road would make all this apparent quite fast. Tenderness, yes but strength and cunning as well.

I suppose the book portrays the devastation as unrelentingly total as does the movie, but I found the complete and utter lack of any plant, animal, shell-fish (when they reached the ocean) to be distracting. Even after the great Chicxulub asteroid and the wipe-out of the dinosaurs, much survived. In fact, the dinosaurs-becoming-birds found new opportunities and became a major part of the world we inhabit. They, and the whole storm of mamals all found food, even in years of suppressed sun and wild weather. So, my willing suspension of disbelief, the pact a reader or viewer makes with the author to let the improbable or fantastical become part of the story, kept being interrupted by the thought: how is this possible? There has got to be food of some kind. There have got to be worms, bugs, water plants…. In fact, at one point father and son walked right by upright and waving golden sheaves of grain.

Further, in not one house they entered, with one notable exception, was there any food: no cans, no bags, no bottles, no rotting potatoes. Nor were there any empties, as if the food had all been eaten and the detritus left. It was as if something beyond an explainable disaster had taken place, something in the realm of myth or magic — the authorial voice decreeing, “and then there was nothing.” But watching the very real struggle to survive one engages with the characters: this is what I would do; this is where I would look. And I want to know: What of the bark on the trees? The grass? The shoe leather — all comestibles in histories of actual starvation and struggle.

A movie to find at Netflix to see what an enormously effective apocalypse-bringing-cannibalism film can do is Fires on the Plain, by Kon Ichikawa. In this case the cataclysm is the collapse of the Japanese war machine at the end of WW II and the frantic efforts of remnants of the Japanese army on Leyte Island in the Philippines, to get to the last foothold and onto ships going home, before being captured or killed by the Americans.

The action centers around one soldier, separated — through deliberate and cruel exile– from his unit who makes his way through the jungle and sere, rocky landscape, starving, cold, shoeless, covered with mud, fearing his own former comrades as much as the Americans. The fact of cannibalism being practiced by others, and his own temptations towards it, and final refusal, slowly grows on us through out the film — and as such, in my opinion, has far more power and effect than the bloody, horror-genre presentation of cannibalism in The Road. Fires on the Plain doesn’t lack for images of horror — piles of bodies, broken shoes pulled from the dead, driving rain, hands chopped off and discarded from the more meaty bodies. But the sensibility throughout is one of defeat and introspection. Ichikawa takes the time to say, and let us absorb — look! This is what we do to each other! These are the results of our own choices and actions.

Further, the human response to the disaster rings truer, in my experience, than that in The Road. People in extremis DO gather together, warily and with fingers on the trigger perhaps but the knowledge is certain: without others I surely will not survive. The pull towards others, though strenuously denied in the myths of go-it-alone America, is as strong as the pull of gravity. The Japanese soldiers know this. The son in The Road knows it as well. Had his father organized those he met on the road instead of driving them away, the hope that appears at film end would have been growing in better prepared ground.

In the book, The Road, perhaps the prophetic warning, or despair at the human will-to-evil holds it own alongside the raw, terrifying physicality of the world McCarthy is so good at depicting. Penhall and Hillcoat, have caught the physical sense of rock-bottom survival and compel us to look, but the prophetic voice, the mysterious sense of watching a future unfold and being able to contemplate it, has gone missing it seems to me. As American film makers they can’t entirely shed the urge to see a good adventure film sharing the stage with the story of bare survival. And to underline the obvious as the film ends and the orphaned boy finds a new family he judges to be among “the good guys,” who don’t eat people, we are treated to the entirely unbelievable promise by the found-mother that “everything is going to be all right.”

We don’t believe it and she shouldn’t have said it. A simple taking of hands would have been all the promise needed. New children looking each other over, walking away from the cameras along the life-source sea and we all get, in Dylan Thomas’ memorable phrase, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” will prevail, eventually…

My Little Man is sitting up and watching intently but not applauding, at least until the credits roll.

Will Kirkland
Dec 2 2003

Reviews: Janet Maslin; Metacritic compilation [the book;] [the movie;]