This entry contains spoilers for “The Way”.
Before the whole concept of TV zombies really took off, the movie end of the world looked a lot grayer and more human, courtesy of The Road. For anyone familiar with the work of author Cormac McCarthy, it should come as no surprise that the film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel wasn’t exactly a feel-good movie in 2009. Bolstered by Oprah Winfrey’s 2007 Book Club selection, The Road was already a literary sensation before director John Hillcoat decided to adapt it as the first sequel to his critically acclaimed Australian Western The Proposal.
A year after The Road hit theaters, audiences embraced a similar post-apocalyptic scenario on the small screen with AMC’s The Walking Dead. McCarthy won’t publish another book until late 2022, when a new zombie trailer hit the town – for HBO’s The Last of Us.
While “The Road” is zombie-free, it makes heavy meat-eating references as gangs of cannibals threaten the journey of Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). We’re spared seeing them chopping up human flesh, but within 10 minutes The Man is already teaching The Boy how to commit suicide should the “bad guys” catch up to them while hiking to the coast. Here again, as in The Proposition, we see a unkempt bearded man working with a revolver.
It was not always so with Man. The Road begins with flashbacks to a time before the world became a stark, unsaturated landscape ravaged by earthquakes and fires. Flowers bloom as Man nuzzles his horse and his sunny blonde Woman (Charlize Theron) looks on. At the end, The Boy has a new family and the viewer has to piece together what it all meant.
Good guys, bad guys
A constant theme in “The Road” is the increasingly blurred line between “good” and “bad”. It starts out as a simple way to differentiate a man and a boy from the people who threaten them. After he shoots his first bad guy with one of his last two bullets, the Man tells the Boy, “There aren’t many good people left, that’s all. We must watch out for the bad guys. We just have to keep on carrying the fire.”
The Man further explains that he means “the fire in you”, reassuring the Boy that “they’re still good guys” and “always will be”. It is a promise he is doomed to break, as the rigors of survival have weakened the Man’s sense of morality, leaving him distrustful and selfish to the point of exaggeration, while the Boy remains naturally altruistic.
The man is obviously concerned about his son’s survival, though his willingness to give up hope with his finger on the revolver is almost as itchy as David Drayton’s in The Mist. However, for the Boy, being good means helping others outside of their family of two, and doing no worse harm to those who have hurt them.
The boy basically follows the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” This is what it means to carry fire.
It’s easy to do that when they’re in a house full of cannibals: pure villains with a pantry in the basement. During a fireside conversation later, the Boy argues that while he and the Man are starving, they “would never eat anyone”, no matter how hungry they were. However, the Man is also so overprotective that the Boy has to beg him to share his food with the frail older man.
“Whoever created humanity will not find humanity here”
Ely the Old Man (Robert Duvall) says he thought he was dead and the Boy was an angel when they first met on the road. Sometimes the Boy acts as the Man’s conscience, giving voice to the better angels of his nature. “The old man wasn’t a bad guy,” he says to the Man. “You can’t even tell anymore.”
For Man, morality is as dark as cinematography and the question of what caused the end of the world. This affects his ultimate fate after a deadly encounter where he and two other adults take on villains. Earlier, we see The Man cross a new line by breaking the unspoken good-guy code with the Thief (the late Michael K. Williams) by forcing him to strip naked at gunpoint after the Thief tries to get away with his belongings.
The thief swings a knife at first, but as he drops his defenses, we see him hungry and scared, just like the Man and the Boy. Drooling and pleading “Sir…you don’t have to do this to me”, the Man literally removes his clothes from his back, reclaiming his possessions but also stealing the Thief’s dignity.
“You didn’t mind doing that to us,” the Man replies. “I will leave you as you left us.” However, it left the Thief much worse, naked and shivering in the road. Even when the Boy stands for the Thief’s good, the Man rejects it and dehumanizes him, saying “He’s going to die anyway.” When he’s protecting his son, a stranger’s life is too abstract for him to care about. He has lost his compassion for others, and that will be his undoing.
flare vs. Arrow
At the end of “The Road”, the Man dies when an arrow wound exacerbates his illness. Throughout the film, he was paranoid about people following him and The Boy, and when the archer in the building shoots him in the leg, the Man retaliates by firing his flare gun through the window and killing the archer.
As with the Thief, the Man overreacted again, partly out of self-defense, but partly also because he had lost basic human empathy as an adult. The cares of this world have choked him and made him suspicious (admittedly, with good reason) of anyone who is not family.
It turns out that the archer and his traveling companion thought the Man and the Boy were following him their. In this world of rags and bones – with its oppressive palette devoid of every color but gray – everyone is afraid and everyone attacks, confusing good people with evil and perhaps becoming evil themselves.
Some aspects of “The Road” are a bit too much. There are moments where it plays it’s almost like an unintentional parody of a porn movie about poverty, with the actors floating to tearful string music, each looking dirty and destitute in a movie they’d be walking the red carpet months after . It culminates when a jagged Guy Pearce appears as Veteran at the end, revealing himself, “Female Mother” Molly Parker, and their two sons to be a family of good guys who have followed Man and Boy all along. ahead.
They even have a dog with them. It is implied that this is the same dog that the Man and the Boy heard outside the underground shelter, where they were eating like canned kings earlier in the film.
Fathers And Sons, Bringing Fire
Thinking the villains were closing in, the Man left his shelter, even as the more optimistic Boy said, “You always think something bad is going to happen. But we found this place.” Through a simple misunderstanding, the Man allowed his fears to overwhelm him, forgoing the abundant food supply that might have restored his emaciated physique to health. The bad guys were out to get him and his son, but there were also good guys – other angels – looking after them. The boy had previously seen one of Veteran’s sons in a video running after him in a desire to make contact.
In “The Road”, character actor Garrett Dillahunt appears as the gang member the Man shoots first. Dillahunt auditioned for the role of Josh Brolin in another Cormac McCarthy adaptation, the Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men, where he eventually played a deputy sheriff opposite Tommy Lee Jones.
Suffice it to say that The Road is a film that suffers in comparison to No Country for Old Men. It’s not a masterpiece on the same level as the other one. But if The Road has anything to offer, it’s that, despite how grim and pathetic it all looks, its ending is surprisingly more upbeat than the ending of No Country for Old Men.
In the dialogue, he even evokes the same image of a person carrying fire. This is a film in which a father offers his son Coca-Cola at the end of the world. On a deserted flyover, Lord of the Rings star Viggo Mortensen takes off the Man’s wedding ring and pays homage to his wife’s memory before his son finally buryes him and carries the fire to the next generation.
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