The current issue of Scientific American (Jan 2010) has an article called Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering. The authors, Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon, calculate that the effects of a nuclear war between, for example, India and Pakistan could be enough to blot out the sun, the ultimate source of all our food: we’d shiver and starve as we and most of the rest of life on earth wound down. A major nuclear war between the U. S. and Russia isn’t needed — a smallish one could do the job.
This, or a comparable impact like a large asteroid hit, is the situation in The Road. Starting some time after the apocalyptic disaster, when it’s gotten good and cold, the movie focuses on one family, clinging to their home while reduced to eating insects. But the mother can’t take it anymore. As a last loving act, she devises a way to commit suicide so as not to waste on herself the two last bullets in their gun: her husband will need them. Father and son head south, hoping the blessed sun may have a greater hold there, and that it will be brighter and warmer. (don’t count on it.)
The depiction of the barren, de-energized earth is relentless and the film offers no sentimental comforts. The landscape now resembles the lunar vision of the Surrealist painter Yves Tanguy but this isn’t surreal — it’s real. The same sense of “that’s just how it would play out” carries through to the all-out brutality in the frightful encounters between the scarce human survivors along the road. Food is the issue, cannibalism is the solution, along with opportunistic theft and sexual predation. Survivalism and sadism join hands. And given what humans do to one another on the earth when the sun shines and crops grow, how would it be otherwise in a struggle to survive at the edge of nothing?
This movie should have been better than it is. Viggo Mortensen was outstanding as the protective father in History of Violence, in my view among the finest movies (and that didn’t get its fair due). Good reason for him to be cast here as the father determined to enable his son’s survival. But the screenplay, after Cormac McCarthy’s novel, in spite of the gruesome material, is uninventive. The threats father and son face, grotesque as they are, manage to seem repetitive. Again we may be eaten — better get a move on. Sometimes challenges are unfulfilled: when the father starts to swim out to the boat for supplies, does he reach the boat? The dialogue is flat, except for one poignant line when they reach a southern beach that I’ll leave you to discover. Possibilities for an intriguing plot are missed. The grim salvation at the end could have been a thread drawn from the fabric of earlier incidents: the characters who make this possible are there, but instead the ending is tacked on with no lead-up.
But the movie stays in the mind because of the truth with which it plays out a devastating, and not-impossible, scenario.