After postponing the decision several times unsure whether I wanted to spend my leisure time watching a film that was universally being described as a harrowing depiction of humankind’s return to barbarism after an apocalyptic Armageddon event. The reviews kept pulling me back to the cinema – they all hailed the script, acting and direction. In addition the film was based on a book by author Cormac McCarthy, who had also won the Pulitzer Prize. So eventually I went to see the film. The film was also been widely watched in Australia and the United States. It was directed by John Hillcoat.
As with many of the best films from the mainstream movie industry during the current period, I was left with a deep sense of contradiction and dissatisfaction. There is no doubt the director succeeded in conveying a “realistic” feel of a post-apocalyptic barbarism as well as a post-apocalyptic destruction of the natural world. I put realistic in quotation marks as none of us can really know what such a world would be like. All the more so when the cause of the apocalypse is not known. In the film (I haven’t read the book) the main character narrates, “there was a brilliant flash of light followed by a series of concussions”. Nuclear explosion? But there was no mention of radioactivity. Meteor strike? But there were constant earthquakes. Some other kind of natural disaster? The sky is full of greyness and there are electrical storms. Almost all humans are dead and also animal life.
How did all this happen?
Most reviewers have made the point that the film (and the novel) is making the point that the how it happened is not the point. The point is “to delve into the desperate, harrowing depths people will sink to when robbed of everything”. In fact, however, the film combines features of the aftermath of all the usually discussed apocalypses: explosions, flashes of lights, earthquakes, lightening storms, dead animal and plant life. It is an apocalypse that brings together all possible such scenarios: war, pollution, natural disaster, climate change and so on. As a result the film conveys a sense of inevitability: the earth, including the earth as a human habitat, is heading for a culmination bringing together all possible disasters. The fact that there is no sense of cause to all this in the film also gives a sense that there is no cause: it is just an inevitable example of the ultimate “shit happens” mood that is part of the mood (not the whole mood, thankfully) of contemporary life, especially at the macro level.
The sense of “causelessness” (and therefore hopelessness) is strong, even overwhelming, from the beginning of the film. The disaster just befalls people crushing most under its weight, either as a result of barbarous aggression (cannibalism) or the loss of the will to live. In this sense, the film is this quite mystical.
If the cause of the end of civilization and of nature is not the point, then what is? The whole narrative concentrates on the experiences of two characters, a father (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his young son (played Kodi Smit-Mcphee). Many reviews argue that the film is about the relationship between father and son; the father’s love for the son. This is true, and it is also true that the portrayals by the two actors are absorbing. The point of the portrayal of the relationship is, however, more obscure. The clearest point being made is that in such barbaric and hopeless circumstances the ability to survive and to keep on surviving while retaining humanity requires enormous emotional energy and that the source of that energy comes from the father’s love for the son, his determination therefore to keep his son alive. At a surface level, the portrayal in the film is very convincing, – the actors cannot be flawed – but not when you think a little beyond the surface.
There are a number of questions one can ask? Did the mother not also love the son? Were there others who survived and retained humanity in different circumstances (the Robert Duval character) is just one example. Did not the father himself start to drift in the direction of losing his humanity?
Of course, these criticisms are also somewhat pointless. The world that this film depicts is so devoid of a basis for hope that any individual’s ability of survival without degenerating into inhumanity is likely to be a fluke and a result of fluky coincidences. In this film, as in other recent end-of-the-world films, such as 2012, the fluky coincidences can all be traced back by the miracle, saviour power of the nuclear family: mum, dad, two kids and a dog.
This is perhaps the most worrying aspect of THE ROAD: that in some ways it reflects an appeal to a psychology of surrender to the impending disaster that is more and more common in recent movies. The coming apocalypse (nuclear war, failure to control global warming, runaway environmental pollution, runaway human-created virus, revengeful trees emitting nerve gas, meteor strike, earth crust dislocation etc etc) is inevitable but – don’t worry – some good, archetypical family will survive. It is like we are being trained to accept these, mostly human created disasters, as somehow causeless (almost mystical) and therefore unstoppable and, in any case, not really final. Who cares if civilization ends: if here and there a few stereotypical good nuclear families survive to start over again. In 2012 a broken home unites in the struggle to survive an earth crust dislocation (as 6 billion others die); in THE ROAD mum, dad, two kids and a dog are the miracle that literally appears out of nowhere.
At least, however, it probably does mean that people are aware that a disaster is looming. The question is how can art help hammer out an understanding of how to survive by pre-empting the apocalypse.
Post-script: Apocalypse in the era of the Cold War
Two of the most important post-apocalypse films of the cold war era were ON THE BEACH (1959) and THE TESTAMENT (1983). ON THE BEACH, directed by Stanley Kramer, boasting a host of Hollywood film stars was based on the novel by Australian writer, Nevil Shute. THE TESTAMENT is based on ”The Last Testament,” by Carol Amen.
Both contrast sharply with many of the more recent such films. First, unlike THE ROAD or 2012, nobody survives. Secondly, there is no epic-scale images of destruction, either the CGI grand scale images of convulsion, such as in 2012 or the epic scale images of decay as in THE ROAD. (The thirst for visually epic landscapes, apart from being made possible by new technologies, also probably reflects a boredom with the routineness of the usual city or suburban landscape of contemporary experience.)
ON THE BEACH is set in Melbourne a year or two after a nuclear war. The northern hemisphere has been devastated and the peoples of the southern hemisphere wait for deadly radioactive winds to bring death to them. Meanwhile the remnant Australian government prepares its last ever social service by distributing suicide pills for those who want to avoid dying the slow death of radiation sickness. Among the last scenes are the queues of silent Melbournians lining up to get their pills. The film was a major incident of the period, also screening in Moscow, with Kruschev making a public appearance among the audience.
There was no reprieve for humanity through some stereotypical ‘good people’ surviving. The more pure entertainment value of the film was very limited – it was really just the presence of the Hollywood stars – Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, among others.
THE TESTAMENT also did not feature any new epic landscape destruction images. It is set in an outer suburb of San Francisco in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war. The suburb is far enough away from the city to avoid any destruction from the blast. It is intact. A distant orange flash and a momentary emergency announcement on TV is all they ever experience directly. Like THE ROAD, THE TESTAMENT also focuses on a parent – children relationship. A mother, whose husband has perished in the city, strives to look after her daughter and son. The suburban community organizes to keep things going. Gradually however they start running out of things: petrol for electricity and transportation; medicines, food. Then they start dying of radiation sickness, the weak first, and the accelerating later as the radiation count increases. The mother and son are among the last to die, indeed, they are the last to die. But they die. There is no reprieve.
With a storyline like this, there is no “entertainment” value at all – nothing to distract you from your daily worries, only add to them. No big starts either, but a well-directed and well acted film.
ON THE BEACH and THE TESTAMENT were true warnings, with no consolation prize in the form of the “good people can start over again” ending.