Monday, February 9, 2009

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Over at Film Experience Blog, via a link on Tractor Facts, I notice that “We Can’t Wait #13” (The Most Anticipated Films of 2009) is The Road, my most anticipated film of 2009. I was all ready to see it last November but then it got held over until this year. Its release might have made 2008 a richer film year, but now I can look forward to it all over again. Why is a film about a father and son surviving in a grim post-apocalyptic world my most anticipated movie? Simply, I love post-apocalyptic books and movies. (I like to see how people survive under extreme circumstances; I guess I’m getting ready for the apocalypse.) Also, I love the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Thus, in anticipation of my most-anticipated film, I offer the following observations about the 2006 book upon which it is based. (In order to avoid all spoilers, I will say little about the plot.)

The Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic America where a man and his son wander across an ash-covered wasteland. Here survival has been reduced to two imperatives: find food and hide from roaming bands of cannibals. The disaster that caused global devastation is never explained – most likely it’s the Deep Impact scenario without the happy ending. The book focuses on the extent of the human will for survival and upon a father’s implacable love for his son and his determination to keep him alive, shielded from the horrors around him, safe from bands of man-eaters – the “bad guys” as the boy innocently calls them. (When I read the novel for the first time, I found myself thinking of War of the Worlds and the extent to which Ray Ferrier goes to save his daughter.) Pushing a shopping cart loaded with tarps, blankets, tools, and canned food, the man guides his son across the dead land. The only protection he carries is a revolver with only two bullets left – which presents him with an agonizing alternative day after day.

McCarthy’s previous novel, No Country for Old Men ends with a dream. The Road begins with a dream. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eyes of a spider. Right away, McCarthy evokes a sense of horrible dread. However, as grim as the worlds depicted by McCarthy in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, they are nowhere near as grim as the world of The Road which fixes itself indelibly in the reader’s memory.

McCarthy’s prose, more straightforward than that of Blood Meridian, consists of vivid fragments and Hemingwayesque litanies of concrete actions and images. They settled under a tree and piled the blankets and coats on the ground and he wrapped the boy in one of the blankets and set to raking up the dead needles in a pile. Periodically, McCarthy still hits the reader with more elusive passages that might cause you to sit back and scratch your head. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

Some might call McCarthy’s prose deliberately pretentious. I call it awesome. But whatever you call it, it effectively and memorably evokes a world of dreadful grimness in which humans have been pushed to incredible physical extremes. It is the kind of introspective prose that Terrence Malick might envy, and I hope the film version of The Road is Malickesque in its use of imagery to enhance theme and meaning.

Hopefully, too, the film will do what the book does best – make you feel the catastrophic darkness, the icy rain, the choking ash, the painful thirst for fresh water, the gnawing hunger, the cloying dampness, the overwhelming fear. Then they set out upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep.

In addition, the book is full of stark images – a field day for a film’s art director. Vividly though tersely etched are the abandoned towns, the decaying houses, the dark landscapes covered with ash. He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste.

In the seemingly hopeless futures depicted in the films Children of Men and I Am Legend, hope is found. Is there hope in The Road? Whatever the outcome, the book evokes the power of the human soul as manifested in a father’s compassion for his son in the face of overwhelmingly perilous circumstances. He held the pistol at his waist and held the boy by the hand.


The Film Doctor said...

Interesting post, Hokahey.

I read the book last year, too, and very much enjoyed it. While you thought of Malick, I was reminded of Hemingway (which is funny, because usually McCarthy's style tends to evoke Faulkner's cadences). I liked the way the novel chiefly focused on the man silently working to stay alive. You often don't know what he's thinking, so not knowing what he will do next creates suspense. I also liked the way McCarthy kept ambiguous the cause of the destruction of civilization.

I still wonder if the film will be any good, however. It seems like a relatively easy thing to mess up. In comparison to the mise en scene subtleties of Children of Men, The Road could end up looking grungy and silly.

Richard Bellamy said...

From the two images of the film I've seen, it LOOKS good. (Now I won't look at any more stills; I want to be surprised.)

You're right to suggest that will take a masterful filmmaker to capture the scope of the unnamed disaster in contrast with the tight focus on the man's simple survival actions -that are wonderfully depicted in such a short book.