The Road

Father and son travel the wilderness

USA 2009 – Certificate 15.

Screen adaptation by Joe Penhall: direction by John Hillcoat.

This film is clearly a ‘message movie’. But, for me, the most stimulating moment in the screening was among the preceding adverts. The first was by Act on CO2. It presented a father reading an illustrated moral fable to his young, blonde-haired daughter at bedtime. We saw the animals and natural settings that succumbed to the man-made toxic pestilence. At the end the young girl asked her father, ‘Is there a happy ending?’ It struck me that if she was a few years older she could see the film that I was about to watch. In this post-apocalyptic tale the opening shows a world where there is clearly not a happy ending for the animal kingdom, for nature and for human society.

The following contains some plot information: however, I think the plot’s trajectory is fairly obvious from the opening moments.

The film is an adaptation of a highly praised novel by Cormac McCarthy. I found the book an absorbing and powerful fable, but (like No Country for Old Men) that its minimalist style has definite limitations. The minimalism is drastically reduced in the film medium. We are immediately shown facial expressions and character movement: the actual detail of the devastation: and intriguing detail in the background: all amplify the bare bones of the novel. The filmmakers accentuate this tendency partly through cinematic style, for example the use of the overhead, dramatic wide shots: but mostly by the often obtrusive accompanying music. I cannot remember many musical riffs in my imagination when I read the novel.

The filmic approach also gives added emphasis to other aspects that are found in the novel. This applies especially to the roles of female characters. In The Road Charlize Theron (woman) plays the lead female. The fact that she is a star just makes it more obvious that her character is subordinate and marginal to the men: and she also has a negative function in the narrative. In fact, in both the book and the film, men trudge off into the wilderness (here father and son played by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee), with the women frequently left behind in the world of domesticity. In this case, though, the domestic world has collapsed. Man and the wilderness is a common motif in popular films: the Hollywood Western is mainly constructed round this situation. McCarthy’s books tend to be westerns as well. But equally in the broader US culture the situation has almost mythic status. (Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel offers an excellent analysis of this tendency).

A more problematic treatment, not in the book, concerns African-Americans. I think there are one or more among the extras, including in a gang involved in cannibalism. However, the one black character (Michael Kenneth Williams) presented centrally in a sequence is the thief.  In the book McCarthy describes this character thus, “Scrawny, sullen, bearded, filthy. His old plastic coat held together with tape.” Making him a black character might seem neutral casting, but that is not the case in the sort of capitalist society where racist stereotypes are still powerfully present.

Critics have commented on how the film softens or downplays aspects of the novel – the treatment of cannibalism is a good example. Joe Penhall was asked about changing the written story for the film and suggested that movies were ‘subject to immutable laws’, [Interview on Night Waves, Radio 3, January 7th 2010]. This is over-emphatic, though mainstream films are subject to powerful conventions. These are apparent at the film’s ending. On the seashore setting there is one extra character (uncredited) as loaded in connotations as the wilderness itself. I think you will recognise him/her as soon as you watch the final scene.


  1. nicklacey

    Now I’m intrigued: I didn’t recognise who?!

    I take your points re Charlize Theron’s character. I think the Mother is more fully characterised in the film. In the book she came across as weak and pathetic, in the film her decision to kill herself seems more understandable, possibly because of the childbirth scene: the terror at bringing life into such a terrible world?

    Certainly your point about the casting of Michael Kenneth Williams is valid. However, being a thief seemed to be a valid career choice in the post-Apocalyptic world and it’s the Father who’s shown to have done wrong in this scene.

  2. keith1942

    Response – the mother is probably drawn more strongly in the book, though I think the issue around masculine territory still applies.
    Re the mention of the Father being wrong, I assume that this is a sort of message value about a positive future – the son always takes the side of the ‘good guys’. However, in the case of the thief I don’t think the boy treating him ‘better’ resolves the representation issue.

    And – PLOT SPOILER –
    there is a dog on the beach in the final scene.

  3. harryH

    Your concerns about the stereotyped casting of the black actor are probably overblown, or at least demonstrate a misinterpretation of the character. He was a thief who could have killed the boy easily, and taken his pistol, but didn’t. He desperately needed food and took what he could to survive. I didn’t get the idea he was meant to be evil, just desperate. But I suppose in this “post racial” america, we still can’t come to grips with the idea of black actors playing ‘bad’ guys.

    As a result, our films have no imagination out of fear over political backlash. The villains are pathetically predictable, always being white and male, and often having something to do with an evil corporation or republican politicians. The church is always a safe target too (but only Christains – no Muslims, Buddists and of course no Jews as bad guys). If you want to make the case for global film, let go of the American leftist guilt-baggage.

  4. keith1942

    Re the black character, I think if this was one instance the comment by Harry might be correct. However, it seems to me this is a conventional representation in Hollywood. And there is also the way the film treats the female character, and the addition of the conventional canine ‘friend’ in the last scene.

    The other aspect is the constant refrains about the boy regarding the ‘good guys’. This seems to me one of the central morals of both the book and film. There are several scenes where the son voices disapproval of the father for giving in to what is desperation.

    I think that provides an important yardstick by which we are encouraged to judge the characters and their actions.

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