The Road through Hell

Old Blue i (From the Archive)

A review of the movie of Cormac McCarthy’s chastening description of a father’s and son’s pilgrimage in search of the remains of human life in a post-apocalyptic world

(First published, February 5th 2010, The Irish Times)

On Tuesday I went to see  The Road — with some trepidation, having been repeatedly told it was ‘not as good as the book’. It was, they said, ‘depressing’, the voiceover all wrong, the ending unhinged from the author’s intention. Several people said they had walked out within minutes. The movie is bombing, they said, and rightly so. 

The eponymous Cormac McCarthy book has been declared Novel of the Noughties. Although I haven’t read every other contender, it strikes me as a plausible conclusion. The Road reveals why it is still worthwhile to write stories about things that might have happened but didn’t — yet.  McCarthy maintains an unflinching gaze into the unthinkable: a world all but ended, where human civilisation is in rewind and love must meet its final, terrifying test. 

But if the book is better than other books by a margin of x, then the movie is better than other movies by a margin of x-squared. One reason movies based on books rarely satisfy is that they impose a single, definitive key, making the story seem out of tune to almost everyone who has ‘heard’ it in his own interior voice. Perhaps I am lucky, but John Hillcoat replicated the voice from my head. The mood of the movie is exactly as I imagined it. The acting achieves perfect pitch. The Road is so great it will not surprise me if it does, indeed, ‘bomb’, receives no awards and is forgotten for a decade before being hailed, if history has not vindicated McCarthy’s ‘prophecy’, as one of the greatest movies of all time.

But this is not a cautionary, finger-wagging movie, any more than the book was intended to become the Bible of green fanatics who understand nothing. True, it depicts a future now more than a possibility in the most dangerous century since man first stood upright. But this is not its point. 

It is about, yes, the fragility of civilisation and the pathos of man’s conceits. Its stunningly-realised cinematography offers occasional images that allow us to share McCarthy’s relentless gaze: a gigantic flyover, obsolete and incongruous, seen from below; a TV set framed with an irony that brings a shiver to the bones; a comb . . . why?

The book struck me as a version of The Swiss Family Robinson played backwards from wherever it is we think we’re going. There are two ‘fictional’ fathers who have remained with me from books I have read — Johann David Wyss’s and McCarthy’s. These two men are like bookends in our culture in terms of its sense of the father. Both men show their sons how to manipulate the world in order to survive, but the first does so from a moment of initiation, of hope and expectation, whereas McCarthy’s father does so as he leads his son through the dwindling light of our civilisation, a world without Father, the road through Hell. 

The hunt for the means of survival forms part of a narrative implying not a voyage towards salvation but a clinging to the faintest traces of the life-force. As everything is stripped away — order, law, civility, romance — and the world descends into cannibalism and terror, a question rises up: `what, finally, is there for the human being to hope for?

The use of flashback delivers an almost unbearable pathos, as moments of affection, lust or culture force their way into dreams or resisted memories saturated with the realisation that, in the light of what has emerged, none of it could have been real. Nothing, no human limb, can look the same after this.

But this is, above all, a love story: of the love between a father and son who embark on a journey with the vaguest of destinations (‘the coast’, ‘the south’) driven by nothing but the idea that their existence must mean something. There is not an ounce of sentimentality.The father, in the end, loves nobody but his son.The boy loves everybody because he has not come to sense. Love, where it exists, is all there is, and the love of a father for his child is the purest, most functional thing in the world. 

There is a darkly comic scene in which the father sits warily around a bonfire with his son and an old man the boy has insisted be allowed to share their recent windfall of food. The father, suspicious, hostile, nevertheless for his son’s sake tries to make conversation, though of an appropriately strained and  apocalyptic kind. 

‘Do you ever pray to die?’ he asks the old man. 

The old one neither blinks nor smiles in replying: ‘One shouldn’t ask for luxuries in times like these.’ 

The ending, yes, is slightly different from the book, but only in delivery, not meaning. It’s a less ‘godly’ ending than McCarthy’s, but the visual shock of a particular instant is so powerful as to render it an improvement.[Spoiler alert: This refers to the fact that the family with whom the boy falls in at the end have a pet dog — in a world where, not to put a tooth in it, all the domestic pets and half of their owners have already been eaten. JW 2021] 

The day before I saw it, having foolishly forgotten that the Irish media are interested only in stories of State abuses more than a half-century old, I had again made the mistake of raising the question of our society’s treatment of fathers and children on a radio programme. The inevitable happened: The apparatchiks moved to restore the State’s version. On Tuesday I was contemplating never again uttering a word about the corruption that is family law. Why should I go crazy worrying about other people’s sons?

But I went directly to the cinema from meeting a young man, a brilliant though undiscovered poet, who travelled from Cork to Dublin to tell me his heartbreaking story about losing his children to another country because of the corruption and degradation of the Irish State. I am cautioned by State-sponsored ideological hucksters that such stories must be ‘balanced’ by the ‘other side’, but I looked in his eyes and saw a man who has known pure evil. The following day he sent me a long poem, containing these lines, which might have been the last of The Road:

We came through fields of tall grass

until we reached the seashore —

You walked on water and motioned

for us to follow;You sailed away on song;

You swam out to sea like a dolphin, 

while You took to the wind like a gull.

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