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The Road: Carrying the Fire
"There's not many good guys left, that's all. We have to watch out for the bad guys. We have to just... keep carrying the fire."
(This review might include some spoilers about the plot)
It is dark. A cataclysm occurs. Chaos erupts... civilization collapses... hunger ensues. That is the tragic world presented in John Hillcoat's 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. The world where a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) have to survive in, only with the hope of finding something else down the road.
The film makes the wise decision of not showing nor explaining the catastrophic event that left the world in shambles. Instead, it focuses on the emotional toll that such event has taken on the characters. And to be honest, we've seen the US being destroyed so many times by nukes, asteroids, aliens, and big lizards, that a different focus seemed like a novel approach to me.
The two main characters, which remain unnamed, are a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Smit-McPhee). The film presents both characters constantly on the road, traveling south to flee the upcoming winter. As they wander around, flashbacks give us more insight into their past. We find out that the man's wife (Charlize Theron) gave birth to the boy some time after the cataclysm, but as time went on, she slowly lost hope and the will to live, eventually wandering away to die. But not before prompting her husband to take their son and head south.
Through their journey, father and son have to deal with hunger and cold, but more troubling, the threat of dangerous gangs, which have resorted to cannibalism to survive. Because of this, the father lives in constant fear with an ever-present sense of protection of his son, the only thing he has left in this world. In addition, to help keep his son's spirits alive, he tells him "stories of courage and justice, difficult as they are to remember", and instills in his son a sense of hope and purpose telling him they're the "good guys" and the ones that carry "the fire".
The Road relies less on dialogue and more on visuals, which tell us all we need to know. Be it the striking images of the desolate wasteland that the Earth has turned into, or just the sadness and desperation in the man's eyes, perhaps questioning himself "is it really worth it to survive in this world?". But the love for his son is enough to keep him focused on the task at hand. The man is in constant movement, always on the road, set to reach someplace, any place, in the end. Even when they find a perfect place to stay, an underground shelter full of food, the smallest of sounds ignites his paranoia forcing them to leave after just one day.
The son, on the other hand, doesn't understand why they have to leave and is reluctant to do so. He craves some stability, some contact with someone or something. Born into this dark world, he cherishes the few moments he has for such contact: he seeks what he thinks is a kid that's following him, he welcomes and embraces an old man (Robert Duvall) they find on the road, and he challenges his father to help a thief (Michael K. Williams) that had taken their possessions. He is truly one of the "good guys", whereas his father is somewhere in between.
Another interesting aspect is the symbolism of the "fire", which has typically been a symbol of life and progress. "Carrying the fire" might mean that the man and his son are symbols of progress, a new birth of civilization, the will to keep on going forward despite the horrors around them. This symbolism is also present in the final scene of another Cormac McCarthy adaptation: No Country for Old Men. In it, old and weary Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) remembers a dream where his father rides past him "carryin' fire in a horn". Like with The Road, the fire symbolizes the desire to keep going forward despite the crime around society. Since Sheriff Bell had given up on his job, and hence on life and the world, the father rides past him, as if he was unworthy of "carrying the fire". On The Road, the boy sees himself as the bearer of that fire, and as such he tries to make a difference to the few people around them. Be it the old man, the thief, or the family in the end. As for the ending, although some might see it as slightly incongruent in tone with the rest of the film, I think there's a slight ambiguity to it. And if that's the case, then the film is even much more grim and dark than it seems.
Overall, The Road is a bleak and depressing film. The kind that makes you feel a burden on your shoulders. But that's rather a testament to how well it is made, than a jab at it. All the performances are great, particularly Mortensen and Smit-McPhee. Plus, the direction is strikingly beautiful in its darkness. The wide shots of the destruction are both haunting and impressive, without sensationalizing the tragedy (There's no shot of the Statue of Liberty in ruins or the decaying White House here). Two days after seeing it, the film has really stayed with me, and the more I think about it, the more I like it. I had given it an A- at first, but I knew it had potential to burn brighter inside of me. I think it's probably a solid A now.
The Road Official Trailer
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