A Short Thought on a Long Road
In a rare personal insistence on sitting down and watching a movie, last night, my wife and I viewed The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. Based on some quick skimming of reviews around the Internet art of the allure of the movie appears to owed at least some debt to the mounting environmentalist scaremongering of the last few decades, but to focus on the apocalypse part of the post-apocalyptic tale clearly misses the point.
For those who don’t know anything about the story, some very vague cataclysm wipes out most life on Earth and alters the weather. At least in the movie, the end-of-the-world plot is pretty studiously apolitical. It could be associated with environmental issues, or it could be more of a global war scenario. It doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the reaction of humanity to the aftermath, and that’s what makes the film so bleak. Starvation is pervasive, to the point that whole-family suicides are not uncommon. Survivors spend their time scavenging for any scraps of food, even if they have to scrape it from the tables of long-looted diners. Some people form gangs — mainly, it seems, to hunt everybody else as a cannibalistic food source.
Within the basic premise, McCarthy could have told any number of tales, and which one he picked strikes me as more than a little determinant of the message. A more familiar plot, for example, might have involved wars between the gangs, probably with an evil, man-eating gang, and a “good guy” gang striving to pull people together to increase their chances of surviving and perhaps even rebuilding (probably with the necessity of finding a more suitable landscape than suburban America).
That obvious alternative points to a plot imperative that continues to bother me as unrealistic: Of all of the other people with whom the father and son protagonists come into contact, all of those that aren’t immediately apparent as a dangerous threat are either traveling alone or in very small families. One can presume that such a reality was a requirement of McCarthy’s thematic intention: The father and son dynamic wouldn’t have taken on a wholly different tone if the pair were to come across a gregarious (as opposed to violent) tribe. Either other characters would have intruded on the relationship, or the father would have been painted with clear paranoia were he to avoid helpful groups.
The plausibility of the story therefore collapses, in my view. However much a reader should be willing to suspend disbelief to get the plot rolling, human nature is supposed to remain intact; indeed, the unfamiliar setting is supposed to highlight core truths about humanity. And I just don’t find it plausible that the father and son would regularly come across hostile groups of cannibals, but not a single group that had overcome distrust of strangers in the cause of making the most of the horrendous circumstances.
After all, that tendency was a large part of what has brought human society to its current state of mastery of its environment. Unless, of course, McCarthy’s theme — and the main cataclysm that he intended to describe — was not life after the destruction of the world, but life after the destruction of humanity’s striving for the higher good.