Still, these stolen glimpses of Earth's natural beauty immediately set the appropriate tone; reminding audiences of the paradise we have now...and largely take for granted.
The remainder of this haunting, deeply-affecting film is set on a scorched, post-apocalyptic Earth, a washed-out, gray world in which a beloved piano is but more kindling for the fire. In this time and place, shampoo and toothpaste are not merely luxuries...but archaeological discoveries: relics of a lost world, a lost time.
And yet this is not at all a film about "things" or material possessions.
Instead, The Road very explicitly -- and very emotionally -- concerns the bonds of family, and in particular the relationship between a loving father (Viggo Mortenson) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as the duo attempts to navigate a planetary graveyard; one populated by hungry vultures, in the form of scavenging human cannibals. The boy's mother (Charlize Theron) has taken her own life rather than exist in such a world, and in his quiet moments, the boy fantasizes about joining her. The child doesn't really understand death, and wonders, when his father dies, if he will see him again; or if he can take him with him.
In a word, the movie is heartbreaking.
The father, who is battling a terminal illness, realizes it is his most important task now to toughen up his innocent and imaginative son -- God's hand on Earth, in his words -- so the boy can survive this perpetual winter of Mother Earth and the human soul.
So the father demonstrates for the boy how to commit suicide by firearm (a pistol), should capture by the cannibals become inevitable. He lets the boy look long and hard at rotting corpses, at death itself in hopes that it will somehow become commonplace, and therefore not frightening. Weighted down by his sense of responsibility, the father also sees betrayers and monsters in every encounter with other human beings. He trusts no one.
By contrast, the boy is so loving and pure it will make your soul ache. The child virtually craves something hopeful in his life, something good. In specific terms, the father wants the boy to survive in a frightening, menacing world, and the boy just wants to hold the hand of a lonely old stranger (Robert Duvall), who lost his own son in a tragedy so horrible he can't speak of it. The boy wants to know that he and his dad are still "the good guys."
I'm the father of a young son, myself, and I was unexpectedly but deeply moved by The Road, which -- without ever seeming cheesy or maudlin, or even relying on rampaging cannibals for drama -- raises questions about what it means to be a "good" parent in a grim situation like this. The boy is portrayed brilliantly by McPhee as, well, an absolute innocent...one who carries a stuffed animal elephant in his arms at all times, and who collects little trinkets that catch his youthful fancy: bottle caps, pennies, and the like. The boy's tenderness and vulnerability are absolutely palpable, and so you feel intimately the Father's existential dilemma.
On one hand, you want to preserve that innocence at all costs. And on the other hand, you know that it must be utterly stamped out so that the boy will survive this chaotic terrain when he is left all alone.
The weak link in this family dynamic is the Mother, who selfishly selects suicide because "all the other families are doing it," the most-bizarre form of Keeping up with the Jones you've ever encountered. She walks off into a dark winter night alone, leaving her husband and son behind...and is never seen again. If the Mother had chosen to live -- to fight --p erhaps she could have tempered the Father's harshness, and helped the boy understand his life and those in it, better. But it wasn't to be.
You know all along what's coming in The Road, and you start to dread this emotional, gut-wrenching crescendo, the impending separation. You can feel it coming, and it's literally almost sickening. The father grows progressively weaker, until finally, there's the moment when he must say his final goodbye to his son, to his beloved boy.
By this point the Father has done everything he could for the child, and as he prepares to leave this world, the Dad must simply...let go. He must trust that his son will be okay; that he has learned the lessons he tried to impart to him.
It's terrifying, however, this thought of never seeing your child again; of knowing that there are dangers looming out there that you can never help him bypass.
But again, that's what parenting is all about, and The Road understands this reality all too well.
My wife, Kathryn, often reminds me that Joel doesn't belong to us; that he's his own person, with his own path and his own destination in life. So it's our most critical job as parents simply to set his course, to prepare him well for the challenges he will face. "Healthy and happy," she often whispers in my ear, when I threaten to over-protect or smother him with parental coddling. Because we can't fight all Joel's battles for him; because when we're gone, he needs to fight those battles successfully. He needs to have experienced successes doing so too, so he doesn't feel hopeless, or alone, or less-than-confident in his abilities to navigate life.
That's hard, though, isn't it?
And that's the pain that Mortensen's character carries like an albatross around his neck. Has he done enough? Has he made the right calls? Has he erred by being too hard, or was he too soft? The film's powerful last scene provides an answer of sorts to these questions. The movie comes right up to its last moment before shedding, even partially, a sense of ambiguity about the boy's fate.
The Road also asks some pretty meaningful questions about the kind of world we are leaving to our young sons and daughters. The nature of the apocalypse in the film is deliberately left unspecified. It could be a nuclear winter after a terrible war; or it could be post-asteroid impact for all we know. But still, there's a powerful notion at work here, about the things we hand off to our children. Our morals. Our hopes. Our planet itself. Do we leave it for them better than we found it, or worse than we found it? Is this not the most important question we, as parents, should ask ourselves? Isn't everything else -- the bills, the bedtimes, the Christmas presents -- pretty damn unimportant by comparison?
Just the other day, I was complaining here about about The Wolfman, and how the filmmakers involved in that horror film didn't seem to have faith in their own story, so they embellished a worthwhile narrative with unnecessary action sequences and special effects. Well, The Road is the antidote to such films. It focuses like a laser on its emotional narrative and memorable characters without resorting to unnecessary flourishes, or what I call "bells and whistles." It's one of the most involving, tense and heartbreaking films I've seen in a long while. It casts an unforgettable spell.
There are plenty of end-of-the-world movies out there. Ones that focus on destructive spectacle (like 2012 ), or the survival of the species after "the end" of our way of life (I am Legend ). But The Road is surely the most intimate of such cinematic stories.
It understands that the end of the entire world is -- perhaps paradoxically -- a very...personal thing.