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Review: THE ROAD

December 8, 2009

When I picked up Cormac McCarthy’s to be Pulitzer Prize winner a few years ago, I didn’t put it down until five days later, when I finished it. This unfinished novel transports the reader into a post-apocalyptic world with no explanation at all. Critics praise the film’s adaptation of these striking apocalyptic elements, and while visually stunning, they merely form the backdrop to The Road. To be fair, the film does preserve the story, an inexplicably profound, gripping, and exhausting survival narrative of father and son.

A Father & Son Story?

Like McCarthy’s other work, the power is in the story, not in the words. The reader gets the feeling that the story does not exist for the occasional philosophical flourish, but rather the philosophical statements exist for the story. People pick up immediately on the father-son dynamic, a social commentary on the importance of family. McCarthy extends this theme when the boy pines for play with other children. He’s desperate for community. Father and son is not enough. But there’s much more happening in this story than a father-son theme. McCarthy offers some help. In a recent article, he is cited as asking producer Hillcoat to do one thing in his adaptation of the book to film—“Keep the references to God in.” The interview with Hillcoat reveals a spiritual impulse in McCarthy, which will come as no surprise to his readers.

The Road is both literal and figurative, a broken path (sometimes dust, sometimes highway, other times, mud) followed by father and son as they move south, to the coast. Along the way, they are threatened by other, less kind survivors, as well as their own starvation. Looping the same basic subplot, the story carries father and son off the beaten path into abandoned houses, looking for food. Food is not always what they find. Yet, they survive. Survival, however, comes at a high cost, especially for Dad.

Keepers of the Fire

We sense the father’s humanity slipping away, as he fights to live and to lives to protect his son. His son protests this decline, inquiring if they are still “the good guys”, if “we will always be the good guys, no matter what?” This morality is tested over and over, just like our morality is tested every single day. Will our morals outpace our instincts or will they bow beneath the weight of survival and suffering? The roaming couple find deeper resources for “the good” by being “keepers of the fire.” This enigmatic phrase has been interpreted as a cryptic reference to the soul or to culture, the human proclivity to create culture out of creation (make music, tell stories, produce food). I wonder if we are meant to see a combination of the two.

Excluding culture from spirituality, and spirituality from culture, is a persistent error in both religion and society. As early as Gnosticism and as late as Fundamentalism, Christians have often failed to embrace the cultural imperative in the foundational chapters of the Bible. Secularists fail to see the utterly divine impulse behind our proclivity to create. Keeping the fire requires a unique integration of faith, morality and culture. Pulling at one strand will inevitably lead to an unraveling of what God has so majestically woven together.

A Deeper Story

The film does a remarkable job preserving the story on screen, despite the various elements that are stranded. One such element is the final three paragraphs of the book, where we see the themes of relationship, faith, and culture come together. As the son sobs for his father, a woman reminds him that: “the breath of God was his breath though it pass from man to man through all of time.” A strong allusion to the creation of Adam by the breath of God (Genesis 2:7). Arising from creation is the divine impulse to relate, to love, to commune with one another.

Without hesitation, this theological anchor is dropped and the cultural ship sets sail. The next line reads: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains…polished and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes.” McCarthy returns us to Eden, the pre-apocalyptic environment of a pristine creation that foreshadows culture, where fish remind us of maps. But the world has changed—immoral, a seemingly permanent injustice: “Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.

The dereliction of the boy’s world, adjacent to the memory of an earlier world, remind us that things are not as they are supposed to be. These closing paragraphs push the story beyond its own pages into a story deeply embedded into the soul, to a world where faith, creation, and relationships are divinely bound in delightful permanence. To a place where we we long for everything to be put back, to be made right again.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. danso permalink
    December 8, 2009 11:21 pm

    I can’t wait to see this movie – if only they would release it here in CT!
    Thanks for the superb review!

  2. December 9, 2009 12:11 am

    Thanks Jonathan. McCarthy’s stories have some profound windows into the grand Narrative that we can learn from. I appreciate you sharing your Gospel-oriented perspective on the book and movie. Great stuff. God bless you, JD

  3. December 9, 2009 2:39 pm

    It’s a good, sobering, riveting movie. Thanks guys. Have a different take?

  4. December 9, 2009 7:28 pm

    I’ve not seen the film yet, but I really found the ending hopeful. Did it end the same? I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’m not going to type it out.

  5. December 9, 2009 11:22 pm

    The ending was the same, minus the last two paragraphs (as mentioned above).

  6. December 21, 2009 10:12 pm

    “an inexplicably profound, gripping, and exhausting survival narrative of father and son.”

    I think this captures the essence of the narrative.

    I was impressed with how closely the directors captured the feel and weight of McCarthy’s narrative.

    Reading his works often have the feel of encounter. The enigmatic nature of many of his conclusions reinforce this by not allowing the reader/viewer to wrap up too neatly the feelings the narrative evokes.

    Thanks for the reflective review.

  7. Nate Vasquez permalink
    December 27, 2009 5:36 pm

    My favorite moment in the movie that I shared with Jonathan earlier (and this is a SPOILER somewhat), was when the father and son were robbed of everything while the child slept and the father went out to search a deserted ship. Once they found the man who robbed them, the father took out his gun and told the robber to not only give them their belongings, but also to strip himself of his clothing. The father says something to the effect of ‘now you’ll know what it feels like’. There was this eerie ‘eye for an eye’ sort of vibe to the scene. Later as the father and son are walking, having left the thief completely naked, the son argues with the father about how they left the man. The son ends up convincing the father that this is not the way they will do things. And they actually leave him with clothes and food.

    It was almost as if you could see this conversation going on between the Father and the Son. Eye for an eye may have been the punishment in the old law, but with Jesus we are challenged to resolve our situations with love. Things have changed, and if they are to carry ‘the fire’, then loving everyone, regardless of their hearts, is the best way to carry it.

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