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A Beautiful Vision of the Apocalypse

Further on Down the Road

by KIM NICOLINI

I finally caught John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. This is a movie that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. McCarthy and Hillcoat seem to be the perfect marriage with their mutually bleak and apocalyptic vision of the West. Hillcoat’s The Proposition is by far one of my favorite Westerns of all time, and I read McCarthy’s book The Road twice. I was stunned by the barren, desperate, hardcore, ruthlessly survivalist tone of both these narratives. It seemed to me that Hillcoat was the perfect choice to adapt McCarthy’s poetic and savage view of survival in a post-apocalyptic landscape. 

There is no doubting that the film The Road is a visually stunning masterpiece. As the movie follows the father and son on their journey south in the post-apocalyptic landscape, everything they encounter is a study in bleak savagery and carnage. Scene after scene is a portrait of sublime apocalyptic devastation. The landscape is choking with dead trees, ash, gutted cars, and destroyed buildings. The sky suffocates everything with its oppressive gray apocalyptic breath. Trees crash to the ground in horrific sonic booms as if the earth itself is vomiting its bowels. Entire horizons burst into hellish flames. Snow is soaked in blood. Human bodies are piled in basements like so much meat. From beginning to the end, The Road closes in on us with its horrific desperation as we see the entire world as we know it gutted and left to chew on itself in the ashes. Never has such a relentlessly bleak vision played at the American cineplex.

And American consumerism is stitched into this picture. The film is not without its subtle political commentary. We see the tattered remains of American flags hanging by threads on the skeletons of gutted houses and supermarkets, futile threads of American patriotism blowing in the ash-choking breeze.  The father and son walk through piles of muddy American cash, crumpled bills now useless. Signs for ATMs hang like ridiculous jokes that forgot their punch line. Money means nothing after the apocalypse. Hillcoat makes that subtly clear. But on the other hand, it is the remaining consumable goods of that material culture that have the ability to keep the boy and his father alive – a can of Coke, a bag of Cheetohs, a bottle of Jack Daniels.

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film occurs on a freeway overpass where the boy and his father sleep in the cab of an overturned truck. The father wakes up, walks outside, and tosses his wallet with the photo of his dead wife over the edge of the overpass. He then places his wedding ring on the concrete edge and the camera pulls back and shows the man’s tiny head barely visible amongst towering concrete monoliths of the freeway interchange. Here we see the man inside the vast gutted network of consumer exchange – the truck that delivers consumer goods, the freeway interchange that facilitates geographic distribution of capital, and the man’s wallet floating down through the post apocalyptic landscape. This one small scene encompasses so much of the subtle heart of the film.

Not so subtle are the cannibals who terrorize the landscape. They all look like they’re straight out of Deliverance, and they have one solitary goal – preying on and eating other humans for their own survival. One particularly menacing  guy wears a Confederate cap representing the racist and violent core of the United States. By placing these cannibals in the charred landscape of crumbled capitalism, the film emphasizes more than the book is how the cannibalism in the post-apocalyptic landscape mimics the inherent cannibalism of capitalism in general. There are those who live off of the lives of others by consuming them like so much meat, and then there are those who choose not to buy into that system. There are, in the words of the movie, the Bad Guys (the ones who eat other people) and the Good Guys (the ones who don’t eat other people), a simple equation that translates neatly to neoliberal capitalism. Cannibalism is what brought on the apocalypse, and cannibalism prevails after the apocalypse. It’s a people-eat-people world out there, and as we watch the father and son fight their way through this landscape with their shopping cart, their torn up shoes, the dirty, starved and ravaged bodies, we can’t help but wonder why the hell anyone would bring a child into this hardcore cannibalistic landscape.

While the book is a terribly difficult document to read, especially for anyone who has a child who has to grow up in this world, the style of McCarthy’s writing provides an insulated layer of protection due to the abstract poetics of its construction. Putting the book to film does succeed in making the audience horribly aware of the boy’s vulnerability. There is a big difference between reading something on the page and seeing it played out on the screen with living breathing actors. Watching the boy push the shopping cart of canned food and scavenged supplies across the scorched landscape, we realize that this is the life this child has. No schools, museums, movies, music, or parks.  What he does have, as witnessed in the film, is beyond fathomable. He steps into a barn and finds a whole family that has hung themselves hanging from the rafters. The boys touches a foot and watches it gently swing. “What happened?” he asks. “You know what happened. You’ve seen this before,” his father answers. In another scene, his father gives him a lesson on how to shoot his brains out with a handgun. The boy watches intently as if he is being taught how to ride a bike.  In another scene, the boy and his father descend the stairs of a basement and find living humans stacked up like cattle ready for slaughter. For this boy, dead people, suicide, charred remains, cannibalistic horrors are everyday facts of his life. It is almost unbearable watching this child forced to live in this hellish landscape.

One of the reasons that we feel so strongly for the child is because Viggo Mortensen plays the hell out of the role of the father. He carries so much weight in his performance. Through his facial expressions, body language, and line delivery, Mortensesn embodies the role with all his force and makes us feel the horrible burden he carries being a father of a young child in this horrific landscape. He perfectly delivers the tension between wanting to protect, love and nurture his child but also understanding the necessity of making his child strong and giving him the necessary tools for survival, even when it includes instructing the child on how to facilitate his own death. It is seeing the boy through Viggo Mortensen’s haunted eyes that makes our experience of the boy so heartbreakingly harrowing.

While visually the movie adheres to the aesthetics of the book, there is something amiss in the way the characters and story are delivered. The book is written in circular poetic language that turns in on itself, circulates, fractures the narrative, and allows emotional distancing through style. The communications between the father and son are broken into a series of repetitive phrases mostly punctuated with the word “okay.” The movie, on the other hand, does not carry through the poetics of the book. The film is underscored with a soundtrack that provides “emotional filler” and infuses the film with an overly obvious human sentiment. The music “feels” for us. Whereas in the book, much of the emotional tension comes from fractured absence, the movie forces emotion onto us by giving us the music to go with it and by forfeiting the abstract poetic tenor of the book. Likewise, the film relies much too heavily on flashbacks to the mother. She only makes a few brief appearances in the book, but the film inserts numerous flashbacks that force a kind of utopian view of the past onto the audience so we can more intensely feel the apocalyptic horrors of the present.  Sure, infusing the film with these artificial emotional devices (music and flashbacks) causes the mass audience to have a greater emotional response to the film, but these devices also undermine the story’s abstract beauty. Oddly, I cried when I read the end of the book, but I felt no emotion at the end of the film. I was much more affected by the emptiness of the book than the forced emotional ploys of the film.

This is not to say that the movie is some kind of sentimental view of the post-apocalyptic landscape. It is far from that. Hillcoat’s oppressively bleak style never once allows for any kind of rainbow of sentiment to pollute this hardcore landscape, but it does seem that Hillcoat was struggling with adhering to a minimalist apocalyptic story while also trying to make the movie more “appealing” to the mass audience. The movie is both sentimentalized and not sentimentalized, and this creates an odd tension in the movie that doesn’t pan out very successfully.

While the movie is visually stunning and each scene is mind-blowingly beautiful in portraying the apocalyptically sublime, it does seem that at times Hillcoat forfeited substance for style. The book is an extremely minimalist document. It follows the boy and his father on their repetitive and monotonous journey south. It is broken up by a few key incidents that bring life, tension and color to an otherwise suffocating narrative of bleak monotony. There are only a handful of scenes that break up the narrative. Hillcoat included most of the key scenes from the book, but he left out a couple. He didn’t include one scene where the boy and his father spot a pregnant girl on a truck and then later come across a group of people roasting a baby on a fire. He most likely excised this scene because it is just too hardcore for the audience to swallow.

The one major flaw that I think left me feeling ambivalent about the film is how quickly Hillcoat wraps up the final scenes on the beach. The beach scenes are very drawn out in the book. The father swims out to a wrecked boat and goes through all the items on the boat, determining what is useful and what isn’t. Each item is described in detail, and seeing these objects – an eyeglass, a map, a flare gun, a ship’s log – is a window into the past that also exists in the present and is powerful material. None of that is included in the movie. We see Viggo Mortensen’s naked body walk out in the sea, but then he suddenly returns with a flare gun. None of the boat material is included in the film. Likewise, there is a critical scene where the boy leaves the gun on the beach that creates a great deal of tension.  In both the book and the movie, so much resides on that single bullet. The gun is the boy and his father’s escape hatch and is critical to the narrative. Hillcoat cut that scene and in doing such really flattened the end of the movie.  Hillcoat also cut the scene where the father and son shoot the flare gun like fireworks over the ocean, a scene which is simultaneously beautiful but also incredibly tense because the flare gun could attract “Bad Guys.” I think the film would have been stronger if it edited out some of the earlier material and added some of the material at the beach. We need that kind of “object focus” (the eyeglass, a bottle of aspirin, the flare gun) to make the rest of the apocalyptic journey adhere. Hillcoat provides that kind of object focus in other scenes, so I can’t help but feel that he rushed the ending.

Because the ending felt rushed, I left the movie feeling less favorable about it than I should have. As I wrote about it here, I realized that this really is a tremendous film, despite its flaws. It is radical in visual style and in its subtle politics as portrayed in the movie’s unapologetically bleak view of the human landscape. I think maybe one of the reasons I kept my distance from accepting the film is because, as a mother, I found it so impossible to watch, to imagine my child living in that world. I already feel too acutely aware of my daughter’s vulnerability in the hardcore cannibalistic world out there. I am already far too aware of my mortality and my inability to protect her forever. Seeing that world so viscerally documented in Hillcoat and McCarthy’s hellish vision is hard to stomach. But it is an incredibly beautiful vision, just like Dante’s vision of hell is beautiful. 

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. Her work has appeared in Punk Planet, Berkeley Poetry Review, Bad Subjects, and Bullhorn. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com