Cormac McCarthy’s novels are the Ecclesiastes of postmodern American literature—finely wrought chunks of sparseness in which the protagonists struggle to survive a violent or deadening landscape, and rarely have time for such luxuries as hope or happiness. The novels also get made into remarkable films.
All the Pretty Horses is about the harsh life of a cowboy, and the loss that comes with defining your identity solely in economic terms. No Country for Old Men tells the story of a man running for his life, terrified after having stolen drug money. The film reminds us of our own tendency toward greed and selfishness, and manages to represent human evil with such force that no one could experience catharsis at the violence on screen. It may be the first film in Hollywood history that includes a psychopath who is stopped by Gandhian nonviolent resistance. McCarthy is writing about reality, with the kind of clear-eyed moral vision that makes him comparable to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. His books are perfect for film adaptation—the language is unflowery, the movement simple. The novels already look like screenplays.
Now we have The Road, McCarthy’s treatment of a post-apocalyptic human future, which follows a man and his son tramping through the bleakest landscape you might imagine on earth. The father (actor Viggo Mortensen) wants to save his son’s life—it’s the only reason to stay alive himself; the few remaining others on the road want to kill them. McCarthy and director John Hillcoat portray this kind of soul-eating venality as the natural outcome of our current values competition and the obsession with private self-interest. They don’t tell us what caused the destruction of plant life on earth, because they don’t need to. We may fear a worst-case scenario in which the continual promotion of narrowly interpreted national economic interest above all results in the self-inflicted end of the human race. The Road takes such a possibility for granted.
The father-son journey is horrifying; what they do to survive is troubling, but how the child, born after the holocaust, sees things is the reason The Road is more than just the best-written vision of a post-collapse world. It offers prophetic hope, too. While the father may have arms strong enough to protect his son from the violence of others, it is the child who carries the fire of innocence, healing, and the potential for a second chance for his dad and for humanity. The book and film offer a warning with a profound theological resonance—we know how we are mistreating each other and the planet—and then presents an opportunity: the child’s uncynical generosity reminds us that we also know what human beings need to do to save the world.
Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster living in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, is author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.