Missing Logic: The Road

Despite hating the book so much that I left it on a train so that it would no longer sully my handbag, I willingly watched the film of The Road. I figured the only way it could replicate the book’s irritation factor would be to be. Shot. Entirely. In. Rapid. Jump. Cuts.

It wasn’t.

That’s way too much punctuation for the start of this feature, considering the book has hardly any, but there we go. The book’s b*llocks, so what’s wrong with the film? 

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THE FILM

John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel sets a suitably sombre tone. I get it, I totally do. Much as that stupid hippy at the antenatal classes tried to con us all into thinking that childbirth is this happy, spiritual experience, the reality is pretty much like that bit in Alien except that they sew you up again and make you work as a butler to the screaming lava right there and then. Once you’re over that visceral horror, the dread kicks in: filled with self-disgust, you feel guilty for bringing this innocent life into the world with your imperfect genes, condemning them to a life of misery in a cruel world. You cannot protect them, so what can you do? Same thing as my mother did for me: teach them how to cope.

Such as it is, that is the plot to The Road, except that it is Charlize Theron in an itty-bitty role as the angst-ridden mum, who takes one look at the world outside and tops herself, leaving Viggo Mortensen and their young son to wander on alone. They’re in a wasteland – either post-nuclear apocalypse or Chorley on a wet Sunday, it’s never explained – where there are no plants or animals left and hardly any people. Those that remain have turned into cannibals and roam the countryside in gangs, terrorising the few good folk and enslaving them before their inevitable grisly demise. Mortensen plays The Man – a character without a name (and in the book, no personality, either) – who treks with his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee from Let Me In) in search of warmer weather. They have to survive cold and starvation, avoid getting nibbled alive by people on bath salts cannibals and try not to succumb to disease, which looks increasingly likely as the film goes on.

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THE FLAW

It’s the same problem I have with almost all films of its ilk, and I’m going to include the Fallout series of video games in this. Fallout: New Vegas gets parole on this one because it does at least approach the situation with as much logic as you’re going to get in a game with big green mutants in it. You can kind of forgive it in Mad Max 3 or Doomsday because they’re so wildly stupid to start with, but The Road takes itself terribly seriously. The trouble with all sulking is that it goes beyond basic common sense. Sure, there was a period 50,000 years ago when the human population was reduced to about 2,000 breeding pairs

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but since then we’ve survived ice ages and floods and volcanic eruptions with millennia of uninterrupted civilisation. And plants survived. You’d be amazed what plants can survive.

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In 1987, a hurricane swept through the UK, felling one million trees. Where the trees had fallen, shoots began to sprout sideways, and the trees just grew in a different shape. Nature – and humanity – is shockingly resilient. As the line in Jurassic Park goes, “life will find a way”.

The film did include footage of an insect, which wasn’t present in the book, and does address the fundamental idiocy of the premise: either nothing has survived, or quite a few things have. You’re just not going to get a situation where all plant and animal life is dead and some humans remain and civilisation has collapsed – because if it’s big enough to wipe out all plant and animal life and destroy civilisation then it has to be big enough to kill all life.

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(Spoiler)

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HOW IT WOULD HAVE ENDED

So the world’s gone bang and there are a handful of survivors, and it’s about 10 years after the event. You know Megaton in Fallout 3? The town built from salvaged scrap metal? That’s what you’d be looking at 10 years on: 200 years on (when Fallout 3 is set), we’d all be living in skyscrapers or the moon or whatever because it’s what we do rather than grubbing around in the dirt. So, 10 years after the disaster, people have banded together in towns and built a huge f***ing wall on the perimeter to keep the undesirables out. Someone would assume leadership and a lot of people would get very religious very quickly: religion is very good at getting people in dire situations to stop panicking, co-operate with each other and obey their leaders rather than squabbling and self-destructing. I’m not talking faith here, which is a personal thing that not everyone subscribes to, but about the ancient ritual of villagers gathering in a hallowed place where no fighting is allowed, in order to affirm their commitment to each other. Whether it’s the church hall, town hall or pub that takes the place of the ancient stone circle, the point is that order would be imposed very quickly in that sort of quiet and socially acceptable way, and that the villagers would gather regularly for updates and instructions from the local elders.

People would mostly eat vegetarian diets from plants grown indoors or imported from huge labs where goods like rice are mass-produced. Meat and dairy products are rare luxuries. Trade routes exist between settlements for food and textiles, but medicines are hard to come by. Each town has a mayor, a sheriff, and a home guard like a heavily-armed Neighbourhood Watch. You’d be too exhausted from rebuilding the nearest city to have the energy to hunt people for food. Sure, there’d be conflicts and eventually (no doubt) a civil war, but you wouldn’t get that total breakdown of any kind of order because – when it comes down to it – our self-preservation instinct revolves around grouping together and obeying a leader, rather than nomming the face off your nearest neighbour.

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THE VERDICT

I only generally feature things here that I can recommend, and The Road is a good enough film on its own terms. It’s tense in places and very well acted and thought-provoking in a what-is-humanity way. Mortensen and Smit-McPhee put in likeable and nuanced performances, and Guy Pearce and Robert Duvall have memorable cameos. It’s beautifully filmed and pretty in its own stark way – so really it’s only let down by the story. As The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday puts it, the film “is one long dirge, a keening lamentation marking the death of hope and the leeching of all that is bright and good from the world … It possesses undeniable sweep and a grim kind of grandeur, but it ultimately plays like a zombie movie with literary pretensions.”

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