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The Road by John Hillcoat

The Road by John Hillcoat

This is a very atmospheric, visually powerful movie. Too bad it has no story whatsoever. Let me explain.

Of course, “road movies” as a genre quite often don’t have a story in the traditional sense, except that someone goes from one place to another. But if you look real hard you can see that there are huge amounts of story; they’re either following the structure of epic journeys (like Homer’s Odyssey) and medieval quests (like Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival) to restore a balance in the world (Storytelling 101), or the various forms of the Enlightenment-based Bildungsroman to achieve a balance of the mind (like Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre or Twain’s Huckleberry Finn). In modern road movies (among my favorites being Wild at Heart by David Lynch), the story mainly consists of character development.

[Note: Here Be Spoilers.]

And there you have it—or rather not. No character development at all occurs throughout the entire movie, throughout the entire journey. Several times, the father and the boy are at odds with each other over a defensive or retributive action the boy disapproves of, culminating in the boy’s questions whether they’re “still the good guys.” Whereby belonging to the “good guys” encompasses not wantonly killing people and, particularly, not eating people. Yes, this is the movie’s ethical scope in a nutshell. Of course, you don’t need character development for a story; many a terrific story revolves around challenges for the protagonist to stay true to herself or himself instead. But neither is this kind of fiction comfortably seated in the road movie genre, nor would it be applicable to the character of the father who doesn’t start out with the highest ethical standards to begin with. Nor would the “good guys” argument about not eating people suffice to sustain a two-hour movie, or anyone’s interest along the way.

What’s more, the premise feels somewhat contrived to get the action going. The unspecified cataclysmic event that had happened an equally unspecified number of years before torched the sky, killed all the animals, killed all plant life, and left the soil conveniently infertile to get the cannibalism thing going because, this is funny, way more humans nevertheless survived than would be able to fed themselves by scavenging alone.

Then there’s the psychological setting. As it turns out, the mother’s decision to commit suicide seems to be, in hindsight, the only sensible decision made throughout the movie (and the only character I could actually identify with), since this brew of concocted premises renders every other course of action effectively incomprehensible. But even if we let that go and say, okay, the psychological setting is weak, there’s still the sociological setting which—oh, wait—is utter bunk with a vengeance. Here, The Road finally fails big time: all the bad guys team up to launch their grisly human farming operations and terrorize the survivors, with a hearty appetite especially for tasty children, while all the “good guys” are “lone wolves” who even fight and kill each other. The latter is not what humans do. On the contrary: our survival as a species, early on, very much depended on our evolved capacity to team up: not only to survive in a hostile environment, but also and especially to counter and prevent this kind of predatory intra-species behavior.

Add to that a cheesy ending with a dog. But the movie had nice pictures and a very doomish, post-nuclear atmosphere that made watching it worthwhile (if you like these kinds of things.)

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The Road, USA 2009.


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