The Road – The Movie In A Nutshell
(the movie) follows a man and a boy, father and son, journeying together for many months across a post-apocalyptic landscape, some years after a great, unexplained cataclysm. The story takes place in the former United States, where civilization has been destroyed, along with most life; the precise fate of the rest of the earth is not made clear, though the implication is that the disaster has affected the entire planet. What is left of humanity now consists largely of bands of cannibals and their prey, and refugees who scavenge for canned food or other surviving foodstuffs.
Although not specifically described as such, the cataclysm, which Cormac McCarthy has described as man-made, has many of the hallmarks of a nuclear holocaust: Ash covers the surface of the earth; in the atmosphere, it obscures the sun and moon, and the two travelers breathe through improvised masks to filter it out. Plants and animals are apparently all dead (dead wood for fuel is plentiful), and the rivers and oceans are seemingly empty of life. The only two non-human organisms they encounter are a dog (which follows them for a few days and then vanishes) and some mushrooms.
The unnamed father is literate, well-traveled, and knowledgeable about machinery, woodcraft, and human biology (when confronting and threatening a cannibal, he is able to list several obscure portions of the brain, at which point the cannibal asks him if he is a doctor). He realizes that he and his young son cannot survive another winter in their present location, so the two set out across what was once the Southeastern United States, largely following the highways. They aim to reach warmer southern climates and the sea in particular. Along the way, threats to the duo’s survival create an atmosphere of sustained terror and tension.
The father coughs blood every morning and knows he is dying. He struggles to protect his son from the constant threats of attack, exposure, and starvation, as well as from what he sees as the boy’s dangerous desire to help the other wanderers they meet. They carry a pistol with two bullets, meant for suicide should it become necessary; the father has told the son to kill himself to avoid being captured. (The boy’s mother, pregnant with him at the time of the cataclysm, quickly felt overwhelmed by this nightmare world and has committed suicide some years before the story begins.) The father struggles in times of extreme danger with the fear that he will have to kill his son to prevent him from suffering a more terrible fate – horrific examples of which include chained catamites kept captive by a marauding band and captives found locked in a basement and in the process of being slowly cannibalized, their limbs gradually harvested by their captors.
In the face of all of these obstacles, the man and the boy have only each other (Cormac McCarthy says that they are “each the other’s world entire”). The man maintains the pretense, and the boy holds on to the real faith, that there is a core of ethics left somewhere in humanity, and they repeatedly assure one another that they are among “the good guys,” who are “carrying the fire.”
In the end, having brought the boy south after extreme hardship but without finding the salvation he had hoped for, the father succumbs to his illness and dies, leaving the boy alone on the road. Three days later, however, the grieving boy encounters a man who has been tracking the father and son. This man, who has a wife and two children of his own, invites the boy to join his family. The narrative’s close suggests that the wife is a moral and compassionate woman who treats the boy well, a resolution that vindicates the dead father’s determination to stay alive and keep moving as long as possible.
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