The Thing I Like About …

The Road:  the way it’s not about the apocalypse at all.

In The Road, a man (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) leave their home and journey south through a seriously post-apocalyptic wasteland to the coast – Dad feels it’s their only hope for survival.  They have the ordinary conflicts – Dad has to make tough decisions about things like staying in the awesome bomb-shelter full of food or clearing out before they’re discovered by cannibals, or whether or not they trust the old man or forgive the young man who tries to steal from them, or, you know, teaching the Boy how to shoot himself in the head instead of allowing cannibals to catch him … the usual parent-child stuff.

But actually, it is the usual parent-child stuff.

If you watch it from Dad’s point of view, your heart breaks.  You imagine what it’s like to try to feed your child and yourself when there’s absolutely no food anywhere.  You imagine what it’s like to have lost every single thing that ever mattered to you, and to have only this Boy left.  You imagine his heartbreak when he thinks about having to kill his son to protect his son from cannibals; you cry for him when they’re cornered and he holds the gun to his son’s head, trying desperately to do the right thing but finally being unable to pull the trigger … and not knowing if that makes him a good Dad or a bad Dad.  You feel his despair when he answers his son’s question with, “Yes, we’re still the good guys.”  You feel his panic and hopelessness when he realizes he’s getting sick, and when he realizes the coast isn’t blue anymore.

But when you watch it from the Boy’s point of view … well, that’s something else again.  He has never known any world but this one.  The pictures of animals and birds and blue sky and green fields are as wondrous to him as dragons and unicorns; a bomb shelter full of food and candles is a boon akin to being brought back to life after a hundred years.  Every person encountered is a chance to make a friend – like with any other kid – and every conflict with Dad is just the Boy trying to learn the rules of the world and make them better – like any other kid.  When he walks with his father, he talks with him.  When his father finds a Coke and a dried apple and shares it with him, the Boy is transported by these delights.  When they’re cornered, and his father is holding a gun to his head, he understands – he’s spent his whole life learning that this is what they must do instead of being taken by cannibals.  He’s not angry but only sad, and asks his Dad, “Will I see you again?” … like any other person trying to get a handle on this “death” thing.  From the Boy’s point of view, this life is good because his Dad loves him and protects him and talks to him and gives him a dried apple.  From the Boy’s point of view everything is fine.

In our currently non-post-apocalyptic world, we complicate everything so horribly.  We take things so seriously, and get stressed out about the most ridiculous stuff that really doesn’t matter.  The Dad in The Road remembers this world – all the parts of it that he can’t give to his son – and he thinks that he’s let the Boy down.  But the Dad would likely have felt that way anyway, because we do that to ourselves now, even with all that we can provide – we always find some way to feel that we could have done better.

The Dad helps his son deal with the Mom’s death; he feeds the Boy and clothes him and protects him as best he can.  He hugs him and reads to him and teaches him things.  He teaches the Boy how to take care of himself for when the Dad can’t be there anymore.  He makes mistakes and apologizes for them.  He struggles and sacrifices and talks and jokes and smiles.  He gives every single bit of himself to the Boy, and the Boy knows in his very bones how much his Dad loves him.  And the Dad knows in his bones how much the Boy loves him back.

The Onion did a facetious review of The Road, describing it as a father-son bonding road-trip … and they were right.  The Road, in the end, isn’t about any of the apocalyptic stuff – we don’t even know what happened, really.  It’s about this Dad doing his very, very best.  It’s about this Boy learning how to survive in a world that can be wondrous and harsh, giving and dangerous, all at the same time.  It’s about spending quality time with our loved ones, and staying with them until the very, very end, through rain and shine and hardship and tough choices and growing up and all of it.

However much the Dad may mourn for the world he’s lost, he is, I think, the best father in any world, and he gives to his son what we all want to give to our kids – love and courage and protection – even when the world has become so cruel.  He’s the best Dad ever, and his son is the luckiest Boy, and that’s what The Road is about.

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