The road, at its core, tells a tale of complete and utter Bleakness. It portrays a world consumed by its own depravity, where brutality, rape, and cannibalism are simple tools for survival. Where the land is devoid of life and meaning, and the ever-looming question always present in every shot: is it worth to withstand the omnipresent misery and carry the fire when humanity is at the brink of breathing its last breath.
Fire and Ash
Beyond its practicality for survival, fire is a powerful recurring motif in this film. Though at first glance it may seem like a shallow and cliched metaphor for having hope in a world where there is no promise for the next dawn; I think that the metaphorical imagery of fire symbolizes something much deeper and darker than it may appear to the naked eye. The fire, I believe, is a metaphor for the complexity and the precarious nature of man. I think we can all agree that the author, Cormac McCarthy, wrote this novel to explore the intricate dynamics between Father and Son; and the delicate balance between protector and destructor. I think this concept would be easier to understand if we focused on the father rather than the child. We see the father throughout the film struggle between the world of the past and the world his child has inherited. He knows the potential of humanity and civilization as a whole, yet throughout the years he has witnessed the most brutal and ruthless survivors literally and metaphorically devour those who were too weak to fend on their own. He is forced to toe the line between these two realities, but by doing so he is unable to completely adapt to this new world. And this is where the analogy of fire comes to play. Fire, in many cultures, is a uniquely masculine element. As it often is correlated with the destructive physical power that most men are able to inflict to those in their surroundings. And if we see the fire in this film through this lens; perhaps we can understand how everything in this world has turned to ashes. This film is solely portrayed through the eyes of the father, he is the sole narrator and all we know about this world is purely based on his words. He only sees a world where the fire has run amok and consumed everything it touched, leaving nothing but ashes. Or, in this case, we could say that the untamed masculine force has set the world to flames leaving nothing but destruction on its wake. I think this is why throughout the film, we get various flashbacks of his wife. He is still clinging to her, he is unable to let go of her memory. Early in the film we get a scene where he throws a picture of her under a bridge, yet he is unable to throw his wedding ring, he leaves it at the edge. Unable to muster enough apathy to discard such a precious memento of his life. He has nothing left, all he has are his memories and the love of his child. And as he says on multiple occasions, he only lives for his son, and everything he does is for his survival. His son is a proxy for his wife, and It is no coincidence that his son wears his mother’s beanie throughout the story. He is just a child, and just like any other child, he doesn’t understand the true nature of the world. He has some glimpses of the evils of humanity. He has walked through corpses, witnessed the depravity of cannibals and has stared down the barrel of a gun by the hand of his own father. Yet despite all this, he still has the capability of mercy and kindness. And these two traits, in a black and white view of nature, are nearly exclusively feminine virtues. And I believe the child portrays these qualities because he is not yet a full-grown man. He still has some feminine traits, and these traits keep his father’s fire from burning everything and surrendering to his inner shadow. And this is why the very first person shown in the film is not the father or the child, although this is their story, the director chose the wife to be the very first face the audience sees. And it is her suicide that started this whole journey, and it is her memory that keeps our protagonists moving forward. At its core, the story is about the cold death of the feminine and the volatile nature of the masculine fire. This is why, in the end, when the child was stranded on the beach on is own after his father’s death. We see his possible salvation, not through material supplies or hope on what’s on the other side of the beach. Salvation is a strong and aloof man with a rifle on his hands, and a woman who’s kindness permeates the screen through her eyes. And thus humanity, through this family, has the potential to once again rise from the shadows, and witness the earth’s rebirth; where the masculine carries the fire and the feminine makes sure the world does not turn to ashes.
The Soul of Survival
Unlike a plethora of other films and tv series dealing with an apocalyptic collapse of society, The Road, truly aims at the realism of what it would entail to survive in such a corrupted remnant of a civilization long gone. At the heart of this woeful journey, one question is always hovering in the back of everyone’s mind, why?… Why should one keep moving forward when there’s no destination in sight? To be honest, I don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t think anyone knows. We all make our own meaning, but at the end when all the luster is gone, when the distractions are nothing but empty walls and when beauty has no inspiration to offer, all is left is the bare and primal root of what defines us. Throughout the film, we see the father’s complete disregard to those suffering around him. In a deleted scene, we see him and the child stroll by when a man is burned and limping after being struck by lighting. The child is immediately worried and looks at his father for guidance, but he does nothing and keeps pushing forth. He has been worn out through years of utter brutality and has no regards for anyone but his son. He is grooming him to become a man who is willing to do the unthinkable in order to survive in this harsh environment. Yet, time and time again the child refuses to heed his father’s advice. And in a very twisted and dark way, it is almost poetically beautiful how he is dying from the inside. We know from the very start that the father has some sort of illness, he is coughing blood and has trouble breathing in many instances in the film. Though it is not entirely clear, it is implied that he has some sort of cancer, probably induced by smoking. And allegorically, the cancer of apathy is growing inside him, making him weaker and weaker with each breath. He knows he is on borrowed time, and the coldness towards any other survivor is his last sacrifice for his son. He is sacrificing his soul, his very being for the humanity of his own child. Yet, it is his child who reminds him of the value of what he was losing. Although reluctantly, the child was able to convince him to help the old blind man they found on the road. He saw a glimpse of himself in him, and what would be of him if he has lost his way. Yet, as subtle and beautiful the interaction between the old man and the father was, there is a scene that truly stayed in my memory through the years. After arriving at the beach, the father goes into the sea to look for supplies in the wreckage. The boy stays behind and falls asleep, when he wakes up all their possessions are gone and they immediately follow the trail to the thief. The thief has a knife with him, and the father pulls out his gun; the thief throws the knife to the ground and surrenders his spoils. The father, however, is not content, he wants the thieves clothes, he begs to no avail and despite the cries from the child the thief is left stranded, naked and in tears while the father and the son disappear in the distance. As cruel as this action was, the father had no choice but to make sure the thief did not come back for them, but the child unable to grasp this reality is angered and is disdained by the legacy his father is leaving behind. He still has the ability to see past the surface and intuit that the thief had only done this because he was desperate. His father, however, knows that he has but a few days left in him, and does not care for the heartless action he must enact to keep his child safe after he is gone. This is a pivotal moment in the story, the child is growing and he suspects something is wrong with his father’s health. He refuses to let his father abandon their principles and lose his humanity when he meets his death. In his eyes, his father was slowly devolving into depravity and started to see others as nothing but shells of flesh.
And this warped perception of others is what gave rise to a world where cannibals roamed freely predating on those unwilling to partake in such a vicious activity. This is why I believe that this thief is missing his thumbs. Though it is never explained, we see two instances where the people the boy interacts with have their thumbs missing. The first is here with the thief, and the second is at the very end where the man who invites him into his family is also missing his thumb. I believe that the cutting of a thumb was some sort of tribal punishment within the cannibal gangs when someone refused to partake in their debaucheries. Meaning that both the thief and this man were part of these gangs, but once they started consuming human flesh, they refused to do so and as a punishment, they cut their thumbs and were kicked out into the wilderness to their imminent death. This makes the thief’s end a thousandfold more tragic, he had taken the moral stance to defy the cannibals, risked death by going out on its own and now his reward for such a courageous act might be freezing to death. Survival at the cost of one’s humanity is a sure way to end in misery in this world crafted in McCarthy’s vision. Yet in the midst of all that raw and guttural brutality, he leaves behind a glimmer of faith in the innate righteousness of the human spirit; all it takes is one minute act of kindness to keep the flame from withering in our souls.