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WATERS/ At the End of The Road

February Sun 07, 2010

theroadR375_21set09.jpg

 

On Tuesday I went to see The Road – with some trepidation, having been repeatedly told it was “not as good as the book”. It was, they said, “depressing”, the voiceover all wrong, the ending unhinged from the author’s intention. Several people said they had walked out within minutes. The movie is bombing, they said, and rightly so.

 

The eponymous Cormac McCarthy book has been declared Novel of the Noughties. Although I haven’t read every other contender, it strikes me as a plausible conclusion. The Road reveals why it is still worthwhile to write stories about things that might have happened but didn’t – yet. McCarthy maintains an unflinching gaze into the unthinkable: a world all but ended, where human civilization is in rewind and love must meet its final, terrifying test.

 

But if the book is better than other books by a margin of x, then the movie is better than other movies by a margin of x squared. One reason movies based on books rarely satisfy is that they impose a single, definitive key, making the story seem out of tune to almost everyone who has “heard” it in his own interior voice. Perhaps I am lucky, but John Hillcoat replicated the voice from my head. The mood of the movie is exactly as I imagined it. The acting achieves perfect pitch. The Road is so great it will not surprise me if it does, indeed, “bomb”, receives no awards and is forgotten for a decade before being hailed, if history has not vindicated McCarthy’s “prophecy”, as one of the greatest movies of all time.

 

But this is not a salutary, finger-wagging movie, any more than the book was intended to become the Bible of green fanatics who understand nothing. True, it depicts a future now more than a possibility in the most dangerous century since man first stood upright. But this is not its point.

 

It is about, yes, the fragility of civilisation and the pathos of man’s conceits. Its stunningly-realised cinematography offers occasional images that allow us to share McCarthy’s relentless gaze: a gigantic flyover, obsolete and incongruous, seen from below; a TV set framed with an irony that brings a shiver to the bones; a comb … why?

 

The book struck me as a version of The Swiss Family Robinson played backwards from wherever it is we think we’re going. The hunt for the means of survival forms part of a narrative implying not a voyage towards salvation, but a clinging to the faintest traces of the life-force. As everything is stripped away – order, law, civility, romance – and the world descends into cannibalism and terror, a question rises up: what, finally, is there for the human being to hope for?

 

The use of flashback delivers an almost unbearable pathos, as moments of affection, lust or culture force their way into dreams or resisted memories saturated with the realization that, in the light of what has emerged, none of it could have been real. Nothing, no human limb, can look the same after this.

 

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