The Road: If he is not the Word of God, then God never spoke
What fun to see you this last weekend, and enjoy delving into some of our pop-culture loves together! I’m still thinking about our viewing of The Road and mulling over the imagery, Viggo Mortensen’s superb acting and apocalyptic morass of it all. It’s worth noting off the bat that, while I’ve had a hard time getting into other novels by Cormac McCarthy, I loved The Road in a way that the descriptor ‘love’ doesn’t even quite capture. I finished the novel on my porch one night as the sun was setting, while drinking a stiff cocktail and sobbing and sobbing and sobbing. So I was more than a little nervous at the adaptation to film.
So I’m going to try to avoid too many comparisons to the book – let’s just say, that while the film doesn’t come close to the bleak, pain-drenched genius of the novel, this was the best movie that could have possibly been made based on such a brilliant book.
The first moment I want to reflect on is the father saying of his son, “if he is not the Word of God, then God never spoke”. This is a beautiful line in an at least conventionally Godless landscape. The post-apocalyptic materialism of The Road captivates me. Think, for example, of the prayers offered to the people of the food-filled bunker, rather than prayers offered to God from or of the people.
There is an image of God in The Road, but it’s not a transcendent, other-being God. Rather, the God of The Road, to me, seems to be in the rare and unexpected glimpses of hope and mercy that dwell in the hearts and actions of the remaining people. And so for the father, his son is not simply testimony to a God, but rather, his son is the only access to divinity he can encounter. In a world so marked by terror, the only thought that God has spoken, that God has breathed into creation, is available in this small creature because he is the only voice of goodness; the only one who keeps a hope for community and human interaction alive.
The second moment I want to reflect on, then, is when the father and son arrive at the father’s childhood house. Almost all the memories engaged are memories of Christmasses spent as a family in the sacred space of home…a type of space no longer available to our nomadic characters.
Why Christmas memories? Christmas is such a complicated holiday; one in which the best and worst of family life come together in a dramatic few days of eating and drinking and gift-giving. Christmas marks the entry of God into the world. But it also marks some of the most obscene commercial excesses of our culture. And in the narrative of The Road, Christmas memories mark something utterly lost to the travelers – a pre-apocalyptic time when a celebration of a God beyond material life or beyond our own actions could be imagined.
Finally – I loved the moment when the camera focused on the boy colouring with all his crayons held tightly in his fist at once. The picture was abstract, beyond representation. It was ugly and beautiful all at once, and it didn’t flinch from either. What does a child draw post-apocalypse? The answer is nothing. There’s despair in that nothingness, but there’s hope in the fact that he still desires to put crayon to page. Of all the moments that choked me up, that was among the most poignant for me.
Oh, and the image in the food-filled bunker of the father dressed for dinner in a found suit-jacket, drinking Jack Daniels and smoking a cigarette – just lovely! Such a simple set of pleasures that we all take for granted. I found myself joyful, and joyful in a deep way, that this fictional character could find such simple pleasure for such a simple moment.
Thank you for getting this conversation started. This is a hard movie to talk about, and that is not just because it is based on an even harder book, but because it tries so hard to be faithful to the feel of the book, which means that what counts is not what happens necessarily, but what is evoked and provoked in a landscape so bleak it is hard to grasp with the mind, much less with the eye. I agree with you completely – this was not a perfect movie. But it was probably the best movie that could have been made.
I am grateful you started with the quote from the movie that you did – it was probably the single most poignant line in the whole film for me and I have been thinking about it since last Sunday. I resonated with so much of what you had to say and can only expand on it. Here, in the midst of apocalyptic destruction, we have the Word of God incarnate in a small boy. The possible christological and theological suggestions are heightened when the Man is talking to Eli, the wizened older man they meet on the road, and when the Man tells Eli that the Boy is a god to him and Eli tells him that he doesn’t envy him that – walking alongside god on that kind of road would not be easy. For the Man then, all his hope – for himself, for the future, for any prospect of meaning outside the utter void that surrounds him – is placed in the simple existence of the Boy.
Making this connection, it seems to me, helps explain why of all the things the Man remembers in his childhood home, he remembers Christmas: the holiday that celebrates the incarnation of God in a boy child. As you point out, Christmas is also a season of excess and commercialism and the kind of individualism and greed that one imagines might have fueled whatever cataclysmic destruction led to the end of the world. But Christmas is also an inherently social time, a ritualized celebration of sociality itself (be it in the form of theological meditations on the unity of humanity in Christ or in the kitsch of countless advertisements that promise that somehow, at this time of year, all will be forgiven, all will be united, around the perfect gift). As the Man explains about the stockings over the fire, I couldn’t help but think – the Boy has never known this. This is an alien religion to him – both the Christian stories and the promise of society gathered around a hearth.
Which might explain why, for the Boy, God is community. Community he has never known – communion of some sort with the “good guys” whose presence is as illusive and as powerful as any promised coming of the divine amongst us. If the Man’s transcendent hopes are in this one boy – the Word of God – the Boy’s own hopes are in the promise of fellowship with others. He prays to the people, because their existence is all he knows of care, justice, possible salvation from chaos and meaninglessness [I loved the moment when the Man yells at the Boy to stop holding Eli’s hand, and he instead strokes his arm. It sort of embodied this longing of the Boy’s for me].
It is an interesting thing to imagine – what would remain of our religions if we destroyed the world? In traditional Christian theology, the end of the world (if that means the eventual destruction of all humanity) without the second coming of Christ and the consummation of all things does not seem possible. But here we have a vision of a new religion being born, one that cannot even imagine a loving God from beyond – what would that mean in a world of death? – but that can imagine some kind of transcendence in human kindness, in human connection, and in the hope of renewal, however temporary, however fragile. In all these ways, I found it to be much more a Christmas movie than I would have originally thought.
Whether or not this is exactly what Cormac McCarthy intended or not is another story, and I am not going to worry about it here.
Here’s to a moment of hope and sociality for us both.
Don’t forget to check back throughout the Christmas season as we continue to offer analysis of our favourite holiday movies!