From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
By Santiago Ramos
Director - John Hilcoat
Screenplay - Joe Penhall
Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Six years ago, while visiting family in the outskirts of Asunción, Paraguay, I made a trip downtown to visit a chapel housing the heart of a saint. Roque González de Santa Cruz was born in Asunción in 1576, became a Jesuit missionary in 1609, and was killed by a native Guarani chief named Nheçu in 1628. Under the care of the Society of Jesus, a chapel next to a school named Cristo Rey is said to contain what remains: Nheçu’s weapon and Roque González’s heart. How? In what condition? I was asking those questions, too. But I arrived too late, and a strange old woman working in a room beside the chapel told me that yes, the heart was in there, but visiting hours were over for the day. My flight back to Kansas City left the next morning and I haven’t been back since.
Even though I did not get to see the heart, its meaning still made an impression on me. To claim that the heart remains after the final act of violence, and after the worm-banquet that follows every funeral, is to claim something about the way things ultimately are: that there is something essential to our humanity which survives the forces trying to annihilate it.
The Road, a novel by Cormac McCarthy and now an unsparing, bold film directed by John Hilcoat, is an experiment to test that claim. The experiment takes place in a post-nuclear war world, where the soil can no longer yield crops, animals no longer roam because they are all extinct, the skies are grey in a perennial winter, and humans scavenge around and eat each other. The film is like a hatchet hacking away at every last bit of flesh clinging to a bone. What sliver, what relic, what sign remains to tell us that our species has a nobler destiny than this, and that the world is not irredeemably evil?
The experiment doesn’t require a large cast: three main characters, a man (Viggo Mortensen), his wife (Charlize Theron), and their boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The plot is also spare: the family, having survived for some time after the nuclear war in their home, decides that the young boy—who was born after the bombings—could not last another winter. The answer is to take the road and go south, looking for a warmer place to live. The road will provide for all the violent variables in the experiment: the questions and the challenges against strength and sound judgment. The man and his boy will be robbed and they will rob; they will be shot at and will shoot in turn. But the boy must be protected because, as the man says in a voiceover, “If he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” Later on, he says, “To me, he is a god.”
It’s just the man and his boy - the wife stays behind. She chooses suicide, a choice that, as she says, “many families” made after the hard rain fell. Why go on living without hope? The man and his boy enter into a home where skeletons hang from the ceiling. “Why did they do that?” the boy asks. “You know why.” Suicide, or whether life is worth living, is an open question for the man and his boy because the certainty of hope is an open question, and in the beginning of the film, the pistol that the man carries has only two bullets left - answering the open question bears concrete consequences. The question is always framed in relation to the boy and the heart: the wife says that “My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born.” The man will later say to the boy, “You have my whole heart.”
The wife can’t look at her son in the face before she leaves him. The man sees in his son the same meaning of San Roque’s heart: the sign of a destiny greater than violence and death.
The one critical note I can make about the film is this: while the cinematography and the scenery - much of it coming from the hollowed out inner city of Pittsburgh - capture the apocalyptic tone perfectly, the chromatic tone is disturbed by the musical score, which slouches toward romanticism. The sentimental music at the conclusion of the film felt like ketchup smeared over a filet mignon.
The Road never tries to make the truth about suffering easier to swallow: it wrests a beating heart from the center of it that is a sign of hope. The music is a subtle nuisance, a romantic flurry confusing the hard-won judgment. However, though it is bothersome, it is not enough to ruin a brilliant film. The romantic heart fools itself into satisfaction through palpitation, but it eventually realizes that beating is not as strong as bleeding. That blood can become a seed, and this film is a testament to that possibility.
In theaters November 25.
Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.
The picture at top is St. Roque González de Santa Cruz, one of the earliest beatified martyrs of the America's.