How long will the land mourn,
and the grass of every field wither?
For the wickedness of those who live in it
the animals and the birds are swept away,
and because people said, ‘He is blind to our
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The post-apocalyptic film is quite a large subgenre of the science fiction film, usually mined for adven tures and thrills, as in the Australian Mad Max films, or for its horror, as in the two British 28 days/ 28 Hours films. Director John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a cut above these, achieving the power of Children of Men. Actually, it is probably the darkest film of hope, dipping also into the father-son and road genres, that you will ever see—many of its scenes are not for the squeamish. The opening of the film, showing color shots of lovely flowers and foliage contrasts so sharply with the dull grey-tone of the rest of the film, suggests the Garden of Eden from which Adam and Eve were expelled. Only the earth yields nothing now by the seat of the brow, and it is not a man and a woman who venture forth, but a man and a boy.
Identified only as The Man (Viggo Mortensen) and The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a father and his son set out from their home somewhere in the northeastern part of the US (or it could be Canada) to find food somewhere in the south. Judging by the tattered map the father consults as they draw closer to the sea, their destination must be Florida. Through intermittent flashbacks we see that they had been a threesome, but that the Wife (Charlize Theron), following the unidentified catastrophe that had destroyed civilization, had given in to despair and walked off into the night to die. Her death probably would be either self-inflicted, or it would come as she feared, at the hands of the roving bands of people reduced to cannibalism because the food has been eaten up and the barren ground no longer yielded crops. Desperately hungry, father and son gather their few valuables and set off to search for a better clime. Pushing along their loaded grocery cart, they look like the homeless man in The Soloist, only they have no one to help them, and there are “miles to go” before they sleep.
The Man and Boy only just escape from a band of cannibals, thus losing their cart and possessions. They come upon a house and discover a group of filthy people penned in the basement like livestock. The same band of savages returns to the house, and father and son barely escape again. They come upon another house that has an underground chamber in the yard crammed full of canned food. Instinctively as they eat, the boy suggests that they give thanks. Although he knows no prayers, he thinks he has the right posture as he folds his hands and looks over to his father for approval. The Man nods, and the boy says simply, “Thank you, people.” Thus we see that the boy serves as the conscience of the pair, or perhaps he is their connection to a level of living below which conditions have forced the father to sink in order to survive. A little later they hear sounds of people above them, causing the father to fear that it would be unsafe to remain there. They pack as much canned food into a wooden cart as they can and again take to the road.
Encountering a feeble old man named Ely (Robert Duvall), the father would pass on by him, but the boy asks him to leave him a can of food. Eli’s comment is thus fulfilled, “When I saw that boy on the road, I thought I’d died and he was an angel.” One scene in which there is a symbolic suggestion of hope is set amidst the ruins of a church. Though roofless and blackened by some fire, the building still offers a measure of shelter for the two as the father builds a fire beside the altar. There is a long shot of considerable duration in which light streams through the church window. Its stained glass is missing, but the opening is in the shape of a cross, the light streaming through. This reminds me of the remark that the Man had made earlier about his son, “If he is not the word of God, then God never speaks,” as well as something that a writer named John said about the light and darkness.
The climax of the film at first seems as dark as its beginning, except for—well, go see for yourself. However, go in company with another, which itself is in keeping with what I think is one of the filmmakers’ main points, our need for the fellowship, or better, companionship, of fellow human beings. The band of cannibalistic savages show how others can influence us to sink below our humanness, but the boy in company of his father, and the last encounter with a family of three, also demonstrate that the company of the right people can help us maintain the decency we like to think of as our humanity. Another important theme is embodied in the words of The Man to the Boy uttered early in the film and repeated later, that they need to carry on the fire. Not a physical but an inner fire, as he explains to the boy. That the Man accomplishes this in spite of everything lifts this film from darkness toward the light—and those who view it as well.
Contains spoilers at the end.
1. The father speaks of his son early in the film, “If he is not the word of God, then God never speaks.” Which of the four Gospels does this remind you of? What meaning do you see in the statement?
2. I don’t recall exactly, but it might have been the old man played by Robert Duvall who says, “God? If he exists, “he would have turned his back on humanity long ago.” How is this similar to a certain story in Genesis? Destroying a wicked humanity is one approach: what is the alternate one suggested by Deutero-Isaiah (esp. Ch. 52-53) and the New Testament? From the long duration of the shot of the bright cruciform window in the church sanctuary, do you think it safe to say that the filmmakers might also be saying this?
3. How does The Boy serve as The Man’s conscience? Where do you think he acquired the desire to give thanks as they are about to eat a can of food? His mother perhaps? (Note for film buffs who might recall Barry Levinson’s wonderful grandfather-son-grandson film Avalon: there is a scene of a Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family gathered together. They are non-practicing Jews, first-generation immigrants, so when the women are talking about the American holiday while preparing the food, the grandmother says that she does not understand the annual event and would not know whom to thank. Okay, this might not directly pertinent to the current film, but it is interesting.)
4. After a harrowing incident The Boy asks his father, “Are we still the good guys?” The Man answers, “Yes, always will be.” Why do you think the son needs this reassurance? How is this true for all of us?
5. At what points in the story do you see a moment of grace? Even in the incident in which a man steals their food?
6. Reflect upon this conversation: The Man, “You have to keep carrying the fire.” The Boy, “What fire?” The “Man, “The fire inside you.” What do you understand by this? How is it that this inner fire distinguishes us from the beasts, the level to which so many of the survivors have sunk? Could this be what Quakers mean when they speak of the “divine spark” within humanity?
7. The Man also says, “If I were God, I would have made the world just so and no different. And so I have
you… I have you.” Does this sound strange, given what has happened to humanity? Or do you think The Man might understand that God has indeed made the world good, and that it is humanity that has screwed up?
8. How does the film’s ending depart from most post-apocalyptic films? How does this show that the filmmakers have refused to give in the desire of their audience? And how is this in keeping with the father’s words about “carrying the fire” ?
9. In the credits the couple that come upon father and son are identified only as The Veteran (Guy Pearce) and The Veteran’s Wife (Molly Parker). What is the boy’s initial reaction to them? How does The Veteran well sum up the basis of human (and divine) relationship when he says, “You just have to trust me” ? Compare this with Isaiah’s promise to Israel of what will happen after the coming calamity devastates the land—see Isaiah 32:16-20.