The Road: A Harrowing Journey, But Meaningful

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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As The Road lights up the screen, a character called the Man rises early and goes to the window. By the look of dawning horror on his face it's clear: something has gone very wrong in the world.

He turns on the bathwater. His wife walks in and asks, "Why are you taking a bath?" "I'm not," he replies. Already he is thinking of survival. To persevere in this disintegrating world, they'll need water, food, and each other. Before long, all he has is his son, and their conversations along the road demonstrate the tension between the demands of survival and the pleas of the conscience.

What happened to the world? The film doesn't tell us. In voiceover, the Man says, "The clock stopped at 1:17. There was a long sheer bright light and a series of low concussions. . . . It is cold and growing colder and the world slowly dies." As people turn to savages, the Man's despairing wife states with certainty that savages will soon rape her, rape their son, kill them all, and eat them.

This isn't your typical holiday movie. But the tone, the words, and the circumstances will be familiar to readers of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer-prize-winning, Oprah-blessed novel. It's a book that got people talking.

What will moviegoers discuss as they leave the theater? Already, reviewers are engaged in a lively debate. But the conversation seems stuck in predictable ruts, when it could be on an interesting road. People are arguing about its box-office and award potential, how it makes people feel, and whether or not the filmmakers have done a good job in translating McCarthy's post-apocalyptic vision.

The High Calling of Watching Movies?

What do we talk about when we talk about movies? On my way out of the theater, I usually hear people swiftly judging a film by the emotional experience they've just had. And, if the film is a literary adaptation, I hear discussion about the film's fidelity to the source material. These are important matters, but alas, the conversation usually stops there. It employs only a few of what the detective Hercule Poirot loved to call "the little gray cells."

Feelings are an important part of the cinematic experience. But a movie can be more than mere entertainment. It can exercise the mind and the conscience if we discuss the artistry, the questions it explores (if it explores questions at all), the poetry of the screenplay (if there is any), and the composition of the images (if the filmmaker really composed them). And that's only the beginning. Was there anything truly excellent and worthy of praise? Was there anything nourishing, anything that will keep our minds working in ways that will influence our lives for better or worse?

Sometimes, films that are immediately pleasing prove to be frivolous and forgettable, offering shallow platitudes and frivolous titillation. Sometimes, films that are frightening, depressing, heartbreaking—even boring—haunt us with powerful questions, awaken the voice of conscience, move us to reflection, wisdom, and even compassion.

The Road and Redemption

The Road provokes powerful emotions. Director John Hillcoat and his crew paraphrased McCarthy's vision into an experience that will frighten and burden viewers. Sounds awful, but it can be useful and—dare I say redemptive? It troubles us with the reminder that civilization as we know it is fragile, and we might all someday be refugees, scavengers, survivors of a cataclysm. But neither McCarthy nor Hillcoat stop there. They mean to kindle questions about our faith, family, mercy, the gift of children, and each person's responsibility to carry the flame of hope.

No, the movie does not—and could not—duplicate the experience of reading McCarthy's book. Cormac McCarthy's poetic prose challenges me to fill in the canvas with details of my own presumption. As his dialogue runs almost unadorned, I'm left to imagine inflections, gestures, expressions. This invitation to participate gives each reader a unique experience.

A movie is an entirely different experience. It's an interpretation. It's an immersive experience of sight and sound, transporting us into a world of sensual specificity. And thus, it tends to require much less of our imaginations. The sensations wash over us, and often that's the end of it.

But a film may nourish our hearts and heads if we take the time to consider what we've seen and heard. To chew and digest this meal we've been served, we must discuss the artists' work in visual composition, editing, acting, screenwriting, score. That is to say, we must study the experience.

Hold onto Hope When Life (and Work) Get Ugly

This isn't so outrageous a fantasy—some people face grim realities like these every day. Loneliness. Poverty. Malnourishment. Terror. Cold. Cruelty. Rape and slaughter. The Road can prompt us to examine our faith, to question how it would hold up during such suffering. It can cause us to consider how the world looks and feels to the poor and the persecuted that we might know compassion. What is more, the sight of a world sinking into darkness drives us to cherish glimpses of human tenderness, freedom, and beauty.

Robert Duvall, almost unrecognizable under layers of grime, plays an old man on the road who raises the question of God's goodness in the darkness. Is there a God, and does he care? Why do we turn to God for help when we do so little to act as the hands of God to our families, neighbors, and enemies? Looking around, he doesn't see much true humanity.

When you look around your city, your community, your church or family or workplace, do you see much evidence of human kindness and grace?

Can we hope to carry the flame of goodness and grace when survival demands that we carry a loaded gun?

Okay, so few of us actually live in situations that require loaded guns for survival. Few of us are creeping into abandoned buildings in search of food. But each day we have opportunities to push society closer to the brink of destruction, or to “strengthen the things that remain”—in ways both large and small.

The Road prompts us to treat each other with generosity and kindness and to savor “small graces.” Even a can of Coca-Cola becomes an occasion for grace. We are reminded, again and again, that if we “carry the flame” we bring hope to a dark world. This is as important in business meetings as it is when we kiss our children goodnight.

Looking at The Road in this way, we we can make moviegoing a time for learning, growth, and revelation. This is how to make a meal of what we have been served and become stronger. We might understand better the responsibility of our high calling—to “carry the flame” on the challenging roads of family life, workplace relationships, and faith.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • Sometimes work can feel like a place of despair, a valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). How can we be people of hope and goodness during difficult times?
  • Can we engage popular culture as part of our high calling? How?
  • What are some of your favorite movies? What do these movies teach you about redemption?
  • To learn more about the high calling of film and movies, read some of our interviews with Christians who make movies—Scott Derrickson (Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still); Ralph Winter (Star Trek series, X-Men series); Phil Vischer (Veggie Tales); Micheal Flaherty (Walden Media, Narnia series).