A dark bleak view of humanity with a sliver of hope. This faithful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel has an unnamed man and his unnamed son (thus suggesting a mythic narrative) in a very different kind of road trip movie. They are traveling south to the Eastern coast in a post-apocalyptic America, trying to find “the good guys” in a world of human gangs turned cannibals through survival of the fittest. No food left, not even animals to eat, due to some unnamed global catastrophe that reflects more of global cooling than global warming. They are surrounded by earthquakes, erupted volcanoes, burned up forests, and increasing coldness. There is no real plot to this story of father and son moving from one nihilistic situation to another, from one gang of cannibals to another, interrupted by stretches of travelling, again, very faithful to the book, and actually captivating in it’s touch on primal drives and primal relations.
It’s really a character study of father and son, as son learns the values of survival while maintaining that shred of human value in the midst of a world without values. As the father answers his son’s question about whether or not they would eat humans, “we wouldn’t eat anyone, cause we’re the good guys and we’re carrying the fire within.” That reflects the very simple black and white morality of the story, as some critics might suggest is a “Manichean view of good and evil.” Good guys who love and help others, and bad guys who eat others.
There is a thread of religious thought through the film which also is faithful to the book, sometimes to the exact words. At the beginning we see them pass a billboard with the graffiti of a bible verse from Jeremiah: “Behold the valley of slaughter.” Stories just tend to feel more “deep” when they reference Bible verses, especially in King James language. Anyway, the religion seems to be one of a replacement of God with humanity as the object of true worship. The father says some esoteric things like, “the child is my warrant” [to carry on]. “If the child is not the word of God, then God never spoke.” And another time about the child to an old man travelling companion: “To me, he’s a god.” To which the old man says, “To be on the road with the last god is a dangerous situation.” When the son asks his father. “How would the last man alive know he was the last man?” The father responds, “God would know.” The old man then says, “There is no God up there,” in this godforsaken world. But the father responds to his son quietly, “If I were God, I would have made the world just so, and not any different. And so I have you.” This would seem to suggest that the father has a view of a providential God who somehow mysteriously, and without giving us the answers, works through suffering. In a way one could read this as an affirmation of God in the midst of such suffering.
But I am not sure that is the point for the filmmakers. After all, God is replaced by the son for this man. The father puts all his hope in his son surviving to find the good guys and live with them. The son becomes the father’s hope, and God appears to be a metaphor for that hope. So when they stumble upon a survival shelter filled with foodstuffs, they pray (including the gesture of folded hands) not to God, but to the people. “Thank you, people,” they mumble, which certainly doesn’t reflect the Judeo-Christian attribution of all blessings to God, whether received through men or not. I suspect God and religion in this story is a picture of an optimistic mythic construct to help keep a person going — a metaphor for “human goodness,” which is all rather ironic, considering the bulk of humanity is out to eat them like packs of animals following an evolutionary ethic of survival. But it appears that the story contains that humanistic optimism in the goodness of man, that no matter how bad the world can get, there will always be some good people seeking to do right. The only question is: Whose right? By what standard is their right any more right than the cannibal’s right? Is their sense of right rooted in subjective humanity with its equal and opposite extremes of cruelty and mercy, or an external objective deity to whom man is accountable? Is that God hiding in the suffering or is he a metaphor for humanity creating its own values in a world without meaning? I am not sure what the story is really suggesting, but I suspect it is the latter.