Man: “How would you know you’re the last man alive?”
Eli: “I guess you wouldn’t know it, you’d just be it.”
I’m watching The Road again. I saw it in the theater and was devastated; it’s a very grim movie, bleak in every way. In contrast to last night’s Walking Dead finale, The Road is great. Where Frank Darabont’s post-apocalyptic zombie series falls short, The Road is truly terrifying. Every moment is horrendous, imparting a gamut of emotions instantaneously. After last night’s disappointing Walking Dead episode, watching this film again reminds me of how powerful the post-apocalyptic genre can be.
John Hillcoat’s 2009 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s mesmerizing novel is one of the best end of the world films I’ve ever seen. Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) delivers a tremendous performance as a man navigating a barren wasteland with his young son, looking for something they both know isn’t there. None of the characters have names and the apocalypse’s catalyst isn’t known. Food is scarce, weapons are limited, and peril charges every step. Mortensen tells his son they’re “carrying the fire;” keeping humanity alive. It’s a futile task – the trees and animals are dead, earthquakes plague the land, and most of the few remaining people are cannibals. Flashback scenes featuring Mortensen and his wife (CharlizeTheron) shows their desperation. Contemplating suicide, Theron maps out their future in the void: “They’re going to catch up to us; they’re going to kill us. They’re going to rape me and then they’re going to rape your son and then they’re going to kill us…and then eat us.”
Unlike The Walking Dead, where the characters look somewhat presentable (Andrea’s roots aren’t showing, they look well fed), The Road’s protagonists appear haggard, filthy, and worn (compare the pictures below for an example). Mortensen and his son are always disheveled, even after bathing. The realities of civilization’s collapse hit hard in The Road, where psychical dangers equal physical ones. Humanity’s survival instinct triumphs, but at a high cost: these characters are damaged, especially in comparison to us. Raised in a structured society, they’re coping with another reality, devoid of any amenities or protections. Like Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comics, these characters wrestle with two impulses constantly, where the demands of a dead civilization still tax them. They’re in a world of brute force now, where laws are just symbols of a bygone era. When Mortensen tosses his wallet and wedding ring off a high bridge, he’s shedding another anchor to the past, symbolically dying a little more.
Their world, or what’s left of it, is desolate – they’re roaming around a giant corpse, spinning around a sun they can barely see. The sky is always dark and cloudy; the film is primarily grey. Aside from some interior scenes (a bunker, a cannibal cellar, and flashbacks) the characters are constantly in a colorless world. Implementing dark earth tones throughout, pretty much nothing in The Road is white – even white isn’t white. The evenings are exceptionally black, with some moments where almost nothing’s visible. Descriptions of the depressing landscape in McCarthy’s novel come alive in this adaptation; a rare example of when a movie equals its source material: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
The Walking Dead television adaptation doesn’t contain any of this. The first few episodes are strong it descends into mediocrity around episode five. I enjoyed the fifth episode at first, but after watching the season finale I despise it. As a building installment, episode five sets up the season finale, preparing the audience for an intense conclusion which never occurs. Instead its culls inspiration from mainstream action blockbusters; a building explodes, the music is gaudy and overdramatic, melodrama ensues. The hopelessness and raw emotion present in the beginning becomes a parody of itself. This is where The Road and The Walking Dead differ. Even though The Road is intensely emotional, all the outbursts are honest. The weight they carry is heavier than Darabont’s characters; it runs deeper and gives more. Where The Walking Dead’s stars seem like actors, Mortensen and his co-stars seem genuine. When they discover a bomb shelter, complete with vast supplies, their joy is infectious. Like the mall in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Mortensen and his son find a false sanctuary, finally realizing it’s finite. Where Romero’s protagonists dwell much longer, The Road’s characters realize the dangers of complacency, moving along quickly. Although the exterior world is dangerous, their shelter is also; staying too long only makes the return more difficult.
The apocalypse’s ambiguity serves the story well, which is something very attractive about Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Prescribing modernist certainty to a world ending crisis creates a goal, a conquerable enemy. There’s a Point A to Point B connotation that’s damaging to apocalyptic literature. The world doesn’t work like this and neither should a portrayal demanding emotional legitimacy; life has no defined goal. Both The Walking Dead and The Road require empathy from the viewer, but when a piece commands this it needs an authentic response. The Walking Dead’s season finale doesn’t respond correctly; The Road does. All the hyperbolic emotionality in The Walking Dead’s finale, combined with the people’s healthy complexion, negates the series’ intention.
When Mortensen and his son run into Eli (Robert Duvall), an old man travelling alone, his appearance is startling: His eyes are red and nearly vacant; he’s covered in dirt, with grime caking the wrinkles in his face; his grey facial hair black from years on the road. Darabont’s characters aren’t this worn yet but they’re much too tidy for their environment. The realities of such a fragile situation lose potency when appearing like our own world, lessening the intended impact. If post-apocalyptic tales are warnings, foretelling a worst case scenario from our own reality, watering down the visual aspect makes it dull. You can’t still look good when the world ends.
Mortensen becomes more damaged as The Road progresses. What starts as a symbolic disassociation in the film’s first act materializes slowly throughout the film. When a thief (Michael K. Williams) steals their supplies Mortensen holds him up at gunpoint, taking back his supplies and more – they leave the man naked in a cold wilderness. Mortensen’s humanity’s dwindling at this point; relying on instinct over reason. Unfortunately this is necessary, since every turn is potentially fatal. It’s not five minutes later that Mortensen’s shot with an arrow, leading to one of the film’s most violent scenes. Mortensen’s makeshift surgery, pulling out an arrow, stapling the wound shut, and duct taping it is horrendous; a gruesome reminder of our civilization’s fragility.
The Walking Dead series isn’t as potent. Although they’re new to the end times, Rick and company’s reactions to events are now formulaic. At the beginning it’s forgivable, since this reality is new and there’s a period of adjustment. As the season progressed I found their sentiments less credible. The comic series isn’t as feigned: the characters are all damaged, their luxuries are few and far between, and any modern conveniences are absent. There are moments, especially at the prison and the recently discovered compound, where the old world reappears, but it’s a fantasy; a projection of their desires. They all inhabit these fictions with that damaged perspective, with fear always present. The earlier episodes kept this but it’s absent in the last few episodes.
The main problem with comparing The Road and AMC’s The Walking Dead is the primary enemy. The Road doesn’t have zombies, but there are human cannibals and a list of other calamities. Considering how the last few episodes have been, there aren’t many zombies in AMC’s zombie show. Taking The Walking Dead seriously after the last two weeks is difficult, especially when a stellar example of post-apocalyptic fiction like The Road comes along. Aside from The Road’s fabulous story and beautiful visuals, it’s a powerful narrative about humanity at its lowest point. The film has less than a dozen speaking characters and only a few dozen including extras and works perfectly as a smaller film. There aren’t any explosions and only a little physical violence (although these moments are quite intense), but the whole experience itself is violent. Watching Mortensen instruct his son how to kill himself is violent, the fear they live with is violent, seeing their ribs protruding out of their soiled skin is violent. The Road’s a stark reminder of where we’re possibly heading. A few zombies shot in the head or decapitated isn’t violent – it’s just fantasy violence, not imparting any real anxiety. It’s amazing how Kirkman’s comic can and the television version falls short.
Here’s the trailer