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On “The Road” and Humanity

The_Road_movie_poster Last night I watched 2009's "The Road" (based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, which I haven't read), a post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive. They're trying to get to the coast and then go south, where they think there might be more food and at least the winters won't be so brutal. Gangs of evil-doer survivors are marauding across the land, up to a particular kind of evil.

When the landscape is barren and there are few living creatures of any kind, people begin to lose their humanity. And that's when they start to do the unthinkable: eat other humans. What separates the good guys from the bad guys is that one point. And if you miss that point, the man and his son frequently speak of being the good guys, and when the boy needs to figure out if someone is good he asks: "Do you eat people?"

But the line that delineates good guys from bad guys goes deeper. Bad guys treat humans the way they'd treat animals. They hunt them down in "the wild." They corral them, lock them up, and take them out to kill, cook and eat them as needed. When one of the bad guys is killed the other bad guys will feast on his body. But no matter who dies or how, the good guys won't eat the corpse.

Even the good guys sometimes treat people the way they'd treat animals. When the father and son happen upon a nearly-blind old man, the father turns to his son and says something like, "I know what you're thinking and you can forget it. You want to know if we can keep him." And when a younger man steals their supplies, they find him and the father demands he strip down and hand over all of his clothing and even his shoes. Clothes and shoes in this film are largely connected to humanity (not to mention survival). What separates us from the beasts of this world–as opposed to the bad guys–is that we wear clothing and shoes (not to mention in some climates, unlike nonhumans, we'd die without them).

The moment most revealing of the film's theme is at the end, when–SPOILER ALERT–the father has just died. The son, naturally, doesn't think about eating his dad. After all, he's a good guy. Up walks a thirtysomething man and the boy needs to determine if he's a good guy. He asks the man if he eats people. The man doesn't. But more important is that the man has a family: a wife, a boy, a girl and . . . a dog. Of course the man's a good guy–he hasn't killed and eaten his dog. The man is still civilized; he still has his humanity. The boy will be safe with him. (And because the man has a daughter, there can be a future generation of good guys.)

Fade to black.

The problem with this entire premise from start to finish is that the sign that we've lost our humanity is the point when we begin treating other humans the way we treat every other animal.

As long as there is a family with a dog, there is hope. Hope of what, though? The standard for being civilized in "The Road" is simple and fairly low: civilized, "good guys" don't kill people or dogs for food. My fear is that's our standard in the real world, too.

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  1. The premise was bizarre in the first instance: post-apocalypse, the normative standard regarding eating human flesh does not change. The practical result of maintaining this standard, in addition to the utter absence of food resources, is mass starvation. What is interesting to me is what you've highlighted here: the only "solution" is treating human beings as we treat nonhuman animals. The reasonable alternative (i.e. eating the flesh of dead humans that liter the world) is not considered because the normative standard about eating human flesh remains. In other words, the alternative is not eating dead flesh when it is available, but exploiting human animals in exactly the same ways we exploit nonhuman animals.

    The lack of moral imagination in this film is really stunning. That is, to easily categorize "good guys" and "bad guys", we continue working within the existing standard (i.e. don't treat human animals like nonhuman animals) instead of challenging that paradigm in any way shape or form as one would expect when the world ends. As you conclude, the standard is pretty low.

    June 12, 2010
  2. Alex,
    "The lack of moral imagination in this film is really stunning." Exactly! And to actually say "good guys" and specifically relate that to not eating people lacks imagination in filmmaking. The major connection is spelled out for you. I kept waiting for some deeper exploration or comparison between human and nonhuman animals, but alas . . .

    June 12, 2010
  3. Mary, I hate to tell you but you might want to adjust your fear standard, in the real world dogs do get eaten for food

    June 12, 2010
  4. Glenn L.,
    That's actually my point. By "our" standard I'm referring to the culture I'm supposed to be a part of. After all, we campaign against countries that eat dogs, and view them as savages (or otherwise horribly cruel and without morals). Meanwhile, there's no actual, meaningful difference between them and the animals we traditionally view as food. And that's to say nothing of the similarities between human and nonhuman animals. In other words, our standards for what's civilized are very much like that of the post-apocalyptic world of the film. Low.

    June 12, 2010
  5. "(And because the man has a daughter, there can be a future generation of good guys.)"

    Well, assuming they're both heterosexual and willing to "breed." Or perhaps this is inconsequential, "even" to the "good guys"?*

    (Here I'm reminded of BSG's President Roslin, who was willing to compromise her pro-choice beliefs for the "good" of the dwindling human species. But OMG I'm only on Season 3, so no spoilers please!)

    * Which I'm guessing was your point 🙂

    June 12, 2010
  6. Kelly,
    I'm very annoying to watch movies with, probably b/c I'm a budding screenwriter and have studied the craft. I'm always trying to map out what's coming, particularly in a film with a traditional structure. Obviously, this film could have ended one of two ways, and Hollywood's partial to happy endings. Happy is relative, and in order to demonstrate hope for the future, either the father, the son, or both would meet age-appropriate females. We knew the dog was coming, as the boy heard barks earlier. But if you know cheesy storytelling, and this is your story, there's gonna be a girl in there somewhere. B/c, you know, the good guys don't have sex with their sisters and daughters.

    This film garnered such high praise and whether it's true to the novel or not, it was still thematically disappointing.

    June 12, 2010
  7. Disd you see how quickly the father returned to 'high society' ways when they discovered the underground shelter (cigarettes, liquour). It forshadowed human's proclivity towards an association of hierarchy and priviledge with physical pleasures. The movie showed, even in the end,the cyclical 'why' of what may have lead to the downfall of the world….

    June 13, 2010
  8. Kelly,
    I forgot to say that in the beginning we learn that the bad guys rape. Not that that's a surprise, but it also means the good guys don't.

    John,
    I hadn't thought of it that way! I was wondering what caused the end of the world. I suppose it would have to have been us one way or the other.

    June 13, 2010
  9. Porphyry #

    I read the book. I haven’t seen the movie.

    It was a quick and gripping read and held a style of narrative that would easily lend itself to film (which is why I’m not running to the theater to see it, I’ve already experienced it.)

    From what you have described, the movie sounds identical to the book even the ending, and it would have to be because the book plot was so straight-forward. Any liberty in direction and you’d have a different story, not that that’s ever stopped Hollywood before, but it would be a really bad idea for The Road.

    Everything you described did happen that way in the book, but it sounds a little overemphasized in the film version. On the other hand, the book gives the reader plenty of character introspection, something that isn’t so easy to show on film, so the events of The Road get more screen time over the pages of prose psychology.

    The book had the elements of cannibalism and keeping humans as livestock, but it sounds like the film comes off as being about cannibalism. It could be that I downplayed that aspect when I read it of that Mary keyed into it when she watched it. I recall other moral lessons in the book as well, not sure how well they were conveyed in the film. I’ll just assume your review is on target in forming my response.

    Mary said:

    “The problem with this entire premise from start to finish is that the sign that we've lost our humanity is the point when we begin treating other humans the way we treat every other animal.

    As long as there is a family with a dog, there is hope. Hope of what, though? The standard for being civilized in "The Road" is simple and fairly low: civilized, "good guys" don't kill people or dogs for food. My fear is that's our standard in the real world, too.”

    Yes, that is the current standard in the real world. We can be critical about this, or retain solace that at the very least least we have that baseline (more or less). Historically it’s a fairly recent social invention. If you will indulge me once again in a quote from Henry Salt’s “Seventy Years Among Savages”, whose writings always cheers me up and puts these sorts of things in perspective:


    “People often indignantly ask, with reference to some cruel action or custom, whether we are living “in an age of civilization or of savagery,” the implication being that in an era of the highest and noblest civilization, such as ours is assumed to be, some unaccountably barbarous persons are stooping to an unworthy practice. Is it not wiser, and more conducive to one's personal peace of mind, to reverse this assumption, and to start with the frank avowal that the present age, in spite of its vast mechanical cleverness, is, from an ethical point of view, one of positive barbarism, not so savage, of course, as some that have preceded it, but still undeniably savage as compared with what we foresee of a civilized future?”

    “Viewed in this more modest light, many usages which, if prevalent in a civilized country, might well make one despair of humankind, are seen to be, like the crimes of children, symptoms of the thoughtless infancy of our race. We are not civilized folk who have degenerated into monsters, but untamed savages who, on the whole, make a rather creditable display, and may in future centuries become civilized."

    I think we can use stories like The Road as teaching tools, not to extract specific codes of ethics, but to remind ourselves that what makes us human is adhering to morality even in the face of severe adversity.

    To quote Jonathan Foer’s “Eating Animals”:


    The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn't know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.

    "He saved your life."

    I didn't eat it.

    "You didn't eat it?"

    It was pork. I wouldn't eat pork.

    "Why?"

    What do you mean "why?"

    "What, because it wasn't kosher?"

    Of course.

    "But not even to save your life?"

    If nothing matters, there's nothing to save.

    It’s not so important that the characters in The Road wouldn’t eat humans or that Foer’s grandmother was intent of keeping religious tradition (that isn’t even really concerned with animal consideration), it’s a broader message of the importance of maintaining an ethical standard even when society (having collapsed around these individuals) is choosing otherwise.

    And of course, most of us in the developed world live in conditions of abundance where war is not being waged nor has the apocalypse arrived. Excluding the use of animals in one’s life is no hardship.

    June 14, 2010
  10. I waited anxiously for this movie to come out… It really looked like it was going to have some kind of profound message or story line… I kept waiting and waiting till the empty, trite ending. What a waste of precious time!

    But it did remind me of another movie I'm (sort of) embarrassed to say I watched… But it definitely had more substance than The Road and also dealt with "factory farming" humans – for their blood.

    It's called Daybreakers and stars Ethan Hawk. The story goes that most humans have been infected with a vampire virus that gives them a need for human blood. Typical I know… But it did have a surprise ending as well as a (vague) moral theme. But it was the visuals that I found most disturbing – Seeing all those bodies set up in a system to extract and market their life fluids was just about as creepy as any hog crate could ever be. I hope people asked "what's the difference" – because I sure didn't see one.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayYiMygqlfo&feature=fvw

    June 19, 2010

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