In both The Road, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel of the same name, and The Book of Eli, a man faces life after the end of the world, on a planet that’s barely responding to life support, much less capable of supporting life. Both are unwaveringly devoted to a single aim, maintaining a tenuous toehold on their wits and their humanity. They’ve chosen an itinerant life pressing toward a goal they feel uncertain they can reach, and which may not exist at all.
But these aren’t the same kind of man of course. And, the equalizing effects of Everything Everywhere Ending, these are certainly not the same kind of movies.
The protagonist of The Road, called simply the Man, is devoted to getting himself and his young son—but mostly his son, called simply the Boy—south. What’s south? Warmth, he hopes, and maybe food. The new world has devolved to a state which honors no social covenants of any kind. And because of this, cannibalism is the prevalent threat for all survivors. Also enslavement, either in sexual servitude or as a captive food source; with the land barren, survivors are at risk of being literally subsistence farmed, in bodily and piecemeal fashion.
And so the Man and the Boy take to the titular road, pushing their shopping cart of scavenged food, foraging where they can for anything left in the ashes. The only communities that form between humans are cannibal tribes, or scavengers of finite and diminishing resources. Every encounter winds down to one party’s power kill or enslave the other, or conversely to resist death or enslavement.
Crucially, the Man is played by Viggo Mortensen, very nearly the only honest, soulfully weathered hero figure the post-apocalyptic world has left.
Incidentally, Mortensen is one of the only leading men left in our pre-apocalyptic world either, at least in Hollywood. One of the others is, of course, Denzel Washington, who plays the book-owning namesake of The Book of Eli. Washington, probably the last consistently bank-able leading man in movies, ushers the justifiably legendary Hughes brothers back after 8 years (their last adventure in film? The Alan Moore (Watchmen) comic book adaptation From Hell) from material that was mostly beneath them (USA’s Touching Evil?), playing a man devoted to getting himself and his book—but mostly his Book—to safety.
Washington and Mortensen possess the kind of gravity that makes even the most wearying premise feel plausible, or at least worthy of an hour-and-a-half’s worth of attention. Each does his own Lone, Craggily-Handsome Savior of course, and has done so several times over. Washington has recently moved to corner market share on the New York Cop Battling Wits With a Madman. Mortensen has essentially sealed off the Mysterious Swordsman Whom We Hope Our Hobbit Friends Can Trust role). And they’ve used that gravity carefully, maintaining their authority by playing both very good men and very bad men tremendously well. But they’ve done it mostly through excellent choices of roles and by almost entirely avoiding comedy (less true in Washington’s case, but still, Carbon Copy came out almost 30 years ago). They’ve maintained that Serious Actor profile by playing serious roles seriously.
So in these movies they wander into the most serious circumstance science fiction can provide us, the end of the world. What do they find?
Powerlessness, mostly. Mortensen’s power is the most desperate kind. His character may be called the Man, but he’s no authority figure, no Big Boss Man, nor the Man we’d meet waving a cigar between fat fingers in Black exploitation movies. Here he’s really just A Man, his namelessness signaling his dilemma; get busy living or get busy dying (as one of Washington and Mortensen’s few rivals in the Paragon of Dignity club, Morgan Freeman, said in The Shawshank Redemption).
Facing the core existential choice, he has only the Off Button; two bullets in a revolver. To be or not to be, one for my baby and one for the road, etc. In the book the movie’s based on, McCarthy mentions cults ruled by human demi-gods, borne down the tarmac by chained supplicants and followed by catamites (which I had to look up, too: they’re “boys kept for sexual practices”). Clearly this is a world in which single parenthood takes on a horrifying cast and you keep your hand on your gun to resist a fate far worse than death. Gun, tarp, blanket, shopping cart, and whatever canned goods the looters missed—ready for the world.
Washington has faith and a big-ass machete. Also remarkable marksmanship, terrific sunglasses, Al Green, and, we later learn, a really, really good memory. Sense of smell and hearing are pretty off-the-chart too. I think the screenwriter was typing this up with one hand and pulling on a fat blunt with the other.
His weapon of choice isn’t the rusted cudgel you’d think an Armageddon survivor would carry, it’s a luxury disemboweling accessory—a cool-ass ventilated machete which he make a lot of bad guys eat in a few terrific action sequences.
Apparently The Book of Eli takes place in a west coast Armageddon, because the survivors hang onto their shades, or goggles if they’re secondary characters, with notable care, and generally appear to have decided on “Year-Round Burning Man Resident” as their style touchstone. Or at least that’s their Look. In the Eli apocalypse, it’s important to hang onto your shades, but also your iPod and Beats By Dre headphones so you can listen to Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” as you fall asleep in an abandoned building (who would think to look for a toothsome itinerant in a service-able shelter? Or think to investigate that tinny classic soul emanating from it?). Indeed, you can carry your iPod in your Oakley backpack. This apocalypse will be brought to you by KFC Wet-Naps, GMC trucks, Apple Computers, Oakley, Ray-Ban, and whoever provided Mila Kunis’s totally hot boots—OMG, love!
Gary Oldman has a great time doing Robert Evans As Corrupt Sheriff, Tom Waits is hilarious and perfectly cast as an old/new West trading post shopkeeper, and Jennifer Beals’ perfect Renaissance face makes you wonder what inhumanely stingy person is responsible for rationing her film appearances. Whomever they are, we’d like to talk to them about Martin Short, James LeGros, Martha Plimpton, Phoebe Cates, Samantha Morton, and the Australian kid who was in that movie with John Cusack about what if Hitler was encouraged to stick with art—Noah Something. Mila Kunis plays a living Bratz doll, but with her vast eyes and silicone-smooth beauty she’s just some cherubic, well-fed hottie, a Hummel figurine in a desert of shattered crockery. She shows up, a brown-eyed girl looking like The Bad Thing never happened.