The Road: A Brief Comment on the Post-Apocalyptic Western

So I recently saw John Hillcoat’s excellent adaptation of The Road (2009), and though there are probably a number of ways to talk about it, as the film offered a plethora of post-apocalyptic issues to consider, what struck me most was the continuing resonance of the post-apocalyptic narrative w/ the Western genre.  I was only made aware of this after seeing the film, but Hillcoat also directed the fabulous The Proposition (2005), an Australian Western written by, of all people, Nick Cave.

The Proposition not only proved that there are still productive paths to pursue in the genre in general, but that this gritty, morally ambiguous, post-spaghetti Western was able to transcend the genre’s traditional US borders and communicate w/ other post-colonial experiences of something like the “frontier” in a serious manner.  The fact that the Australian Outback is just as appropriate a setting for a Western as the United States beckons to a far larger relevance to the Western genre (as, of course, did the multitude of Italian Westerns of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), a relevance that goes far beyond privileging the American experience of the frontier as singular and unique.  The Proposition offers a version of a colonial past, of the nineteenth century, steeped in blood as it was, which does not shirk the weight of history, as did so many specifically American Westerns.  It clearly and unambiguously understands how the colonial war machine worked on the frontiers, interstices, boundaries, and edges of the “civilized” world; in other words, the violent logic of The Proposition can clearly be read as an extension of the logic of British colonialism.  Despite the perceived temporal distance of the Western genre, its lessons still resonate today, if for no other reason than so many of today’s violent encounters occur in just such marginal spaces: harsh, blasted landscapes where not only the rule of law has been suspended, but access to something resembling “civilization” is one or two steps removed at best.  Merely to inhabit Australia was, in some sense, to already be criminal, and there are of course many such zones today.

Furthermore, The Proposition, being the (at least critically) successful film that it was,[1] its indie and Sundance cred (perhaps) paved the way for No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood cleaning up at the 2008 Oscars.  (It need hardly be noted here that No Country was also a Cormac McCarthy adaptation.)  In a few short years, a genre that had been perceived dead, had bounced back not only w/ gusto, but with critical and box office success.[2] I have a number of times myself declared, and don’t necessarily disbelieve this statement today, that it is quite difficult if not impossible to make a (“traditional”) Western after Unforgiven (1992).  Much like Gran Torino (2008) was a send-off of Eastwood as an actor, Unforgiven represented to Eastwood his final statement on the Western, the culmination of his many years in the genre.  Though the ‘90s saw some excellent Westerns made after Unforgiven, there didn’t appear to be much more to say w/in the realm of its specific mode.  Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) is perhaps a perfect example of this.  It is thoroughly and unapologetically a Western, delivers one of the best soundtracks in the genre from Neil Young, and does much to quite self-reflexively play w/ Western tropes, but for all that, it does not have a clear genealogical descent from past-Westerns, a genealogy defined in the 70s and 80s by Eastwood, and sewn-up tight w/ UnforgivenDead Man, despite its successes, was strangely and perhaps purposely divorced from the genre, sending out feelers for how to continue, how to stay relevant, and how to change.[3]

So what, if anything, does this all have to do w/ The Road and w/ post-apocalyptic narratives?  For one, when I finally figured out who directed the McCarthy adaptation, it came as no surprise to me that it was John Hillcoat.  That he would have been tapped to direct a(ny) McCarthy novel made to me complete sense.  But, peculiarly, the logic of this was not based on McCarthy’s own long interest in the Western.  Rather, it directly and clearly presented me w/ the now long affinity b/t the Western and the post-apocalypse.  As early as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), w/ its setting in the Arizona or New Mexico desert, there has been a symbiosis b/t the genres.  (Examples of this would be too long to list, but suffice it to say even the forthcoming Book of Eli clearly picks up on this.)  The Road, even filmed in Western Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh, yay!) as it was, unambiguously plays w/ many Western conventions: the journey, the lone hero (w/ son), a haunting past before the protagonist’s or civilzation’s fall—specifically in the form of a lost woman (Charlize Theron)—a moral “code” by which the hero lives by (good guys and bad guys—i.e. those who eat humans and those who don’t), a tragic but noble fate, and, ultimately, riding off into the sunset for a “better tomorrow.”  Mix in a harsh, unforgiving landscape, restless and dangerous “natives,” an old wise coot, even a reappearance of Guy Pearce. . . take away the end of the world stuff, and one has a pretty solid formula for a Western.

This, of course, should not be surprising at all, considering McCarthy’s previous work, and the obvious apocalypticisim of something like Blood Meridian, but The Road the novel, w/ its lack of specific geographical referent, the quite vague cause of the Apocalypse (as opposed to the film where it is a bit more clear that it is nuclear in nature), and the persistent, all-encompassing ash,[4] reads far more like wandering outside the windows of Beckett’s Endgame than it does Apocalypse-made-Western.  The novel’s prose is sparse and simplistic, as opposed to the baroque eloquence of Blood Meridian, and it has striking existential moments wholly—and I think for the better—missing from the film:

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world.  The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth.  Darkness implacable.  The blind dogs of the sun in their running.  The crushing black vacuum of the universe.  And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover.  Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”[5]

Suffice it to say, these moments of reflection and prosodic expression are rare in the novel, and importantly so.  The novel is incredibly sparse and consequently ridiculously allegorical in a way simply not possible to successfully portray in an adaptation.  And I don’t think this is for the worse.  To me, it doesn’t so much matter whether the novel or the film is “better.”  In fact, each seems to stand on its own quite adequately.  The differences b/t each could be listed and nit-picked ad nauseum, but I think simply the difference b/t the mediums is enough to place each in different aesthetic, or generic, regimes.  In other words, the visual image provided by the film creates a much clearer Western generic marker than does the work of the novel.  I agree that this could be debated, esp. b/c it is difficult to read McCarthy at all w/o the Western in mind, but to my thinking, The Road the novel is McCarthy attempting to take on some quite different, more (as mentioned before) Beckettian material than his previous work, and I think he is ultimately successful in doing so.  The film’s stunning, if still harrowing and drab visuals, create a specificity, a “real” referent, a localization, and a sense of the past which are all absent from the novel.  This, of course, is simply a result of pointing the camera at something (I assume), but even the presence of Charlize-Theron-as-memory,[6] which was definitely played-up in the adaptation, reveals the sovereignty of Hillcoat’s lens no matter what the source-material.

This is all a long way of suggesting a couple of hypotheses which would take me much more time and thought to fully flesh out, but since I already have been far from brief in getting to them, will be so to conclude. 1)  That perhaps the real disappearance of the Western, if in fact we mark it around the 1992 appearance of Unforgiven, was in fact the result of something quite different.  Namely, the end of the Cold War.  W/ the threat of nuclear war, presumably, off the table, the aesthetic logic of the Western—its reliance on harsh, blasted, post-apocalyptic landscapes—ceased to have the same subconscious cultural cache than it did previous to 1992.  Eastwood himself had long relied on overtly religious or apocalyptic themes in his work (see High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider), and though Unforgiven may not be as clearly apocalyptic, it definitely puts to rest the avenging, angel-of-death type of messianic judge who Old Munny clearly is even there.[7] 2)  That it is perhaps not retroactively inappropriate to re-read many Westerns as ultimately tarrying w/ thoughts of the nuclear or the post-apocalyptic.  I’m esp. inclined to include Leone here.[8] What was able to break the Western out of its celebration of the US was implicitly an awareness of how this very cowboy logic would/might lead to the final scene in Dr. Strangelove: waving a cowboy hat while riding the bomb. . . . The brutality and violence of the Spaghetti Western, more than simply historically revisionistic, was actually an imagined future, a projection of the same sort we get in The Postman or perhaps even Syriana.  3)  Finally, that the re-invigoration of the Western genre is inextricably linked to changes in the apocalyptic imagination and the plethora of present day global conflicts.  The specific lack of nuclear narratives of late (see my postings on 2012 and its addendum), have consequently led to a more subtle, less-overt apocalypticisim in the Western, one that now highlights oil and border crossing (No Country and Blood respectively) rather than the nuclear.  Suffice it say, however, that if we place The Road firmly in the Western tradition, it is apparent that the nuclear is still very much w/ us, but that it has been sublimated to such a degree that it takes an overt nuclear post-apocalypse to reveal a Western, rather than the other way around.  This is not necessarily to suggest that perhaps the Western has been wholly absorbed into other genres, and can only function, say, how it does in Star Wars, but it is to say that, b/t Unforgiven and The Proposition, something has changed, and whatever that change is, the ultimate result is The Road.

All in all, I’m almost embarrassed to be even be posting all this, as it seems far too obvious, but hopefully what it really speaks to is how The Road is an incredibly timely and important film, esp. compared to something like 2012.  It is, in other words, no accident that it was filmed in Pittsburgh, as the atmosphere of economic collapse both past and present, simply oozes in every frame.  And who knows, maybe even right now Hollywood execs are contemplating what would be a truly terrifying film—one which didn’t have recourse to the fantasmatic nuclear or whatever to destroy the world, but might simply show what could have happened, and still might, in our current economic climate.  I can only imagine these films would also find the burgh adaptable.  28 Years Later anyone?


[1] And of course it didn’t hurt that it was bolstered by some star power: Nick Cave’s screenplay and Guy Pearce’s captivating role as the protagonist.

[2] For instance, on Wikipedia’s list of Westerns released in the 2000s, it says only 4 were released in 2004 (which I don’t quite believe).  Of these, one was a French film, Blueberry, that went straight to DVD (though it does look fascinating) and Disney’s animated Home on the Range.  How this last fits into the “Western,” I’m not quite sure, but then again. . . (thank you Wikipedia), it also lists From Dusk till Dawn 3, Grey Owl—a Richard Attenborough production(!)—Shanghai Noon (w/ Jackie Chan), The Last Samurai, Joss Whedon’s Serenity (which isn’t such a stretch. . .), The Quick and the Undead, and The American Astronaut (which is excellent, but perhaps not a Western).  Suffice it to say, that this list is classic-Wikipedia in many ways.  Not only does it not even include No Country or There Will Be Blood, but what is there is quite suspect.  My point still stands, however, that from a #-of-releases-per-year-in-the-genre standpoint, in the early aughts (read before 2005, the year The Proposition was released) there was a distinct slowdown in the production of Westerns.  Afterward, in addition to No Country and Blood we received a number of more-or-less classic western films that probably wouldn’t have even been made in the first place if not for the mid-aughts Western revival, among them: 3:10 to Yuma (a fair remake), Appaloosa, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Seraphim Falls.

[3] An oft overlooked and at times fascinating film, Way of the Gun (2001) w/ Ryan Phillipe and Benicio del Toro, also attempted this if in a wholly different direction.  Unapologetically a nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Way of the Gun, however, ultimately found itself w/o a solid generic foundation other than its references to older films in a strikingly similar, if wholly non-parallel manner to Dead Man.

[4] The ash is noticeably absent from the film, except in its washed-out light, perhaps simply b/c it would have been nearly impossible to portray this visually and still be able to construct an interesting image.  The film is already bleak, who wants to watch a completely gray film?

[5] Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 110.

[6] Btw, why is it that Theron so often plays a role in which the drab, even ugly appearance of her only serves to highlight how “beautiful” she is?  Would this effect even be possible w/ a “truly” ugly, or even an “average-looking” woman?

[7] Again, to invoke Dead Man, Jarmusch’s idiosyncratic way of tarrying w/ the apocalypticisim of the Western was in not-at-all-subtle references to William Blake.

[8] For the purposes of brevity, I’m not going to even get into Mad Max or such.  And, of course being Australian, Hillcoat does give a nod to the Thunderdome in the wardrobe of many of the characters in The Road.

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