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Looking for God on The Road

  • Jay Swartzendruber Contributing Writer
  • Updated Nov 24, 2009
Looking for God on <i>The Road</i>

Imagine a movie that showed what the world would actually be like if the Church was gone. Gone as in vanished years ago. This movie would need to be heartbreaking, haunting and emotionally brutal. PG-13 ratings, step aside. Needless to say, it would masterfully portray loneliness, depravity and horror, a life so devastating that, in the words of Revelation 9:6, people "will long to die." The real challenge would be making the film believable while getting by with an R rating.

So what's the good news? In this seemingly godforsaken world, Yahweh, though often hard to find, would still be a major character. That, of course, presents all kinds of redemptive possibilities. But would, or should, such a movie ever be made? Inquiring minds may have their answer on November 25 when the highly-anticipated film, The Road, arrives in theaters.

The post-apocalyptic thriller, starring Viggo Mortensen (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Appaloosa), Charlize Theron (Monster, hancock) and Robert Duvall (The Godfather, The Apostle), is based on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, the same literary giant who penned All the Pretty Horses and, later, no country for old men. Hollywood adopted McCarthy into its royal family in 2007 when No Country won the Best Picture Oscar and three other Academy Awards.

Then there's The Road. Winning the Pulitzer is one thing, rivaling Stephenie Meyer's twilight in international pop culture is another. When Oprah Winfrey championed The Road as her book of the month in mid-2007, she started a chain reaction that continues to this day. As director John Hillcoat (The Proposition, To Have and To Hold), who's bringing the novel to the big screen, recently announced: "The Road is now the most translated fiction book in modern times."

In conjunction with Oprah's promotion of the book, the spotlight-shy McCarthy agreed to appear on her show, which marked the then 74-year-old author's first ever television interview. Raised Roman Catholic, yet tipping an agnostic hand, the writer explained how The Road was inspired by his relationship with his young son John, who was born when McCarthy was 65.

The result is a stunning love story between a father and his son set against the most horrific backdrop imaginable. The novel is also a vulnerable examination of a parent's fear of being unable to protect a child and, worse, leaving that child in an increasingly dangerous world.

A Message for the Church

Like the passion of the christ, The Road's producers have tapped A. Larry Ross Communications to present 15 advance screenings for Christian leaders and faith-based media outlets. As the PR company's founder makes his convincing pitch to the faithful, his remarks offer insight into the comparative lack of anticipation within church walls.

"This will be a significant media and cultural event, coming out Thanksgiving weekend," says Ross, "an opportunity for the faith community to seize this as a catalyst to have spiritual conversations with either people who would go to a theater with them but not to church, or colleagues and coworkers who are talking about it. The power of The Road is not the answers given, but the questions asked."

If America's more conservative people of faith are going to sit through an apocalyptic R rated film, they usually want more than hope in the darkness and redemptive themes. They want answers. While The Road resonates with biblical prophecy in many ways and is easily the most realistic cinematic portrayal of an end times world yet, it hardly follows Revelation like a road map.

"The Road is a parable of how a child is born into this world where there is no kindness. And yet, he manages to find this and nurture this and even teach [his father]," explains Hillcoat as the director fields questions from a tiny gathering of Christian journalists. "Cormac McCarthy told me that if there's no spiritual dimension, then life is a vacuum and meaningless. He thinks that active struggle with faith is the key. This story is like the book of Job 1:1, it's just challenge after challenge after challenge."

Where Is God?

The movie is based on the premise that 10 years from now, a major cataclysmic event takes place. Whether it's a nuclear war, a massive meteor strike, or continent-shifting volcanic activity isn't specified. The story begins a decade or so after that fatal blow and introduces what remains of America. Welcome to a cold world whose freezing nights are broken up by the amber light of day. Forest fires, earthquakes and ash in the air abound. Plant life? Dead. Animal life? Road kill. Humanity? Scarce.

The Road follows The Man (Mortensen) and his son, The Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), as they walk south on America's skeletal highways hoping to find the coast and, with it, warmer weather and perhaps even "good people" like them. To get that far, they'll need to find enough food along the way and avoid becoming food themselves. In this world, money means nothing, and ammunition is currency. Thievery, violence and cannibalism rule the day. The environment is so grim, some families even take their own lives. The Man, himself scarred by the suicide of a loved one, is not immune to such thoughts, a reality that his son knows all too well.

"This movie paints a very bleak picture of what life would be like without the Church," explains Phil Hotsenpiller, the teaching pastor at Yorba Linda Friends Church in southern California. An evangelical scholar of end-times prophecy, Hotsenpiller has authored a sermon series and small group discussion guide for The Road. Drawing parallels between the movie and Revelation 6:1, he says, "In my opinion, this is a man without God, who's in the middle of the Tribulation. It's like the Rapture has happened and the Church is gone."

Hope in a Hopeless World

God's presence seems removed from the earth as well. But The Man makes a declaration that hints otherwise: "The child is my warrant. And if he is not the word of God, then God never spoke." These poignant words echo through the film as The Boy repeatedly challenges The Man to be compassionate to those in need, to be forgiving when they are wronged, and to be thankful when rare blessings emerge.

Though the author gave Hillcoat license to interpret the book for the screen as he saw fit, McCarthy did give him one directive: "Please keep as many of the story's references to God as possible." To Hillcoat's credit, he not only honored this request, he even added visual elements of faith that weren't included in the book. "Cormac sees this as a spiritual lesson, because he talks about 'carrying the fire,' the spirit," says Hillcoat, citing one of The Road's most compelling themes. The Man and The Boy assure each other on multiple occasions that they are "the good guys," who are "carrying the fire."

Thankfully, the movie is artfully filmed and tends to avoid gratuitous imagery in its presentation of utter human depravity. And while horrific doom constantly feels close at hand, actual scenes of violence are far and few between. When they do occur, they are haunting, especially those which the director chooses to let you hear but not see.

Though The Road concludes on a hopeful note—the fragile promise of community—detractors still exist. "There were a couple people who questioned whether or not The Boy is actually saved and redeemed at the end," says Hillcoat. "And Cormac was so thrown by that. He said, 'Of course! The whole point is The Boy made that leap of faith and was saved.'"

And the one thing viewers should take away from the movie? "What really matters," replies the director. Adds Hotsenpiller, "You really look at life through a different set of lenses. People become more important. Moments become more important. Being kind becomes more important. This movie really has an unusual affect on people."

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language, The Road opens wide in theaters on Wednesday, November 25, 2009.

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**This interview first published on November 23, 2009.