What to watch after Contagion?
Surrounded by flowers in full bloom, a man gently leans against his horse and sways to the breeze along with his wife in their safe haven. Soon after, flames light up the sky, snapping the man out of the dream - one of many that resemble echoes from his past life. Flashbacks of a loving home, a happy marriage, summer breezes and occasional piano lessons swirl before his eyes, like motes of dust caught in the sunlight. That life is gone, so is the sanity of the world in John Hillcoat’s post-apocalyptic drama The Road.
Ravaged by an unknown global catastrophe, the earth has become barren, imbued with an ominous shade of grey. The wife (Charlize Theron) is dead, leaving behind a son and a gun with two bullets. Plagued by the menace of cannibalism, the man (Viggo Mortensen) and his boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) trudge one deserted road after another, filled with perils, in search of a warmer place. (That is right, in the face of acute food scarcity, humans have resorted to devour other humans.) Both nature and men oppress the father and the son, wearing down their morale. Stripped of all possessions and colors, the duo hold on to the gun with every last ounce of strength – a bullet for each, to come in handy in due time, a swift death being the only desired outcome.
And they live to ‘carry the fire,’ a phrase often used by the man to reassure the boy, to retain some semblance of order from the old world and to ascribe meaning to their otherwise hopeless journey. The fire denotes one’s unwavering moral values, the ability to hang on to notions of human dignity in the most baffling of times and the unconditional compassion a man can muster in the midst of death and unprecedented barbarity.
Directed by a relatively unknown Australian film-maker, what sets the film apart from a myriad of post-apocalyptic dramas, even more than its uniquely grim portrayal of the end times and widely revered source material - Cormac Mccarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel of the same name, is its reluctance to dwell on the catastrophe, simply because, one might be compelled to argue that horror is most effective when it is incomprehensible and a tad ambiguous.
As coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe, human beings everywhere are warily responding to an unseen enemy, which threatens to transform our very way of life. In the face of such agonizing uncertainty, one yields to the realization that the pandemic cannot be reasoned with, let alone tamed. Public life has been outlawed, embraces have become a subject of scrutiny and handshakes are downright taboos. Failing to stomp on the growing paranoia within our hearts, we stare at the face of our beloved every day and night, unable to face the inevitable, the unknown. Who carries the enemy amidst us? And who will carry the fire?
In the past weeks, Italians took the internet by storm through their balcony concerts, following the ‘Jiayou’ (continue the fight) chants resounding through vacant streets of Wuhan. The world came to a halt, the transformative power of art did not. Struggling through all kinds of obstacles and terrors, a voice of resilience has soared in the most unlikely of places. Yet, horrors did not cease.
On Sunday, a boy died in Rajshahi. The headline read “Father could not save son despite visiting five hospitals.” The boy had the symptoms of coronavirus which made the villagers at once evict him, leaving the father to wander alone from one hospital to another in search of help, to no avail. The doctors later reached the verdict that the boy had meningitis, not coronavirus. Yes, horrors did not cease.
As Hillcoat's film shows, catastrophes often expose aspects of our humanity we would rather brush aside, or are simply blind to. In these trying times, if we are capable of nurturing incredible hope and creativity, we also are capable of descending into pillaging, chaos and violence.
In The Road, the boy becomes the man’s moral compass, described at one point as the word of god. When all else fails, the man looks at his child, rediscovers light in a bleak new world, and reaffirms his faith. Who will become our moral compass today, pointing towards better days, steering us away from the treacherous path that the lawless and the faithless tread? For lack of better answers, it would just have to be us, reaching out in love to one another. For now, this will have to do.