Year Released: 2009
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce
(R, 113 min.)
"He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke." Cormac McCarthy
This definitely is not a charmer. It is a descent into Dante’s Inferno without the bulwark of absolute faith to sustain its pilgrims. A glimpse into an abyss that entrances and repels, a dark vision that chills to the bone.
That is my advance warning. Were it not for the riveting performance of Vigo Mortensen as “Man” and the effective Kodi Smit-McPhee as “Boy,” I might have regretted the two hours trapped in the dark cinema with the even darker canvas flashing on the screen before me. Yet, unlike Dante’s admonition, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” Mortensen’s Man never does, at least not completely, even when he plans for the worst contingency and rehearses with his son the in-the-mouth position of their shared gun, should self destruction be their final option.
The film shares the crushing anguish of another road relic, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, that trek of a desperate family fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. But here the situation is definitely grimmer; an unnamed disaster has killed off most of the humans and all of the animals. The unlucky survivors stagger through a wasteland of crumbling decay looking for the stray can of food that might have been overlooked, the remnant of gasoline left in abandoned pumps.
Some, or most of the survivors, are more aggressive, travelling in gangs that prey upon other humans as the only ready supply of protein. Roger Ebert, in a truly inspired moment of flakiness, tries to define this deviancy down:
The surviving population has been reduced to savage survivalists, making slaves of the weaker, possibly using them as food. We've always done that, employing beef cattle, for example, to do the grazing on acres of pasture so we can consume the concentrated calories of their labor.
But writer Cormac McCarthy, who also gave us that nihilistic wonder, No Country for Old Men, does not give these ravaging cannibals such an easy pass. They are definitely evil, and the man assures his son that, no matter what, they will not descend to that filth.
Much of the conversation between Man and Boy revolves around the paradox of faith, and it has the same illogical manifestations as Samuel Beckett’s absurdist drama Waiting for Godot. The two main characters in Beckett’s work are tramps waiting for the promised visit of Godot, a figure that never appears yet is eternally anticipated. While they are frozen in their faithful stay, Man and Boy trudge on toward the Coast with the same illogical resolution of succor.
The man teeters between ultimate despair: “There is no God and we are his prophets,” a line from the novel perhaps too bleak to make it to the film, and the more palatable, "He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God, God never spoke."
A few other survivors dribble across the screen, one, an almost unrecognizable Robert Duvall as a grizzled old man who clings to life out of instinct more than anything else. We also have flashbacks of the Man’s wife, Charlize Theron, some definitely coming under the heading, “in happier times,” and a few chronicling the onslaught of the catastrophe from its first dark inklings to the present almost lifeless void now upon them. I agree with others that her presence, manufactured for the film and imbued with a perky Technicolor as contrasted to the shades of gray from the rest of the film, is more distracting than anything else, probably a vestige of the Hollywood instinct to inject a little romance – even of the doomed, heartbreaking variety – into all of its offerings.
Clearly the intent of the McCarthy work is to strip the world bare, to expose our existential selves, and the Theron scenes, however well-acted, are gratuitous.
What emerges in this desolation is man reduced to his best or his worst. The savage side is the more commonly revealed, while the tenderness between father and son, Man and Boy, is the candle that refuses to curse the darkness, as in the scene where Mortensen washes his son’s hair when they happen upon an abandoned farmhouse with some running water. The simple ritual is filled with unspoken tenderness and resonates with almost religious symbolism of birth and renewal. Mortensen’s admonitions about will to survive, “keeping the fire,” his hand thumping twice over his heart is perhaps an unconscious reference to Cormac McCarthy’s Catholic upbringing.
Some, such as film critic Kyle Smith, will see only the obvious projection of life as devoid of meaning, and they can’t be faulted:
The only purpose I can detect in the smoldering wreckage is simple masochism; some people like to take a beating and others like to spend two hours cloaked in the most piteous distress.
Others may see past the bleak landscape to that fire in the heart that will always search for hope and faith though the world thunder against it. That is, after all, the way of men.
Man and Boy stagger on the brink of starvation when they come upon an underground bunker stocked with canned food, a small gas burner, and yes, even a bottle of whisky. Never has fruit cocktail seemed so delicious, drunk out of the can like someone lapping up the champagne as it bubbles over the bottle’s rim.
Or there’s the found treasure of a vending machine that yields its final fizzy cola to Boy, who has never tasted such and immediately insists on sharing it with his father.
When a warmed can of stew is a gourmet feast, we could just list a few of our favorite tinned varieties, but in the true holiday spirit, we will try to inject some joy into this bleak film vision, a truly cornucopia of canned food concoctions. Try this recipe for Quick and Super Easy Chicken and Dumplings. Even Man and Boy could make it, given a little powdered milk to substitute for the real stuff.
During this busy and chilly Christmas /holiday season, aren’t you looking for an easy comfort food, one even the at-home-for-vacation- with-nothing-to-do kiddies can help you with? Give it a try; I know you’ll like it.
Find more canned food delights here.
Chicken and Dumplings
"This is a great recipe for southern style chicken and dumplings. My husband doesn't usually like Chicken and Dumplings, but he absolutely loved these and asked for seconds (which he never does with anything). My little boys (2, 4, and 5 years) ate it up and asked for more also. I just threw this together on a night I didn't feel like spending much time and energy on cooking. This is great and easy for the kids to help with also."
- 2 1/4 cups biscuit baking mix
- 2/3 cup milk
- 2 (14 ounce) cans chicken broth
- 2 (10 ounce) cans chunk chicken, drained
In a medium bowl, stir together the biscuit mix and milk just until it pulls together. Set aside.
Pour the cans of chicken broth into a saucepan along with the chicken; bring to a boil. Once the broth is at a steady boil, take a handful of biscuit dough and flatten it in your hand. Tear off 1 to 2 inch pieces and drop them into the boiling broth. Make sure they are fully immersed at least for a moment. Once all of the dough is in the pot, carefully stir so that the newest dough clumps get covered by the broth. Cover, and simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com