In times of utter destruction, when the signposts of normal life disappear from the landscape, ultimate things suddenly clamor for our attention.
In the midst of the 9/11 attacks, airline passengers and office workers called spouses and relatives to pledge their love. And after the towers collapsed, many New Yorkers found themselves in church, lighting candles to keep the darkness at bay.
At present, ongoing anxiety regarding terrorist attacks, coupled with the economic crisis, has forced Americans to confront the limits of their control over potentially catastrophic events. At such times, we struggle even more to keep our heads above water. But naked vulnerability also can lead the human creature toward his Creator.
Man’s instinct to seek solace and atonement through an engagement with God — the author of all creation and of love — is on display in two recent films. Both offer a harrowing postapocalyptic vision of a world that forces its denizens to choose between good and evil, law and anarchy, faith and despair. And both reflect the gloomy zeitgeist of the moment.
The Road, a cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated best seller, was released late in 2009. The Book of Eli, an original story, also set in a gray, ash-covered American dystopia, followed soon after.
“There is no prophet in the earth’s long chronicle who is not honored here today,” writes McCarthy in The Road, which straddles both a New and Old Testament vision of human destiny and morality.
Like the book, the movie presents a stripped-down version of human existence. In the aftermath of an unexplained event that has destroyed the land, killing people and liberating original sin from the constraints imposed by social conformity and law enforcement, a father and his son make their way along the road.
Their destination is uncertain. What matters is the mutual love and concern that unites the two, as well as the ongoing threat posed by violent people hungry for human flesh.
The gray horizon only recedes in the father’s daydreams as he recalls the golden splendor of the life that has slipped from his grasp: his beautiful wife, their home, the wide blue sky that are no more. Such are the musings of a human creature, once charged with dominion over the earth, whose kingdom has been reduced to an ash heap. The film echoes the despairing cry of Adam and Eve, and in his novel, McCarthy draws the reader backward toward the cosmic events of Genesis:
“Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.”
The father’s paternal instincts lead him to discard any lingering vestige of compassion. His sole concern is the safety of his son, and he will kill anyone who threatens that mission. But the boy, mysteriously untainted by the carnage they witness on the road, admonishes him to turn the other cheek, and to offer those in need something from their meager reserves.
A stranger’s appearance on the road tests the convictions of father and son. For a moment, we are back to the parable of the Good Samaritan, during the time when Christ first revealed the fulfillment of the Law. The father follows his son’s lead. There is a glimmer of hope that the light of men has not been extinguished, that “the darkness shall not overcome it.”
The Book of Eli begins by following a similar trajectory. Eli (Denzel Washington) is a mysterious sojourner wandering through a dangerous land in the throes of nuclear winter. Little is explained about his identity or intentions, but his actions suggest that he is not afraid to use violence to defend himself against the predators encountered on the road.
Eli appears to possess special powers that protect him against lethal violence. Is he an angel from God or a fallen spirit with malevolent intentions?
At first, the evidence is inconclusive. There is an Old Testament flavor to Eli’s reliance on his handy weapon, in contrast to the father in The Road, who avoids violence. Early in the film, Eli witnesses the sexual assault of a defenseless woman, but he doesn’t intervene. Initially, he appears neither venal nor saintly, just a realist playing the odds.
The plot pivots when Eli reaches a newly established town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a wily demagogue who uses a band of thugs to keep order. Carnegie has dispatched his minions to find a book he believes will secure his realm. Before long, he discovers that Eli possesses the book he wants: the Bible. Carnegie believes that holy Scripture will aid his efforts to gain power over the land’s survivors.
Echoing the austere cowboy Westerns of Sergio Leone, The Book of Eli conjures up a Wild West version of a postapocalyptic land. Before long, it’s high noon, and Eli must take a stand in order to secure his own mission.
The next time he is forced to choose between safety and self-sacrifice, he embraces the latter.
Thus he earns the trust of a young teenager who is eager to be rid of Carnegie. She cannot read, but enjoys his Bible stories. The two flee from Carnegie, and Eli returns to the road. Here his urgent pilgrimage is gradually revealed.
In both The Book of Eli and The Road, there is the implicit but unconfirmed possibility that religious fanaticism ignited the cataclysm that vanquished civilization. Yet both films also acknowledge that faith in God can imbue the human heart with meaning and order. The films leave the audience to grapple with this paradox and make their own judgments.
Perhaps secularists will leave the theater further convinced of the ever-present danger posed by religious zealotry. Catholics, though, need not be unsettled by stories that reveal the havoc sin unleashes in our lives, undermining our responsibility for one another and for the stewardship of creation.
Stirring a mixture of fear and hope, these films remind us that near or utter devastation draws us inexorably toward our Creator. If only we could find our way to him as speedily in good times, when employment is up and airport security is a nonevent.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.