Tales of Despair: The Road and the Unhappy Ending

There are so many creations in the realm of literature and art that draw inspiration from despair that they have, in some areas, grown a cult of their own. Entire genres are dedicated to these themes, and as far back as Shakespeare people have been fascinated by fate and the tragic ending. Macbeth is a perfect example of a tale which is very much doomed from the start – from the very beginning, we know there is no hope left for this man, and we follow him powerlessly to his doom.

In most areas of art, the artist is mostly, if not entirely, in control of their work. This allows a great freedom to take the story where it leads, regardless of the end. As a storyteller, it is with great relish – though also with great pain – that we can put our characters through a hell they sometimes don’t survive. Tolkien allowed Frodo to be scarred, physically and mentally, for the rest of his life. Orwell provided no escape for Winston Smith, and in the end he was powerless to stop himself from being reintegrated into the society he so hated. Stephen King is a master of the ability to push the darkness of a tale past the point of no return, whether it is Louis Creed graphically losing his son early in Pet Semetary and eventually driving him to insanity, or Paul Sheldon losing his entire leg to Annie’s madness in Misery. These are things that can’t be recovered from; for these characters, there will be no happy ending.

Yet there is one artistic medium in which it is much more difficult to avoid the inevitable ending upturn, and that is film. Particularly in the large-budget Hollywood industry, revenue is all-important in recouping the cost of developing the film, and the story ultimately falls to the demands of the crowd. In the end, most people just don’t go to the movies to feel bad.

What ends happening is that, with the exception of those few movies that are actually based upon novels (see the Stephen King examples above), it is almost impossible to find a movie that is willing to commit to the permanent destruction of their characters, and refuse to relent even at the very last moment. As scary as horror movies are, someone always survives. As moving as dramas are, someone always wins an insurmountable struggle.

Occasionally, you will come across a movie that goes halfway, and doesn’t quite provide quite the satisfying ending you might expect. Donnie Darko does this well – certainly not a happy ending, but one that somehow resonates nonetheless with a just fate. There are bittersweet endings, such as in Toy Story 3, with a conclusion we know is coming from the very beginning, yet somehow don’t want to face.

But there are very few movies that have the guts to go the full distance. In the end, there are few that can claim this credit as a stand-alone film (American Beauty springs to mind as an exception), but even in novel adaptations, the temptation to veer from the story can be overwhelming.

The Road, however, is not one of these. It is in every possible way as bleak and terrible as the novel it was based on, and doesn’t stray from its course even at the final stage. In a way, the shattered world in which our characters live give us little reason for hope form the outset, but a vast canon of apocalypse tales (thank you, John Wyndham) has taught us that at least some sort of redemption awaits at the end. At first, we want to believe that salvation may, in fact, lie at the coast, despite there being no evidence other than the father’s words. When the father becomes ill, we expect this as the twist, the seat-edger. What happens from there, however, is the push too far that casts the whole story into despair. There is no redemption, and even as we watch the boy watch over his father’s body, there is still some tiny hope that maybe we’re wrong, and that he’ll come back.

This ending has earned The Road the dubious accolade of being my favorite movie I would never want to see again. I fell in love with it visually from the very first scene, and the impeccably executed plot was riveting. But as a father, the ending cut a little too close to home, and I watched the credits roll through a pretty thick veil of tears. I want to watch this again…but perhaps not any time soon.

In the end, of course, we are allowed at least a brief reprise from despair in the form of the family that take the boy in. Yet they are a poor substitute, and the genuine love and caring the boy has lost in his father is irreplaceable. Ultimately, the closing message seems to suggest that kindness itself is irrelevant; in a world such as this, there is truthfully survival – or death.

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