The Road Ending Explained: Are You Carrying The Fire?

This post contains spoilers for "The Road."

Before the whole concept of TV zombies really took off, the cinematic end of the world looked a lot grayer and more human, courtesy of "The Road." For anyone familiar with author Cormac McCarthy's work, it should come as no surprise that the film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel wasn't exactly the feel-good movie of 2009. Boosted by its selection for the Oprah Winfrey Book Club in 2007, "The Road" was already a literary sensation before director John Hillcoat set out to adapt it as the first follow-up to his critically acclaimed Australian Western "The Proposition."

The year after "The Road" hit theaters, viewers embraced a similar post-apocalyptic scenario on the small screen with AMC's "The Walking Dead." McCarthy wouldn't publish another book until late 2022, by which time there was a new zombie trailer in town—for HBO's "The Last of Us."

While "The Road" is zombie-free, it alludes heavily to flesh-eating as cannibal gangs imperil the journey of the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). We're spared the sight of them carving any human meat, but within 10 minutes, the Man's already teaching the Boy how to commit suicide should "the bad guys" catch up with them on their trek to the coast. Here again, as in "The Proposition," we're watching an unkempt bearded man work a revolver.

It wasn't always that way for the Man. "The Road" begins with a flashback to a time before the world became a stark, desaturated landscape ravaged by earthquakes and wildfires. Flowers bloom as the Man nuzzles his horse and his sunny blonde wife, the Woman (Charlize Theron), looks on. By the end, the Boy has a new family, and the viewer is left to piece together what it all meant.

The good guys, the bad guys

An ongoing thread in "The Road" is the increasingly blurred line between the "good guys" and "bad guys." It starts out as a simplistic way for the Man and Boy to differentiate themselves from people who threaten them. After he shoots his first bad guy with one of their last two bullets, the Man tells the Boy, "There's not many good guys left, that's all. We have to watch out for the bad guys. We have to just keep carrying the fire."

The Man goes on to clarify that he means "the fire inside you," reassuring the Boy that they're "still the good guys" and "always will be." It's a promise he's destined to break, since the rigors of survival have abraded the Man's sense of morality, leaving him distrustful and self-interested to a fault, whereas the Boy remains naturally altruistic.

The Man is concerned with his son's survival, of course, though his readiness to abandon hope with his trigger finger on that revolver is almost as itchy as David Drayton's in "The Mist." For the Boy, however, being the good guys means helping others outside their two-man family unit and not visiting worse wrongs on those who have wronged them.

The Boy follows the Golden Rule, basically. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." That's what carrying the fire means.

It's easy to do when they're in a house full of cannibals: clear bad guys with a basement people-pantry. In a fireside chat afterward, the Boy reasons that, even though he and the Man are starving, they "would never eat anybody," no matter how hungry they were. Yet the Man is also so overprotective that the Boy has to beg him to share food with a weak older man.

'Whoever made humanity will find no humanity here'

Ely the Old Man (Robert Duvall) says he thought he had died and the Boy was an angel when they first encounter each other on the road. At times, the Boy does act as the Man's conscience, giving voice to the better angels of his nature. "That old man wasn't a bad guy," he says to the Man. "You can't even tell anymore."

For the Man, morality is as murky as the cinematography and the question of what caused the world's end. This factors into his final fate after a deadly encounter where he and two other adults confuse each other for bad guys. Before that, we see the Man cross a new line, breaking the unspoken good-guy code with the Thief (the late Michael K. Williams) by forcing him to strip down naked at gunpoint after the Thief tries to abscond with his belongings.

The Thief brandishes a knife at first, but as he drops his defenses, we see that he's starving and fearful, just like the Man and Boy. As he drools and pleads, "Please, mister ... you ain't got to do me like this," the Man literally takes the clothes off his back, reclaiming his possessions but also stealing the Thief's dignity.

"You didn't mind doing it to us," the Man retorts. "I'm gonna leave you just the way you left us." Yet he's left the Thief in a far worse state, naked and shivering on the road. Even as the Boy advocates for the Thief's welfare, the Man dismisses it and dehumanizes him, saying, "He's going to die, anyway." As he safeguards his son, the life of a stranger is too abstract for him to care about. He's lost compassion for others, and this will be his undoing.

Flare vs. arrow

At the end of "The Road," the Man lays dying as an arrow wound exacerbates his sickness. Throughout the movie, he was paranoid about people following him and the Boy, and when an archer in a building shoots him in the leg, the Man retaliates by firing his flare gun through the window and killing the archer.

As he did with the Thief, the Man has again overreacted, partly out of self-defense, but partly also because he's lost some basic human empathy as an adult. The cares of the world have choked it out and left him suspicious (admittedly, with good reason) of anyone who's not family.

It turns out the archer and his own traveling companion thought the Man and Boy were following them. In this world of rags and bones — with its oppressive palette, drained of every color but grey — everyone is scared and everyone lashes out, mistaking good guys for bad guys and perhaps themselves becoming bad guys.

Some aspects of "The Road" are a bit much. There are moments where it almost plays like the unintentional parody of a poverty-porn film, with actors emoting to weepy string music, each of them made to look grimy and destitute in a movie they'd be walking the red carpet for months later. This peaks with the moment where a snaggle-toothed Guy Pearce shows up at the end as the Veteran, revealing himself, Molly Parker's "Motherly Woman," and their two sons to be the family of good guys who were following the Man and Boy all along.

They even have a dog with them. It's implied to be the same dog the Man and Boy heard outside the underground shelter where, earlier in the movie, they dined like kings on canned goods.

Fathers and sons, carrying the fire

Thinking the bad guys were closing in, the Man abandoned the shelter, even as the more optimistic Boy said, "You always think bad things are going to happen. But we found this place." In a simple misunderstanding, the Man let his fears get the best of him, giving up a bountiful food supply that could have nourished his gaunt frame back to health. The bad guys were out to get him and his son, but there were also good guys — other angels — looking out for them. The Boy saw one of the Veteran's sons earlier in the movie, running after him in a desire to connect.

In "The Road," character actor Garrett Dillahunt shows up as the gang member the Man first shoots. Dillahunt had auditioned for Josh Brolin's role in another Cormac McCarthy adaptation, the Oscar-winning "No Country for Old Men," where he wound up playing a sheriff's deputy alongside Tommy Lee Jones.

Suffice it to say, "The Road" is a film that suffers in comparison to "No Country for Old Men." It's not a masterpiece on the same level as the latter. However, if "The Road" has anything going for it, it's that — despite how bleak and miserable everything looks — its ending is surprisingly more hopeful than the ending of "No Country for Old Men."

In dialogue, it even evokes the same imagery of a person carrying fire. This is a movie where a father treats his son to a Coke at the end of the world. On a derelict overpass, Viggo Mortensen, the star of "The Lord of the Rings," takes off the Man's wedding ring and lays his wife's memory to rest, before his son finally lays him to rest and carries the fire forward into the next generation.