Last night I tuned into "The Road" (2009), the film about a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world directed by John Hillcoat, for about a half hour. I watched the scenes where the father digs an old Coke can from a machine for his young son, where the father and son sleep in a truck on an empty highway (and we get a flashback showing us how the mom dies), and the horrifying segment where they discover a houseful of cannibals and their starved victims.
These scenes filled me with a queasy sense of dread, similar to what I remember feeling in the 1983 television movie "The Day After." I think creating an emotional response is the primary goal of a filmmaker. An audience needs to laugh with a comedy, cry at a melodrama, or feel excitement or fear in a thriller But creeping, nauseating dread is an uncomfortable reaction that, as an audience member, I don't want to feel. It reminds me a little of the way many people felt watching Todd Solondz's 1998 film "Happiness." I found that film darkly funny, but I know others were just slowly sickened by it.
Now that I'm a parent I have trouble watching "children in peril" films. I do not like watching children frightened. It is not a pleasant emotion. And if for some reason the child actually dies in the film, I turn it off. I'm not a fan of one character suffering for plot purposes, or the need to sacrifice one character for the benefit of another. Narratives about one character overcoming their own sense of loss are usually told at the expense of the victim. I often wonder if the deceased's story might have been more interesting.
I understand why we make and watch these films like "The Road" and even "Children of Men" (2006). We have a curiosity about what might happen if things go wrong, and we want to warn the world away from self-destruction. But sometimes I can't reconcile the story with the sick emotions I feel in the audience. Maybe I could in the past, but not now that I have my own family. In "The Road," when the father found an abandoned fallout shelter filled with food, and he and his son had a moment of peace and happiness, I turned it off. I needed a happy place to keep me from getting nightmares about an uncertain and horrifying future.