Archive for July, 2014

The_Debt_Poster[This post contains spoilers.]

One of the interesting (and often challenging) aspects of the espionage genre is that it often requires of the reader/viewer a certain amount of cultural/political awareness. Enter Le Carré’s world, for instance, and you need to know his particular brand of British jargon–that The Circus is actually MI6, and so forth. Still, spy films set in foreign countries find box office success with American audiences. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation from a Le Carré novel), Skyfall, and A Most Wanted Man (another Le Carré) are some recent examples. Why are these kinds of films successful? Why do audiences keep demanding them and studios keep financing them? One reason, I contend, is that while spy films may be culturally challenging, the thematic underpinnings of the genre–trust, guilt, innocence, betrayal, loyalty, and truth–are part of a universal language that translates across national borders with great ease.[1] For instance,The Debt (2010), which is set in and is ostensibly about Israel, is really an examination of guilt, sin, and the need for absolution. It is to these themes, therefore, I now turn.

Perhaps the most noticeable aspect of The Debt is its time-jumping narrative. Alternating back and forth between 1997 and 1965, the film is centered around a group of Mossad agents who were tasked with capturing the notorious Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel, also known as the Surgeon of Birkeanu, and returning him to Israel to stand trial.[2] We are told that the mission failed–that Vogel was able to break out of the safe house in which he was being held and was subsequently shot and killed by Mossad agent Rachel Singer (we see these events take place in a flashback as Rachel reads a portion of her daughter’s new non-fiction book on the mission). As we are introduced to Rachel Singer and the rest of the heroic team of Mossad agents–David Peretz and Stephan Gold–in 1997, we see that years after the fact this now famous mission still weighs heavily on their minds; it has seared the consciences. The majority of The Debt, however, takes place via flashback, as the ill-fated attempt to capture the Surgeon of Birkenau slowly unfolds. Tension slowly builds as the young Mossad agents capture Vogel and bring him to the safe house. We wait for his impending escape and subsequent death. Finally, the time we both dread and anticipate arrives. Vogel, using a shard of a broken bowl, severs the ropes that bind his hands, knocks Rachel into unconsciousness, and starts to flee. We know all of this; we’ve seen it all before. We know that Singer will wake up, grab her gun, and kill Vogel just before he runs out of sight. With the shot focusing on the unconscious body of Singer, we wait for that moment. Nothing happens. Dieter Vogel escapes.

Back to 1997, where Rachel learns that Vogel has surfaced and is threatening to reveal the three agents’ decades-old lie to a reporter: Rachel must now finish the job. She must kill Vogel. This time, Rachel succeeds; but she incurs a substantial wound in the process. As she lies there bleeding, her final words–hastily written on a piece of paper and found by the reporter who was supposed to interview Vogel–are relayed in voiceover:

My name is Rachel Singer. Please publish what you are about to read. In 1965, I was part of a mission to kidnap Dieter Vogel, The Surgeon of Birkenau, and bring him to Israel to stand trial. We have always claimed that Vogel was killed, trying to escape. But this was a lie. A lie I have lived with for thirty years. And now I understand that I must tell the truth.

In a very Dostoevskyian manner, The Debt shows that the law of God, written on the human heart, has the power to assail the conscience, revealing sin.[3] This theme is most clearly visible in the character of Rachel. She is clearly and visibly tormented by her lies. Her deceitfulness haunts her. In addition, the accusatory power of Rachel’s sins are made apparent by the fact that her daughter’s book–a lifetime worth of research and labor–is founded on untruth. A tension is created thusly: Rachel desperately longs for the truth to be told–for her guilt to be assuaged, yet she fears bringing shame upon her family. Finally, she chooses to do the right thing, confessing the cover-up, telling the truth. But is her burden lifted and the guilt removed? Was it worth it? Even if she survives, we do not know the nature of the fallout with her surviving family. The implication is that a written confession to a reporter is the only satisfaction she received. This lingering note of hopelessness, is the not-so-Dostoevskyian part of The Debt. Perhaps the film is reaching down to its Jewish roots, pointing to a need for absolution and atonement in light of human depravity and the debilitating effects of sin. Debts, after all, must be paid. In the end, when you watch a movie like The Debt, you thank God that Christ’s blood, as Toplady said, saves us from sin’s guilt and power.

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[1]I do not mean to imply that the cultural aspects of spy films are unworthy of consideration or are nonexistent. It’s just that this is not a cultural studies blog.

[2]Since the film moves between two points in time, the main characters are each portrayed by two actors–one old and one young. For this reason, I have chosen not to include the actor’s name in parenthesis beside the character he or she portrays.

[3]I believe it was David Powlison who made this excellent observation. However, I do not recall a source.

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miceThe Rescuers (1977) is a delightfully fun animated Disney classic. It is the story of two mice, Bianca (Eva Gabor) and Bernard (Bob Newhart), who must go on a daring mission to rescue the kidnapped orphan Penny (Michelle Stacy) from the clutches of the evil Medusa (Geraldine Page). It is a story of friendship, love, rescue, and bravery in the face of fear. It is also a story in which a mouse gives us an idea of what it means to be a man–as Bernard, throughout the film, proves himself to be a man’s mouse.

Bernard consistently puts himself in harm’s way in order to protect Bianca. When the Rescue Aid Society receives Penny’s message in a bottle, Bernard shows no interest in going on a rescue mission. However, when Bianca volunteers, Bernard, knowing that the mission is dangerous, suggests that someone accompany her on the trip to keep her safe. That someone ends up being him. Shortly after their journey begins, Bianca and Bernard find themselves taking a shortcut through a zoo. Bernard goes ahead to scout a dark and spooky pathway, making sure it it safe for Bianca. After encountering a grumpy lion, Bernard decides that they should take the long way. Fast-forward to when the villainous Medusa forces Penny down into the cave to look for the Devil’s Eye, a large diamond; it is Bernard who offers to explore a particularly treacherous part of the cave. Time and time again, Bernard puts himself in harm’s way in order to ensure the safety of Bianca.

The point is not that Bernard is a macho man, who boldly goes where no mouse has gone before–far from it. In most of the above examples of bravery, Bernard is afraid of the challenges set before him. Remember, Bernard did not volunteer himself to go on the rescue mission; Bianca chose him. Once selected, however, he was willing to give his life, if necessary, to keep Bianca from harm. Additionally, the anxiety is almost palpable (it is certainly visible) as Bernard heads into the dark part of the zoo and, later, the cave. No, the source of Bernard’s bravery is not mere machismo or some chauvinistic sense of male superiority, but an outworking of his nature as a man. His love for Bianca compels him. He has a need to protect Bianca, a deep-seated urge that overwhelms and overpowers the fear that, at times, rules his life. This sort of sacrificial leadership has nothing to do with a man’s capability or value (for men and women are equal in God’s sight), but it has everything to do with God-ordained roles. In the end, Bernard is willing to sacrifice his safety in order to preserve Bianca’s because that is what he was created to do.

The Rescuers shows, in a small way (see what I did there?), what authentic manhood looks like. A true man–a godly man–accepts dangerous challenges, leads the way into the lion’s lair, fights Medusas, and explores the unreached parts of caves. A real man slays the creepy-crawlies that strike fear in the heart of his wife, though he too is afraid of them. The authentic man goes to work to provide for his family. He gives of himself, and gives, and gives, and gives; and when he can’t give any more, he lays down his life, as Christ once did for him.

Forrest Gump Knows What Love Is

Posted: July 28, 2014 by jperritt in Classic, Drama
Tags: , ,

forrestI think I saw a tweet somewhere that listed the Top 5 Films to Watch on the Fourth of July.  I noticed that Forrest Gump made the list, so my wife and I decided to watch a little bit of the film after we put the kids to bed (we ended up watching all of it).

Forrest Gump was an instant classic.  While watching it with my wife this last time, I remarked that Robert Zemeckis must have known he was making a Best Picture before the film was even complete.  The scope this film encompasses is remarkable.  All of the historic events that are covered through the life of one man is amazing.  The acting, the score, the soundtrack, the quotes – “Life is like a box of chocolates” – all of it, simply spelled O-S-C-A-R.

I can remember watching this film in the theater and not fully appreciating all I was experiencing – I was thirteen, after all.  I really enjoyed it, but there is a lot to take in.  However, something I’ve come to appreciate through the years is Forrest’s love for Jenny.  For those who remember the story, Forrest falls head over heals for Jenny the first time he sits by her on the bus.  After many variations of, “You can’t sit here.”  He finally heard the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard tell him, “You can sit here, if you’d like.”  From that point on, Jenny and Forrest were like “peas and carrots.”  But, that doesn’t mean their relationship wasn’t littered with difficulty.

While Jenny was always Forrest’s girl, Jenny didn’t necessarily feel the same way about Forrest.  Now, Jenny did have a rough past with an abusive father, so her hesitance to become attached to another is understandable.  However, she definitely goes off the deep-end.  Experimentation with drugs, a lifestyle of stripping, numerous partners, you name it and Jenny experienced it.  All the while, Forrest loved Jenny.

While Jenny was trying to silence the hatred from her past with sex and drugs, Forrest continued to display love towards her.  Through high school, through college, and through the military, Forrest continued to love Jenny.  Forrest went to fight in the Vietnam War and wrote Jenny every day he was serving (all of those letters were later returned).  It seemed like the more Forrest loved Jenny, the more she attempted to shut him out.  Even when he came to her rescue from abusive lovers, she would still show frustration towards him.

There is one point in the film where Jenny has had a night of heavy drug abuse, and she finds herself on the ledge of a building.  She climbs up with the obvious thought of ending her life as she sees the people several stories below her.  When I first saw this film, I’m ashamed to say that I was cheering for her to end her life.  Honestly, I was tired of seeing her destroy herself, I was tired of seeing her abuse Forrest’s love, in short, I was tired of all the brokenness.  However, I’ve learned to see myself as Jenny.

To put it quite bluntly, I am a whore like Jenny.  I am a substance abuser like Jenny.  I am one who shuns the love of the only faithful Lover of my soul.  While Forrest is by no means a perfect picture of a savior in this film, he does give us a glimpse of the unwavering love of Jesus Christ.  Forrest never stops loving Jenny, he never stops serving Jenny, he never stops searching for Jenny, he never stops defending Jenny, he never stops protecting Jenny, and, in the end, he marries Jenny.

You may not see yourself as broken as Jenny.  If that’s true, I would say you may not see how deeply you are loved by Christ.  During one conversation with Jenny, Forrest states, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”  I’m not the smartest man either, but I know who love is and his name is Jesus Christ.

1The paranoid thriller was a popular genre in the 1970s. Americans were reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, and they didn’t trust the government. These sentiments gave way to a new wave of conspiracy theories and a general sense of cultural suspicion and distrust. It was a time when, in the words of The Avett Brothers, paranoia was on our heels. And since art often reflects life, this period of paranoia is distinctly discernible in many films of the 1970s. In point of fact, 70s films are frequently fraught with political tension and laced with criticism and skepticism. Watching paranoia films without a basic knowledge of 70s American history can be frustrating to say the least. As important as the historical/cultural context of the genre is, however, it is important to remember that the root problem on display in paranoia films is not fundamentally political, but spiritual.[1] The problem is not despotic governments, but depraved minds. It has to do with human nature and our tendency toward paranoia, as well as the fact that hope is impossible when the gospel is taken out of the equation. This notion of an overlooked spiritual component in the paranoia epidemic of the 70s will serve as the basis for the following look at a particularly interesting paranoia film, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).

A few lines from The Avett Brothers song, Paranoia in B Flat Major, do a great job conveying the tense and, well, paranoid tone of The Conversation:

I keep tellin’ myself that it’ll be fine. / You can’t make everybody happy all of the time. / I find myself in a place that I never been, / A place that I thought that I could never be. / There’s people looking back at me.

The film follows Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), an audio surveillance expert who, in a recorded conversation, hears what he assumes to be a couple trying to escape a murder plot. What follows in The Conversation is a case study of the effects of paranoia, as we watch Harry Caul’s initial curiosity about the recording slowly turn into madness. Caul becomes obsessed with preventing this murder, but his fear only paralyzes him. Caul replays the recoded conversation many, many times, listening for clues about the forthcoming murder attempt. Devoting himself to discovering the truth, he begins to suspect that he is being watched. Ironically, his paranoia makes him incapable of any true and meaningful action; and as the film progresses, he becomes increasingly reclusive, withdrawing from virtually all personal interaction. Caul’s fear and anxiety, which manifest themselves in paranoid behavior, drive him to near insanity.

One of the interesting things about The Conversation is that it encourages us to identify with Harry Caul in his paranoid state, for it is through this identification that the film delivers its thrills. The narrative follows Caul so closely that it is possible to say that the film is told from his perspective. On a formal level, numerous crowded, tight shots give the film a very claustrophobic feel and provide us with a deeper understanding of Caul’s paranoia. It is noteworthy, then, that, in addition to creating the suspense in the film, these narratological and stylistic elements work precisely because they make us see ourselves as Caul, the paranoid and helpless individual. In other words, we have in Harry Caul not another “good villain,” another Walter White, but a man with an extremely relatable struggle. Because it turns out that the 2010s are not all that different from the 1970s: paranoia is all the rage. Just listen to talk radio. Think about all of the security products that guarantee you peace of mind and a worry-free life. We are more paranoid than ever.[2] So, the question begged by The Conversation (and other paranoid thrillers) is this: Are we, like Caul, really nothing more than a helpless individual fighting a losing battle against our ever-increasing paranoia? Is there any solace to be had?

Christianity destroys paranoia. The Scriptures tell us that God sees all things–that God is constantly watching over his creation, dispensing both his common and and saving grace in abundant goodness. The gospel tells us that those who trust in Christ have been reconciled to God; therefore, he cares for us in a special way. He is sovereignly directing every aspect, every event of our lives (Matthew 10:26–33; Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:11). In our foolishness, we fear governments instead of God. Our fear drives us to isolate ourselves from every possible danger–especially God. You see, Christianity is dangerous; it is a call to follow Christ and die to self. And Christ does not call us to comfort and security. He does not promise that we will know “what’s going on” all the time; He promises to be with us (Matthew 28:20). The One who created the cosmos at a word—the fiery sun and vast universe, the ocean depths and mountain heights, the frozen tundra and the desert—it is He who cares for you, the One who took on flesh. Do you think Him too weak? Rejoice and live! Abandon your paranoia, insecurities, hopelessness and, yes, your life for Christ. The cure to paranoia is found when, to borrow from Lidie H. Edmunds’s hymn, our faith finds a resting place in the Savior. This is the truth in the 1970s, the 2010s, and any other age.

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[1]This is not to deny that there are political factors that help explain the genre. However, the human tendency to paranoia is not caused by despotic (or allegedly despotic) governments. Most of the scholarship on paranoid thrillers completely ignore this reality.

[2] Once again, our paranoia is being reflected in the movie industry. Green Zone (2012), Paranoia (2013), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) are just a few examples of recent entries into the genre

IncrediblesSo, my family and I were watching The Incredibles for the 53rd time and I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before.  For those of you who have already seen the film, be patient for just a moment.

TI is about a family of superheroes who fight to save the world.  Mr. Incredible fell in love with Elastigirl and they made a family of supers.  As happy as all of this sounds, they actually have to live in hiding, so to speak.  You see, Mr. Incredible was doing his “thing” saving people and put supers around the world in jeopardy.

While Mr. Incredible was on top of a building, he saw a would-be jumper and dove to save him from his sure death.  While he was saving this suicidal citizen he stopped a bank robbery and saved an elevated train from plummeting to the earth.  However, through all of his heroic acts, he discovered that some of these people did not want to be saved.  Therefore, the supers were sued and forced into hiding because some people just didn’t want to be saved.

The nuance I noticed on this viewing was the name of the individual Mr. Incredible saved – Mr. Sansweet.  This was the one individual that destroyed the supers’ organization.  This was the one individual who brought destruction to a people attempting to save humanity.  This one individual wanted to end his life and his selfishness led to widespread destruction.  His name – Sansweet.  It struck me that the word “sans” means “without”.  Therefore, you could say that his name literally means “Without Sweetness”.  In other words, this guy was without sweetness and worked in such a way to bring destruction.

Mr. Sansweet (without having any prior knowledge of him) wanted to end his life.  Maybe he was in financial trouble?  Maybe he was lonely?  Maybe no one showed him the love every human longs for?  Whatever the case, he decided to jump off of a building with the hopes of ending his life.  When, however, an individual (Mr. Incredible) decides to save his life, it drives Mr. Sansweet to hatred – not love.  He moves forward in a suit that would benefit him financially and bring about difficulty for the supers, as well as, the citizens who have been under their care.

This got me to thinking about humanity’s “Mr. Sansweet”.  There was this beautiful angel named, Lucifer.  He had happiness, unity, joy, but he was still unsatisfied.  Why?  He was self-focused.  Instead of being happy with unimaginable joy, he wanted more.  Therefore, he pursued suicide over joy.  He left the life that was graciously given to him and dove head-first into a suicidal path of destruction.

You see, Satan did not appreciate the love he was lavished.  He did not rest content in the life that was created and granted to him.  Instead he selfishly sought for more.  He was Mr. Sansweet.  In other words, he lacked sweetness.  He lacked love.  He lacked joy and his selfish act brought about a path of destruction ever since his appearance in the garden.

However, Love wouldn’t allow selfishness to have that last word.  Love didn’t stand to the side.  Love didn’t give up.  Love left His throne and made sure selflessness would reign supreme.  Instead of allowing the selfish suicide of “Mr. Sansweet” to reign supreme, Jesus allowed Satan to pursue another form of suicide – the cross.

As John Piper once said, the day Jesus died on the cross was the day Satan committed suicide.  You see, Satan knew he had lost.  Satan knew he had been defeated.  Satan knew that his selfish acts had not brought him life, rather, death.  All of that to say, Satan is our Mr. Sansweet.  He’s not a sweet guy – in fact, he’s pure evil.  However, we have a King who does not allow sin and selfishness to reign.  Instead, he brought a selflessness to this earth and it’s allowed peace and love to dominate this creation that’s filled with Mr. Sansweets like you and me.

Breach-movie-posterI am a huge fan of espionage films. To be more precise, I am a sucker for a particular sub-genre: the spy drama. While Daniel Craig’s Bond movies are enjoyable, and the Bourne trilogy is a personal favorite, my heart is with George Smiley (shame on you if you don’t know who he is) and company. Car chases and brilliantly choreographed fight scenes may be fun, but it’s the intellectual game of cat-and-mouse–counter-espionage, double agents, and things of the like–that really make the genre shine. So, when I sat down to watch Breach, I thought I knew what to expect. However, as I watched and thought, I found the movie confronting me in some very unexpected ways. It made me think about vocation and relationships.

Breach tells the true story of Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe), an aspiring  FBI agent who is sent undercover to catch suspected agency mole Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper). In order to catch Hanssen, O’Neill must leave his current post—the high-profile tracking and monitoring of potential national security threats—and take an ostensibly boring and thankless desk job as Hanssen’s personal assistant. O’Neill is told to send daily reports detailing Hanssen’s activities. And while O’Neill believes this assignment is a hinderance to his professional aspiration of becoming an agent, he does what is asked, typing out meticulous reports day after day. In addition to the low-profile assignment, O’Neill has to put up with Hanssen’s overbearing personality. Later in the film, a weary and bored O’Neill is informed of the true nature of his assignment. He is told that Hanssen is the biggest traitor in U.S. history, and that they are trying to build a case against him. O’Neill works with a renewed vigor. The problem is that the assignment forces him to keep odd hours and be on call all at all times of the day, which creates friction between O’Neill and his wife Juliana (Caroline Dhavernas).  Juliana is frustrated by Eric’s lack of attention, and she fears for his safety. Eric becomes preoccupied and dismissive. The two begin to fight on a regular basis. This marital conflict, I believe, is one thing that makes Breach work as a narrative. We are situated somewhere between Eric and Juliana; we desperately want to see Hanssen captured, but we also want to see the O’Neill’s marriage healed. These central conflicts compel us to think and care about the principal characters.

On a personal level, Breach made me think about my calling as an employee and as a husband. First, Breach made me reflect on the fact that my job is more than a source of income; it is a vocation, a calling from God. In the daily grind and rush, I forget this truth far too often. It is easy to see a job as just another set of tasks to be completed, when it is really an opportunity to bring glory to Christ. When I go to work, I am a reflection of God, who created the cosmos, who is constantly working his sovereign will. The second thing Breach spurred me to reflect on is my calling as a husband. I know that like Eric O’Neill, I have a natural, sinful tendency to get caught up in my work at the expense of my relationship with my wife (and I’m quite sure that I am not alone in this regard). As I sat and watched the conflict between husband and wife unfold in Breach I was reminded of my high calling as a husband–a reminder I need daily. Breach shows that being good at your job is a very good thing, but that doing so to the neglect of your relationships is vanity.

This point is driven home near the film’s end [spoiler alert], where O’Neill is offered a position as an agent. He is told that his wife will learn to adjust. However, O’Neill has seen the danger and is not willing to let his wife play second fiddle; he rejects the offer and resigns.  O’Neill loves his wife more than he does his job. He wants to be a good husband and a good worker. In this, Breach provides at least one instance in which it would not be a bad thing for life to imitate art.

“There is something coming that is out of my control.”

philomena-title-bannerPhilomena tells the story of a woman’s search for her son.  Philomena (Judi Dench) had a child out of wedlock, was forced to live in a convent, and could only see her child for an hour a day, until he was given away to his adopted parents.  The movie is truly heartbreaking in many ways, and the fact that it is true makes it a difficult film to watch.  However, the film is also filled with some humor, thanks to the journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan).  Both Coogan and Dench have a great chemistry in the film.

This is a film I think everyone should watch.  Yes, it does have some language and difficult content, but it also communicates truths about self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and forgiveness everyone would do well to reflect on.  It is a powerful film, to say the least.  And, it definitely was deserving of the Oscar nomination for Best Picture (it lost to 12 Years a Slave).

[There will be spoilers from here on]

Sixsmith is approached by Philomena’s daughter and convinced to write a human interest piece on this story.  Their investigation takes them to the United States with the hopes of finding Philomena’s son, Anthony/Michael.  She knows he would be in his fifties now and Philomena wonders if he’s happy.  Has he had a good life?  Was he loved by his mother and father?  Does he even remember Philomena or Ireland?  These were just some of the questions rolling around in her mind.  Something that bounced around in my mind was this, Even if they do find him, she has still missed his childhood – how tragic.

Sadly, their search leads them to discover that Anthony (adoptive name, Michael) passed away eight years ago.  All of the searching, all of Philomena’s hopes, all of her happy endings seem ruined.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Sixsmith forces his way into see one of the nuns responsible [Sister Hildegarde] for the mother/child separation.  He peppers her with question we would all ask.  He yells at her.  He says all the things we wish we could say to this horrible woman and the tragic events she brought about in Philomena’s life.  I found myself almost cheering Sixsmith along.  However, the Sister retorts that this life is all Philomena’s fault for her sin.  She deserved every bit of what came to her.  She says it is God’s judgment.  What the Sister doesn’t realize is that Philomena is around the corner.

As Philomena comes into view, she doesn’t berate the Sister, rather, she questions Sixsmith.  Sixsmith is puzzled by her lack of anger towards the convent and is curious why she isn’t infuriated.  She then looks at Sister Hildegarde and says the most powerful statement she could make, I forgive you.  And that statement rocked me to my core.

I wanted her to scream at the Sister.  I wanted her to have some wittily, condemning statement that would get the point across, but the truth is – I forgive you – is the most powerful statement one could utter.

Philomena helped me see with fresh eyes the power of forgiveness.  It helped me see my self-righteous, judgmental tendencies, like those in the convent.  It helped me see that a lack of forgiveness is an exhausting way to live.  But, most importantly it helped me to see the forgiveness of Christ.  You see, I have committed much more evil against him then the women in the convent.  I am much worse than anything film could ever portray.  But, Christ looks at me and says, I forgive you.  John, you have loved other false gods.  You have sinned agains the Father and nailed me to the cross, but I forgive you.

Philomena is one of those rare films that can leave a lasting impact on its audience.  Like I said, it rebukes, encourages, and shines a light on the power of forgiveness.  Everyone would do well to watch it and see themselves as the self-righteous nuns and Sixsmith in the story.

[This post is spoiler-free. Read without fear.]

Snowpiercer-Movie-Poster-Chris-EvansMany reviewers have praised Snowpiercer precisely because it is a blend of dystopian anti-capitalism political piece and gritty action-thriller; however, if said mixture is composed of two parts pickle juice and one part Kool-Aid, is it really all that tasty? Like the speeding train on which the story unfolds, the movie turns around and around in narrative circles. Here is the rhythm: an action scene is followed by a section of dialogue, which, by the way, is not used to develop characters but to highlight the ostensibly subtle political subtext. In other words, Snowpiercer cannot decide what it wants to be—a piercing, unidealized action film, or a preachy socio-political commentary. There is a tension in this film between sections of Snowpiercer and Snowpreacher; this tension is never resolved, and the film is muddled as a result. The problem with Snowpiercer stems not from its predictability but its repetitiveness—its ceaseless alternation between violence and politics.

As Flannery O’Connor said, a reasonable use of the unreasonable can be a good thing. In this regard, Flannery was a master at practicing what she preached. Snowpiercer, however, is a very violent film (most of the combat is hand-to-hand and ruthlessly brutal) that is not the least bit reasonable in its approach to cinematic butchery. The audience is repeatedly confronted with wave after wave of bloodshed——a violence that neither propels the narrative forward nor knows the power of restraint—as Curtis (Chris Evans) leads his band of proletariat revolutionaries to the front of the train. Snowpiercer continues to supply unnecessary action scenes when none are needed—as if the audience is too daft to understand that the revolution is a bloody affair. In short, the violence is over-the-top, redundant, and little more than a poorly executed attempt to counterbalance the film’s preachiness.

The politics of Snowpiercer are far from subtle; they are very much on-the-nose, in fact. Critics who claim otherwise are, perhaps, blinded by their own political predilections. Nevertheless, the real trouble with Snowpiercer is that it pushes its political agenda at the expense of story. Instead of devoting screen time to character development, Joon-ho Bong (the writer/director) created clunky, unwieldy sections of dialogue in which the characters over-explain the train’s class system and retell the story of how the planet was accidentally frozen in an attempt to combat global warming. Such scenes are replayed in slightly different contexts on multiple occasions—just like the scenes of violence.

The result of the mishmash of gritty Sci-fi action and political critique that is Snowpiercer is a story in which it is very difficult to take interest—an unfortunate state of affairs considering that the movie has some real strengths and a considerable amount of potential. The cinematography is superb; the film’s grim realism is masterfully reinforced by dark visuals. Lower-class characters look so grungy that it is as if the movie was shot using grainy film stock. In this way, it is a strangely (and ironically) beautiful film. In addition, the acting is a real treat. Chris Evans shows that he has some diversity in his acting toolkit, while Tilda Swinton infuses her villainous character with quirky life. Snowpiercer has all the makings of a fine movie, but a captivating story was sacrificed for the sake of an allegedly visionary agenda. Because of this, it fails.

The import of Snowpiercer is that the primary duty of a storyteller—a class to which filmmakers belong—is to tell a captivating, rich, and tightly-wound story[1]. Snowpiercer could have kept its political agenda and still created a good film, if only Joon-ho Bong had put as much care in his narrative and characters as he did his politics. Christians (and Christian filmmakers) should learn from these faults. Unfortunately the major problem with Snowpiercer is the same issue plaguing the Christian film industry: sacrificing good storytelling for the sake of preaching.

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[1] Good storytelling and cultural criticism are not mutually exclusive. However, the latter should serve the former.

This post is a few years old, but decided to run it again because of Monday’s post.

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Hannibal Lecture, Norman Bates, & Darth Vader; three of cinemas greatest villains. According to the American Film Institute, these are the top three greatest villains of all time. The shark from Jaws, the alien from Alien, and the Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs also made it in the top twenty.

What is it about these villains that make them better than the average villain? Why is it when we think of Darth Vader, for example, that we think, Yes! He’s an awesome villain. For starters, he’s got the force, his outfit is pretty cool, and his voice/breathing has left a lasting impression on culture (thanks James Earl Jones). But, he also crushes a man’s neck in Episode IV, as well as, cutting off several other character’s breathing, ending their life. Is that good? Does that make him awesome?

We at Reel Thinking, recently composed a list of the top villains/henchmen in the James Bond franchise. It got me thinking, should we really cheer for the bad guys? What criteria do we use to judge whether or not a villain is a ‘good’ villain? Or, is it okay to like the villain in some cases?

According to AFI’s criteria, they state,

For voting purposes, a “villain” was defined as a character(s) whose wickedness of mind, selfishness of character and will to power are sometimes masked by beauty and nobility, while others may rage unmasked. They can be horribly evil or grandiosely funny, but are ultimately tragic.*

This is a carefully crafted definition, but ultimately it’s praising crafty, wickedness or, simply, in-your-face evil. Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Craftiness

The AFI definition states that the wickedness and evil is sometimes masked by beauty and nobility; i.e. craftiness. When I hear the word ‘crafty’, I think of Satan. In Genesis 3:1 we read that the serpent was more crafty than all the other animals. The serpent was wicked, yet there was something attractive about him. His evil wasn’t repulsive or Adam and Eve would have run in the other direction. His wickedness had an appeal, or beauty if you will, that made Adam and Eve run to him, resulting in the Fall of mankind. Therefore, we can say that evil sometimes possesses a certain level of beauty and appeal.

In-Your-Face-Evil

Some of the villains on the AFI list are those who rage unmasked or are considered horribly evil. Villains like Freddy Krueger, the shark from Jaws, and Terminator from The Terminator. We wouldn’t say that these villains possess a lot of beauty. I know a shark is part of God’s creation, so we can say they possess a certain level of beauty. However, if you were swimming in open water and you spotted a great white racing towards you, I doubt you would think – What beauty that creature possesses!

Some of the villains on the silver screen are pure evil. What is it about those villains that leave a lasting impression? They possess a certain level of power, justice, and wrath we appreciate.

Even though they may use those attributes in a dishonoring way, the attributes, in and of themselves, are godly. We know God as all-powerful, or omnipotent. He is just. And because of his holiness, justice and love, he is wrath too. All of these attributes, however, are only used in a beautiful way that makes his glory known.

Therefore, I think we can appreciate villains. We must be cautious in cheering for the bad guy or taking pleasure in these godly attributes being employed in a villainous manner. However, these attributes, pre-perversion, can help us better understand our mighty God.

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*http://www.afi.com/100Years/handv.aspx