Recommended with extreme caution. This is a profound film. From Last of the Mohicans to The Insider, to Heat, and now to Collateral Michael Mann really picks well-written and thought out scripts to direct and brings them to life with zest and grit. In the postmodern situation that we find ourselves in, moral relativity is the dominant philosophy of ethics. If there is no meaning in life, if all is reducible to chance, then there is no ultimate right and wrong. All our sentiments of outrage at anything at all being wrong are merely conditioned responses or emotionally constructed subjective values that we have no right to impose on others. In this environment, I think the most powerful movies to cut through that kind of pomo mind clutter, that kind of mental pollution, are thrillers. Thrillers like this take that belief or relativism to its logical conclusion and show you the kind of person that philosophy creates when lived to its CONSISTENT CONCLUSION. It shows in an intuitive or emotional gut reaction way that EVIL IS REAL, that there really are evil people and they deserve to die. The only reason most atheists are not insane or monsters of cruelty, the only reason any of them believe in any kind of right and wrong, is because they are NOT being consistent with their beliefs. They maintain a residue of Christianity that haunts their very ability to reason at all. They believe there is no right and wrong while protesting the “wrongness” of environmental pollution, nuclear arms, and animal experimentation. They believe there are no such things as absolute standards, yet they believe in women’s “rights” and children’s “rights,” and civil “rights.” They cut their own throats and try to yell fowl at Christians and other moralists. This movie is a breath of fresh moral air. But it is rather brutal, and not for the squeamish. Tom Cruise is a hitman that hijacks cabbie Jamie Fox to take him around LA so he can pull off five hits for the evening. Jamie is the talker who has failed to move on his dreams of starting his own business for 12 years. As Cruise takes him through the night, he forces Jamie to confront his own lack of action in life. Cruise’s “gusto living” of killing is justified by an appeal to evolution and to the fact that life is meaningless and absurd. He says something to the effect that we are all insignificant specs of dust on a huge spinning ball in an insignificant corner of a universe of matter in motion. The movie brings out the alienation and utter despair of modern existence in a parable retelling of a true story by the hitman: A commuter on the metro link train died and rode around all day on the train without anyone noticing. Boy, does that picture our alienated society or what? Yet, why should we complain? If we are ultimately just atoms in collision evolving through change, then there is no transcendence to connect us, to give some kind of meaning to our lives and justify a human value. If we have no transcendent value, then we cannot be appalled by the destruction of human life. It truly is survival of the fittest, may the strongest man win. Again, the Will to Power. What I loved about this film was that through facing death, real brutal death, we, with the cabbie, are jolted into finding the real meaning in life and doing something about it, rather than just existing with our untried dreams. “Seize the day” has no value unless there is something worthy of seizing, and there can be nothing worthy of seizing in an atheistic evolutionary worldview of alienated matter in motion. Appeals to neo-evolutionary psychology of “what is best for the herd” fall flat on the consistent conclusion of the evolutionary ultimacy of atoms. If reality is ultimately reducible to atoms in motion, then “herd protection,” indeed, survival itself, is simply a convenient subjective emotional fiction.
Still not recommended at all. Okay, so some people kept saying, but Volume 2 is different. You should see it. So I did. And I need to amend my previous comments. Regarding Volume 1 I said, “Tarantino turns out to be merely an ex-video store clerk obsessed with bad 70s TV, bad Hong Kong karate films, bad exploitation films, and pastiche culture, who struck a single good chord with Pulp Fiction.” But I must now change my mind. I must now say, “Tarantino turns out to be merely an ex-video store clerk obsessed with bad 70s TV, bad Hong Kong karate films, bad exploitation films, and pastiche culture, who struck a single good chord with Pulp Fiction – and has some cool camera angles.” Okay? So there. I was wrong. My goodness, homage to spaghetti westerns and kung fu movies is one thing, but does every single line delivered by every character have to be whispered like the last slow-boil line of a Clint Eastwood Western? Too long scenes, too long dialogue, too long monologues, too many rambling “asides”, too many and too long stories told by too many characters — TOO LONG. TOO BAD.
Highly Recommended with Caution. Now THIS is a revenge movie the way it should be. The Punisher, Kill Bill, Walking Tall, all recent and failed revenge movies because of their simple inability to understand the morality of revenge and its implications. First of all, Denzel Washington as the lead. Pure unadulterated class. This guy is my absolute favorite actor, not merely for his presence but for his choices in movies. He seems to be choosing more and more stories that have spiritual sides to them. This one clearly has it. Training Day was brilliant. He is a cynical ex-assassin for the CIA who has lost the will to live. He gets a job as bodyguard for a little girl of a Mexican aristocrat. The girl is played with wonderful brilliance by my favorite child actor, Dakota Fanning. BEWARE, big spoiler here: Anyway, he fails and she gets kidnapped, and ultimately killed and Denzel goes on a one man killing spree to track down every man connected with her kidnapping and killing right up to the top. This is what makes the movie harsh and probably not viewable for those more squeamish about violence. The story plays out the emotion of vigilante justice for us and we follow it because it rings true in our souls, good or bad. As I’ve explained elsewhere, vigilante violence is wrong, but it is a strong reality in our world and we must wrestle with the reality of our own duplicity. The fact is we do want those S.O.B.s who kidnap, rape and kill kids to die, and that is a righteous desire. But the fact is the law often does not bring justice for us. But is our rage or hatred justified by violating the law ourselves, or does that merely reduce us to the very evil we want to destroy? We want to follow Creasy on his spree to see justice achieved. Why? Because we want our innocence back. So, in some ways revenge against injustice is a natural and understandable desire. But is it ultimately right? The reason Creasy hunts them all down is because Pita, the little girl, was the one person to bring him hope again. Her innocence gave his depravity a chance for redemption, and that was stolen. Now, with that gone, he has nothing left to lose. Anyway, no playing around with fairness like in The Punisher, he kills them each without mercy, save a lowly Mexican woman. The point is, it rings absolutely true and genuine. Throughout the film through snatchets we learn that Denzel’s character, Creasy, has a spiritual past. He’s given up on God because of his own darkness. A nun asks Creasy if he sees the hand of God in his work as a bodyguard protecting the innocent. He says dryly, “no.” He can even quote the Bible but doesn’t believe it anymore, and struggles with reading the Bible in his moments alone in his apartment, because he knows it has the answer, he just can’t bring himself to go there. One moment even has him putting away the bottle to read the Bible. Near the end when Creasy discovers that Pita is actually alive, he gets the offer that she will live if he gives himself up to the head bad guy, “The Voice.” So when Creasy does give his life for the girl, he does so willingly in love for her. And he must die in a moral sense because of his own evil. But he redeems himself by realizing that to regain innocence he must sacrifice himself, not others. He must give his life for another. Substitutionary atonement. In this way, Creasy is a Christ figure. He is a metaphor of what Christ did for his own children. He sought them out, one by one, went to the very bowels of hell to rescue them and gave his life as a ransom for many. And I believe this self sacrifice is what redeems the otherwise vigilante story. Creasy realizes that freedom will be purchased by him dying for the girl, not necessarily killing the evil men. Of course, killing them in self-defense or through due process of law is certainly morally good, but personal vigilanteism is not. Vigilanteism is driven by hatred, not justice. Sacrifice is driven by love, not hate. As Denzel drives away with the bad guys, the screen fades out and we can only imagine the Passion-like horrors he will endure for the little one he saved. Very powerful. A thought comes to me head that it would have been great to tie in an element previously from the movie. Previously, Creasy blew up a guy by putting a bomb up his butt and setting it off with a watch timer. Well, wouldn’t it have been just nice for Creasy to be driving away with the Bad Guy and his gang, and then they hear a “beeping.” What is that? And they explode because Creasy had placed one of those bombs in himself. But even though that would have still been a self sacrifice, it would have spoiled the real sense of true suffering that we knew he would endure for the little girl. It would have been more Hollywood in wrapping up all the ends and getting the Bad Guy at the end anyway. And being Hollywood isn’t necessarily bad. But in this case, they probably chose the right path. Not to show that bad guys get away, but to show the deeper myth of atonement that was trying to be illustrated. Interesting how Brian Helgeland, the writer, would write the nihilism of Mystic River and L.A. Confidential then write a redemptive story like this. I think it clearly shows the influence of Mr. Washington, just like Training Day was influenced by him when he challenged the storytellers with the Scripture, “the wages of sin is death,” as a guide to the moral theme and the bad guy’s ending.
Not recommended. First of all, this is a revenge movie, so for a theological examination of the morality of revenge see my article, “A Time To Revenge?: Vigilanteism and Movie Justice in A Time to Kill. But leaving that aside for the moment, I would like to address the story of this genre movie. This movie was very difficult to watch, not because it was a revenge movie, but because it was a revenge movie trying not to be a revenge movie until the last act, which totally confused it. Basically, you have this undercover cop, Frank Castle, whose entire family and friends are killed as revenge for a mobster’s son’s death under Frank’s sting operation. The storytellers try to make Frank a righteous and good man by showing that the mobster’s kid shows up unannounced, and Frank doesn’t know who he is, and then Frank is disappointed when he discovers that the kid is accidentally shot dead in a drug bust he was working on. No one was supposed to get hurt, we discover. Okay, so that’s fine. I like righteous men as heros. But the problem is this: the movie sets up a very emotionally extreme revenge situation but delivers a confused pay off by trying to make Frank’s revenge, “legitimate” or “fair,” rather than embracing the full heart of revenge. It just isn’t emotionally or humanly believable. The mobster, Howard, finds out that Frank was the head of the sting that killed his kid, and Howard’s wife gets him to slaughter Frank’s entire family and friends at a party in revenge. Frank barely survives and embarks on his blood vengeance. The problem is that this slaughter is very extreme, and even believable, but Frank’s reactions are not. After he gets well, he packs up a pile of guns and weapons and moves to the city to track down Howard. BUT THEN HE DOESN’T USE THE WEAPONS. Rather, Frank decides to try to be a pest to Howard by dumping his dirty drug money into the streets, and get his Cuban connections mad at him for losing money, and then to get Howard thinking his wife is committing adultery with his most trusted henchman. Frank does all this in an effort to get Howard’s own evil to turn against him and bring his downfall. Okay, that’s a clever revenge tactic, but it does not fit at all the emotional set up of the story. Frank is set up as an ex-special forces guy with all these weapons, etc. etc. His ENTIRE family is slaughtered, so his revenge is to go and cause financial trouble for the responsible mobster? NO WAY. He would track him down and each of his family members, one by one, and kill them like an avenging angel, that’s what he would do. The kind of revenge the storytellers actually have Frank embark on would work best if the mobster just financially screwed over a NON-ACTION guy, who then gets back by screwing up the Mobster’s financial life, but then the mobster kills the guy’s family half way through, which leads the hero to then track down the mobster’s family. You see? Escalating revenge, not backwards revenge. Howard killed Frank’s entire family for goodness sake! He would kill them all, not be a pest. The heart fizzed immediately out of this story. And to make matters worse, they always try to make Frank super fair, even though he’s seeking revenge. Frank is supposed to be dead, right? SO he has the surprise element which is perfect, right? He can start attacking Howard and no one will know who the heck is doing it, right? SO what does Frank do? He shows himself in front of his ex-partners at the Police headquarters to complain that they haven’t done anything to jail the mobster after killing Frank’s family! He tells the world he’s alive, when he had such great cover? How stupid and unbelievable. Then, on Frank’s first revenge, he spills Howard’s millions of dollars out a window, and when he comes across two of the bodyguards who killed his family, he faces them down like a gunslinger fight. And he let’s them draw first before he shoots them both. Are you kidding me? A man bent on revenge, who gives his enemies a fighting chance? Who are they trying to kid? I applaud the storytellers for trying to make a hero with ethics who always is justified in his violence out of self-defense, but it just doesn’t fit the genre. THIS IS A REVENGE STORY GUYS, not a superman comic. Road to Perdition deals with this theme how it should be dealt with in a much more believable way. Okay, so then Frank is holed up in a little apartment where he is recognized by his tenants, and he doesn’t seem to care. Also, he doesn’t seem to care about being found out and tracked down by the mobster, so he doesn’t hide his whereabouts. How ignorant can he be? And then there’s this big scene where a loser neighbor with body piercing determines he is not going to talk to the mobster to tell him where Frank is hiding in the building. So he is tortured, but he never talks. This is completely unbelievable. They try to set up that Frank saved this kid from being beaten up earlier, so he returns the favor. But the problem is that the kid is such a white trash weak loser that it is entirely unbelievable. Of course, he would give up. Heck, hardened soldiers give up when tortured. It is laughable. And then the mobster doesn’t kill the neighbors for not talking? Yeah, right. He slaughters entire families, but doesn’t kill people who are covering for the hero. And now here is the ridiculous part. After the mobster hurts this one kid by ripping out all his body rings, NOW Frank is really mad. NOW he takes all his guns and weapons and hunts down the mobster and his family to kill them all brutally. Of course, he still let’s the mobster kill his own wife out of misplaced jealousy, but still, this is the last act where Frank goes ballistic and finally mercilously slaughters the Mobster’s gang, one by one in a deliberated hunt. Oh, so you kill his entire family and he causes financial trouble for you, but hurt my white trash neighbor friend, and that’s going too far. Now, I’m going to kill you all. That is so backwards that I should have walked out of the movie for that alone. Okay, I didn’t. I had to be able to finish my argument. ☺ And the scene where Frank prepares to kill them all is where they have a little voiceover of Frank explaining his rationale why sometimes you have to go outside of the law to get justice done. It’s all rather pedantic and preachy, but it shows just how confused the storytellers are, trying to make a revenge movie, but to stay as fair and self-defense oriented as long as possible. Of course, I’m with them in their intent, but they just picked the wrong story to work that theme. It would have been more germane to the story to have Frank go out on an emotionally justified revenge, but learn in the end that it kills his soul just the same. Like I said, watch Road to Perdition, which is the story, these guys were deliberately trying to copy. It is the better version of this story. When the hero in Road to Perdition goes after Capone’s money for revenge against his family being killed, he does so only because he knows he is way too small to be able to get to the bad guy, so he does it to draw attention to his plight and force the big guys to do something about it. Also, there is the political family issue that the hero was beloved by and loved the father whose son deserved to die. So he couldn’t just kill the person responsible for his family’s murder without drawing down the wrath of the entire mob upon him and his surviving son. So his dilemma was complicated by trying to keep his son alive as well. The terrible injustice done to the Road to Perdition story was that they raped the original graphic novel story of it’s spiritual redemption which was intrinsic to the whole meaning of the story. In the novel, Jesus is the antithesis of revenge, but in the movie, “gun control” is the antithesis of revenge. Very stupid. But, you know Hollywood hates Jesus, so what can you expect. But that’s a whole different movie, so I’ll stop.
Not Recommended. Not as good as the original. And you know, this one was only “inspired” by a true story, whereas the original was “based on” the true story. There’s something extra special about a story that really happened over a story that didn’t. But this one, about a soldier who returns to his small town and finds it taken over by evil drug peddling, stripper exploiting, casino operators, who just happen to be the soldier’s old friends. Well, when the hero stands up to corruption at the casino, he almost gets killed and then he responds and the violence escalates, tit for tat. But when the hero becomes sheriff of the town and tries to clean it up, there is all out war. What I like so much about this film is it’s value of standing up to and fighting evil men. If we do not, we will be overrun by them and our children will be destroyed by them. This is great. One tragic irony, if I may deconstruct the film for a moment is that there is this great aspect of connecting corruption, casinos, adult entertainment and drugs all together as a negative influence on society. That’s saying a lot in today’s morally relativistic world that sanctions such things as mere personal preference that we should not judge. And the hero is supposed to be above it. He scorns to see kids with pot, and the local adult bookstore. But for some reason, he has no problem watching a stripper himself. So adult bookstores are bad, but personal stripping is okay? Also, what I do not like about the movie is its vigilanteism: taking the law into our own hands. Though good in intentions, vigilanteism is ultimately immoral. (See me article: “A Time To Revenge?: Vigilanteism and Movie Justice in A Time to Kill. ) The law in the movie is set up as being corrupt and in on the casino dirt and drugs. And those drugs are destroying the kids, even the hero’s little cousin. So, emotionally, we feel justified when the hero fights back by vandalizing the casino. As much as I want to believe this is okay, I can’t. God commands us to obey the law, even when it is corrupt (Romans 13, Daniel 1-3). So when the hero gets let off by a jury of his crime of beating up the bad guy’s casino and thugs because of their giving drugs to the hero’s little young cousin, well, we sure feel emotionally justified, but hardly morally so. The jury acquits the hero in vandalizing the casino because they understand it was in reaction to the bad guy’s own crime against the hero. Well, it seems to me that this whole jury disregarding the law and voting from the heart for personal revenge outside the law, is the whole problem with American jurisprudence these days. It may feel good to stick it to the evil guys who hide behind the law, but due process has been subverted, and with it, a just society, when juries ignore the law and make subjective judgments that violate established law. As much as I hate many laws, and consider them unjust, the responsibility of jurors is to judge in accordance with the laws not with their personal sentiments. If the laws are unjust, then they must be changed through due process, not through arbitrary will. Jurors do not make the law, they apply it in judgments. It is certainly the result of our postmodern relativistic culture that every man is a law unto himself and that moral and legal judgments are reduced to subjective individual preferences and sentiments. If there is no absolute standard of law (as in the Bible) to which all individuals and society is accountable then it will follow that men will use their legal positions to arbitrarily impose their personal wills upon the majority. Without objective external moral and legal theory, ALL law is oppressive imposition on society, so the Will to Power wins. Nietzsche wins. This is what we have in our modern Supreme Court and indeed our judicial system, which attempts to subvert the Constitution and legislate from the bench, rather than interpret law beholden to the objective standard of law passed by Congress. The Supreme Court has become a tyrannical manipulator of law. They have subverted the balance of powers. But the juror system is quickly becoming this as well. Encouraging people to decide from the heart rather than from truth or rational application of established law is descent into anarchy and the foundation of an unjust society. Back to the movie: When the hero runs for sheriff and wins in order to clean up the town, it could also be argued that he is simply using the law for his own purposes, rather than upholding and respecting the rule of law. He is really only a reflection of the villain, who is himself manipulating law to his advantage. So, morally, what you have is two villains, not a hero and a villain. Now, if the movie explored this moral struggle, fine. But it does not. It encourages vigilanteism. (And keep in mind, I believe self-defense IS morally justifiable and IS NOT the same as vigilanteism.) So in the movie, technically, the hero is justified in clamping down on the bad guys because after all, he is the law. But in truth, he is really only using the law as a cover for revenge. He bashes the bad guy’s car lights, which is a moment of audience glee, but is actually legally and morally unjustifiable, no matter how bad the villain is. The hero cuts up a villain’s truck with a chain saw while “looking for drugs” in the vehicle. Okay, that one is technically okay because of probable cause, but as you can see this is also a pretense for fighting crime with criminal behavior. It may feel emotionally satisfying to our vengeful nature, but I have to say it is not right.
Recommended. I believe the Coen brothers are the modern day Woody Allen with a moral twist. Unlike the Nietzschean nihilistic lack of moral clarity that informed all of Allen’s stories, these guys sometimes place their quirky bizarre parables within a moral context. And a Judeo-Christian one at that. At least the latest stories, O Brother, Where Art Thou? And The Ladykillers express this profound spirituality. In my book, Hollywood Worldviews, I write about the moral superiority of uneducated spirituality over the educated humanistic arrogance that they addressed in O Brother and it appears they are capitalizing on that theme again in this story. They’re even exploiting the old time scratchy record, country, bluegrass, folk, and gospel music that they did so well in O Brother, that it became a bestselling soundtrack. Hey, these guys are getting what Hollywood does not. Give the people what they want and you’ll make tons of money. And the people like positive religious themes. That’s fine by me. Michael Crichton’s stories are all about the arrogance of humanistic science without morality. These guys seem to tell stories about the arrogance of humanistic education without morality. The story is about a group of criminal misfits led by a verbosely obscure professor G.H. Dorr, played by Tom Hanks, who rent a room in an old black woman’s house in order to tunnel their way into a casino cash vault nearby. The humor lies in the fact that the house is owned by an uneducated Gospel singing, church going black matron, Marva Munson. She is intellectually clueless, but morally full of heart and soul with her small town country church mentality. Sure, the writers have fun with this lack of smarts, but it’s not mockery, it’s loving affection, like that for a grandmother, on the level of The Apostle. When she hears a black dude swearing, she slaps him over and over again, cause she won’t have any of that “hippity hop music” language in her house, a Christian house. We laugh, but we ALL know she’s really right underneath the humor. Her naivete is like Forrest Gump, funny, but really the truth that we have all discarded out of our modernist arrogant disdain for the past. Are we really educated? Have we really progressed? Or is our pride in man’s wisdom led to a stupidity far more foolish than the simplicity of the primitive? I think these guys are clearly proving it’s the latter. The Ladykillers is a morality tale about how your sin will find you out (Numbers 32:33), how you reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7-9), and if you sow to the whirlwind you will reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). The fear of the Lord is the beginning of true knowledge. Fools despise wisdom and instruction (Proverbs 1:7)When Marva’s spiritual sensitivity kicks in and she suspects the men of criminal activity, she gives them a chance to repent and come to church. So they decide to kill her. Unfortunately for them, God is protecting her and each one faces his own demise as they try to take her out one by one, until they are all gone, including Dorr. They employ an interesting thematic image that I found very satisfying. The story begins with this shot of a garbage dump island in the middle of a river. And the men dump their bags of tunneled dirt onto the garbage barge every night. Then, when each man dies trying to expire the old lady, their bodies are dumped on the barge as well. I think this is a powerful metaphor that illustrates that we try to get rid of our “garbage” (read, “sin”) but we really can’t. It all piles up somewhere, stinking and infested, but it never goes away. We can’t hide it. Our garbage will find us out. We cannot divorce morality from knowledge. At the end, by way of a funny twist of events, the money falls into Marva’s hands. Because the local sheriff thinks she is making up the story, he tells her to keep the money and do whatever she wants with it. SO, she, following her perceived authority, takes it and gives it all to her favorite charity, Bob Jones University (an ironically racist school in its dating policy up until lately). So, even the money, “ill-gotten” from vice, ends up given to God’s school of choice. Very strong theme that God uses evil for His good, and His will can’t be thwarted (Job 42:2). Ya gotta love it. Of course, Bob Jones U is not a paragon of theological accuracy in my eyes, but compared to the godless idiocy of man’s best, like Harvard and Yale, etc. BJU is a beacon of light and truth. And that’s the point of this film anyway. GO SEE IT. SUPPORT TRUTH IN CINEMA WITH YOUR DOLLARS.
Not Recommended. Not terrible or anything, just another by the numbers thriller, without any real substance or value to it. Oh, for another Seven or Silence of the Lambs. You can’t have it all. Angelina Jolie plays an FBI profiler who helps to track down a…. Oh, it’s a boring and uninteresting story.
Not recommended. Ashley Judd. I love watching her act. But in this movie, ah, it ain’t even worth saying anything about. It’s just a dumb thriller about a beautiful chick as a cop that is totally unbelievable, because feminine beautiful women like Ashley just can’t take down strong testosterone criminals, no matter how much Hollywood wants us to believe that women can be just like men, and still be women. I’m sorry, it ain’t so.
Recommended with Extreme Caution. This movie is on par with Se7en, one of the most powerful movies about the nature of depravity. Charlize Theron WILL win the Oscar this year for her acting in this film. There is nothing else even close in any other movie. She is absolutely brilliant in her portrayal of white trash Lesbian prostitute serial killer Aileen Wournos. Every move, every word, every gesture and look is superbly acted by Charlize. This is based on the true story of her killing spree back in the 80s, and her relationship with fellow traveler/”lover” Tyria Moore (In the movie, Selby Wall, played by Christina Ricci). It is a brilliantly written script that captures Aileen’s decline into murder from her abuse as a child and from the destructive world of prostitution where women are not merely dehumanized through objectification but through violent treatment. And writer/director Patty Jenkins carries us through the process with incredibly written voice-over narration by Aileen throughout the film. I do not buy the modernist argument that environment creates us, but I do acknowledge that it certainly influences us, has a major hand in shaping us, depending on our personal response, which is the ultimate category of responsibility. And this film certainly has a pretty good balance in showing the effect of our abusive society on women without negating Aileen’s personal responsibility. It theorizes that Aileen had a fairy tale fantasy of being loved by everyone and becoming a star some day that drove her to do what she did, even from her early days where she would pull up her dress for the boys to see in order to get a few dollars. The film then chronicles her real world experience that crumbles that fantasy, while she holds onto it in utter denial. It paints her picture as a human being turned into a monster, which is only fair because this is basically true, even considering the fact that we are born with depraved natures. She is portrayed as a heterosexual who is driven into lesbianism because of the male abuse of her as a prostitute, which again, is fair enough, though not universal, and I don’t doubt it’s what really happened. But even though there is a female sympathetic understanding of Aileen, they do not seem to fall into the all-too-typical Hollywood agenda of denying Aileen’s personal evil or responsibility. They don’t capitulate to propoganda, and because of this, present a pretty even-handed drama. And that is the power of drama. If done well, it can be one of the most powerful forms of argumentation for a viewpoint. There is no such thing as a neutral drama. All drama is crafted by the storyteller to prove a particular worldview or viewpoint and this film is no exception. The filmmaker no doubt used quite a bit of artistic license to make changes to fit her deliberate theme. But to tell the story in such a way as to ring true to the human condition and to the spirit of the persons involved is the goal. Jenkins’s interpretation of Wournos is clearly an interpretation but it is done very persuasively. The scenes of prostitution with the “johns” is so poignantly portrayed as pathetic that one can only be repulsed by it all. This is not titillating stuff, it is depiction of depravity the way it ought to be, as despicable, not desirable. Very much the way the Bible depicts evil. It shows Aileen’s “first kill” as an abusive killer himself who was going to kill Aileen and cut her up into pieces with a hacksaw. This is an obvious appeal to justification and sympathy and I doubt was the fact of the case, but it is certainly within the parameters of that world. But Aileen is not merely depicted as defending herself in every case. She becomes addicted to the killing and ends up even killing innocent men who are trying to help her as well. And she is also portrayed as sometimes NOT killing a man because of his innocence. By the end of the film, Aileen is caught and her companion confesses and is used by the FBI to trap Aileen into confessing to some of the killings over the phone. Aileen recognizes this with her street smarts, and in an act of sacrificial love, accepts complete and total blame for all the killings, in order to save her “lover.” Of course, the film portrayed Selby as completely innocent of any killings, but certainly a knowing accomplice. I think the title then is intended to be ironic. The film shows Aileen as a human being driven by love, albeit a confused love, who is made into a “monster” by a loveless cruel world. But I think it also fairly displays Aileen’s own rebellious inability to face reality in favor of her fantasy. So I think there is sympathy without negating responsibility. Excellent, powerful, persuasive drama. By the time Aileen is carried away to her execution, she has given up all her fantasy and has embraced the nihilistic conclusion that what they tell you in life, “All you need is love. Faith will move mountains, everything happens for a reason. [Laughs] Well, they gotta tell you something.” The transformation is complete. A true warning for our postmodern generation that ignoring the real evil in this world will crush you in its grasp.
Hard to say whether I Recommend or Not. Great for conversation about the meaning of life. This is a powerful hard hitting story of intersecting lives written with depth and acted brilliantly by Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Toro. It is an Existential movie that raises questions but gives no real answers, or shall we say, proposes a toothless redemption in a nihilistic world. Let me explain. It’s about an ex-con Jesus Freak (Benecio), who is trying to overcome his “bad luck” life by living a Christian life, rather alien to his nature. While speeding home, he accidentally kills a father and his two daughters and hides from the law. The father was also the husband of a woman played by Naomi Watts, whose life is now shattered by her loss. In the meantime, Sean Penn is dying of heart disease and a diseased relationship with an Englishwoman. Penn gets the heart of the father killed by Benecio in a transplant and seeks out his donor’s wife out of gratitude and curiosity, and of course, falls in love with Naomi and plans with her to kill the guy who killed her husband and kids, ala Benecio. Well, first off, it’s edited non-linearly to be oh so pomo. This hurts the film because it confuses the storyline which is strong enough on its own to carry interest. It’s okay for a gimmick like in Memento, and it worked well in Pulp Fiction, but the technique just adds unnecessary confusion here. And a gratuitous sex scene makes it difficult to recommend this one.
But I have a major issue with this movie. It is a story that attempts to portray Christianity as without any real transformative power in changing a life. Benecio is sincere in his attempt to be religious, but we can see that he is really just the same kind of man underneath. He is harsh on his kids and wife and others. He almost beats up a punk rebel for not himself repenting for the good life. What irony. He is portrayed as having no real victory in his life over his old ways, but more of an avoidance mechanism. And Benecio seems to just draw trouble to himself. His wife tells him that since he became a Christian, she doesn’t know him anymore, that he’s not himself, it’s like he’s been body snatched. So, his faith does not draw him closer to his family, but farther away. While Jesus did say that a family would be divided over such faith, he meant that those who are changed by their new natures of faith, truth and goodness are often rejected by family members unwilling to leave their own selfish wickedness. But the movie portrays Benecio as the one at fault here. His faith has not made him better, but has merely alienated him like a cult member. His unbelieving wife is more of a “real person” than he is. He comes to believe he is cursed by God with all his “bad luck.” He ends up leaving his wife and kid because he does not want to bring his cursedness upon them. He is not good enough for them. The filmmaker seems to consider Christianity a mere façade that tries to cover over an unchanged nature. Although it is very interesting that Benecio turns himself in because of his “duty to God” for the guilt of his crime, something 9 out of 10 movies would never even touch. For that I praise it. This has the potential of being a powerful victorious moment of moral character, but in the context and hands of the storytellers, seems more the negative pressure of guilt induced fear than godly repentance. His faith commitment is portrayed as alienating him from family rather than building his love for them. A truly godly man would weep over his love for his family, but do the right thing out of moral character. But Benecio yells at his wife and alienates her, storming out of the room.When Benecio goes to jail for the hit and run, he gives up on God because Jesus “betrayed him” for giving him all the trouble. But this is the conclusion of a long string of “bad luck” problems in his life. What Benecio neglects to learn is the lesson of Amadeus, Signs, Magnolia and Simon Birch, and that is that GOD IS IN CONTROL, not him. But instead, in this film, Benecio dumps God and goes back to his family, presumably as his old nature. Faith seems to be portrayed as a tool rather of avoidance or ignorance of true issues. Now, I have no problem with showing honest struggling with such issues, even the pain of a suffering life and a person who gives up on God because of his struggle. What I cannot forgive is the lack of understanding of the nature of true transforming power of Christianity. You see, the character who hates God for his suffering has the problem of CONTROL. Remember the story of Job? Rather instructive here, I would say. That is, what he needs to learn is that the very source of his problem is his unwillingness to accept God’s sovereign governance of his life. A humility and brokenness before one’s Creator, like in the movie Signs, where Mel Gibson learns that his rejection of God was selfish blindness to the wonders all around him. He merely had to open his eyes and yield to God’s greater wisdom. 21 Grams reminds me a lot of another indie movie, Levity. Similar idea of a man, Morgan Freeman, living a double life in the inner city as a Christian helping troubled youth. Another excellent story written well that fails to understand the true deliverance of Christianity. Faith becomes a cover for a double life. Why? Because, evidently, to these filmmakers, people do not change, or at least genuine transforming faith is not possible. Now, granted, there are some frauds or failures out there, I would not contest that. But my point is that these people who made these films obviously have not experienced or seen the kind of transformed lives that are in these inner city ministries. For every failure, there are a dozen successes of lives forever changed for the better because of faith. Hardened men humbled to the point of true repentance and a changed NATURE. Sure, they may still even have hard edges, but they are changed, truly changed, and people in their lives see the difference – FOR THE BETTER. I know, it happened to me. Okay, one qualification: I’d prefer movies like this that try to criticize Christianity, than ignore it all together, which most movies do. So for that much, I am grateful for this movie. At least it deals with something that is so important, it is a sin to ignore it.
I do have a caveat to my negativity though. When Sean Penn finds Benecio to kill him, he realizes he cannot kill him and fires the gun into the ground, telling Benecio to go and never come back. But Benecio tracks Penn down to his hotel room and tries to force Penn to go ahead and shoot Benecio. In other words, Benecio wants to die, accepts the wages of his sins. But Penn cannot and instead shoots himself in the shoulder to get it all to stop. Why? I don’t get it, other than a possible “atonement” theme. It is because of this event that Benecio ends his self-imposed exile of self flagellation and returns to his wife and kids. I’m willing to acknowledge that this might be a self sacrifice notion of substitutionary atonement, the innocent for the guilty, a man finding forgiveness in the sacrifice for another on his behalf, but the movie makes everything so guilt-ridden that it is hard not to see it all as a cynical retreat from true goodness.
At the end, the Penn character muses that 21 grams is the amount of weight that a person’s body loses when they die. The weight of a soul? He asks a bunch of questions but gives no hope of an answer: “How much is lost. Where do we lose 21 grams? How much goes with it? How much is gained? 21 grams. The weight of a stack of nickels, a hummingbird, a chocolate bar. How many lives do we live? How many times do we die? How much of life fits into 21 grams?” Well, these are very thoughtful questions, but the context seems to emphasize the insignificance of life and the inability to determine its value in light of the irony of life’s inequities and tragedies. Great questions. Great issues raised. Too bad no real hope is provided, and faith is discouraged as inadequate or ineffective. Contrast that with the redeeming nature of faith in the true Jesus Christ found in the Gospels and in Christian’s lives. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). And, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and YOU SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. “For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)