Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson, 2016)

Hacksaw Ridge may be a number of things — the most violent war film in cinematic history, an allegory of the importance of religious freedom over against state encroachment, a vehicle intended to rehabilitate the image of much-maligned director, Mel Gibson. Yet, despite such complex possibilities, the film is most effective when simply taken as a chronicle of Private Desmond Doss and his service at the Battle of Okinawa (1945). I was not familiar with Doss prior to seeing the film, but, after viewing Hacksaw Ridge, his status as a compelling and even heroic figure is beyond doubt.

After a brief prelude, which foreshadows the violence to come, Hacksaw Ridge opens with Doss’ childhood in rural Virginia. There are intimations of Edenic bliss in these first scenes, but Gibson does not linger on them. As it turns out, Doss’ father (Hugo Weaving, in a fervid role) was an abusive alcoholic, scarred by the psycho-spiritual trauma of World War I. Consequently, the Doss home is a tense place, where young Desmond and the rest of the family often cower in fear. Attentive to his own shortcomings, Doss comes to emulate his pious mother, realizing that anger and violence run contrary to his Christian background. Now a young man (and played with winsome innocence by Andrew Garfield), Doss falls in love with a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) and hopes to start a family. But World War II intervenes, and he feels called to join the military — not as a combatant but as a medic. Indeed, Doss is adamant that he can serve his country without firing a weapon, but, upon arriving at boot camp in South Carolina, it becomes clear that the Army sees it otherwise. Ridiculed by his fellow recruits and commanding officers, Doss is nearly court-martialed for insubordination. Yet, he remains true to his convictions and, after a surprising plot twist, is allowed to accompany his unit to Okinawa. “Private Doss,” an army official sternly warns, “you are free to run into the hellfire of battle without a single weapon to protect yourself.”

It is at this point that Hacksaw Ridge erupts into a violence so grisly that even the most ardent devotee of Game of Thrones will cringe. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder if Gibson — whose The Passion of the Christ (2004) seemed to confirm a possibly unhealthy concern for bloody imagery — goes too far in his depiction of the Battle of Okinawa. Not only does Hacksaw Ridge show the shootings and stabbings typical of the genre, but Gibson is intent on portraying Okinawa as a campaign sui generis: there are severed heads, rotting bodies, halved corpses, and flesh-eating rats. It is, in short, a nightmarish vision, which is frankly difficult to watch. Be that as it may, Gibson does seem to have been true to the historical subject matter. Consider the words of Private Eugene Sledge — an Okinawa veteran, whose experience has since been chronicled the HBO series, The Pacific (2010):

“[Okinawa was] the most ghastly corner of hell I had ever witnessed….Every crater was half full of water, and many of them held a Marine corpse. The bodies lay pathetically just as they had been killed, half submerged in muck and water, rusting weapons still in hand. Swarms of big flies hovered about them. [I] saw maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”

Thus the gore of Hacksaw Ridge is hardly gratuitous, even if it is disturbing. Moreover — and presumably this was Gibson’s underlying purpose — it serves to cast Doss’ efforts in the sharpest possible relief. Bearing only a small Bible and a handful of medical supplies, Doss repeatedly runs into battle unarmed, even remaining atop Hacksaw Ridge (or the Maeda Escarpment) when his fellow troops had retreated. He ultimately saves 75 wounded soldiers, including a number of Japanese men — an outcome, he was certain, that was only possible in and through the grace of God:

Still, one might ask: why make a film about Doss now? What does Gibson have up his sleeve? As mentioned at the outset, various answers have been tendered in response to such questions. To be sure, Hacksaw Ridge has quickly (and stunningly) bettered Gibson’s reputation in Hollywood, and the film undoubtedly makes a plea for the tolerance of religious convictions — a plea that is deftly handled, insofar Doss’ Christian pacifism is shown to cooperate with the objectives of the state, rather than to flout them.

And yet, it’s hard not to wonder: would this film be received in the same way if Doss were, say, a champion of school prayer or of any issue that runs counter to contemporary politics? Moreover, while Hacksaw Ridge demonstrates that certain religious “beliefs” might be worth tolerating in a secular democracy, it does not get around to weighing the truthfulness of such beliefs. In other words, is Doss’ nonviolence an idiosyncratic yet charming way of looking at reality? Or is it, in fact, the true way to live? That Gibson avoids the latter question manifests the Americanism implicit in Hacksaw Ridge: for him, what matters is that Doss is “accepted” or “tolerated,” not whether or not he is right. His “belief” is a private one, and he fights both for his right to serve according to his convictions and for a nation that putatively supports this right. The contents of, and the rationale for, his faith are little more than suggested.

Of course, that by no means diminishes Doss’ heroism in battle, and I’m grateful that, through Gibson’s film, I’ve come to know his remarkable story. Nevertheless, to call Hacksaw Ridge a “Christian movie” seems to be a misnomer. In truth, it is a film about permitting Christian devotion, with a nod to the potential benefits of doing so.

Sullivan’s Travels (dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

The great American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, have long been interested in the question of what it means to be an artist. However, this theme has been at the very core of their last two films — Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The latter work attends to cinematic art in particular, and it probes the ambiguity of making films, from the hypocrisy of movie stars to the medium’s tendency to lapse into shallow, mindless entertainment. And yet, as Hail, Caesar! concludes, the Coens seem to land on a position: whatever the flaws of cinema, the world is better off with films than without them. Might as well pull up a chair and enjoy!

Doubtless, it is a thesis of which Preston Sturges would’ve approved. During his career peak, he was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and well compensated) auteurs, and he won a screenwriting Oscar for The Great McGinty (1940). Yet it is Sullivan’s Travels — a film centering on the failed attempt to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a title later repurposed by the Coen Brothers — that stands as Sturges’ most enduring work. That significance should be ascribed to Sullivan’s Travels is more than a little ironic, since the film is commonly interpreted as a dig at self-serious Hollywood “message pictures.” Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a director of popular yet vacuous comedies. Young, rich, and marketable, Sullivan is nevertheless unhappy, since his films are profitable at the expense of socially conscious themes. But, as Sullivan’s studio bosses ask, what does he know about poverty, loneliness, and heartbreak? Thus he resolves to acquaint himself with human misery and leaves his California mansion to ride the rails.

It is a plan fraught with difficulty, and eventually Sullivan comes to know more about hardship than he bargained for. But it is precisely here — in the film’s best and most poignant scene — that Sturges undermines his protagonist’s quest. Jailed and now forgotten by those who once lauded him, Sullivan and his fellow prisoners are hosted by an African-American church, where the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks, in a timeless scene) welcomes them with a rendition of “Go Down Moses.” And yet, just after this moment of sublime sympathy, the prisoners are treated to a Disney cartoon:

Here Sullivan comes to learn a profound lesson — that laughter can also help the poor and the outcast or, more precisely, that laughter is more beneficial than po-faced pontificating about “causes” and the like. Hence, when Sullivan is finally released from jail, he resolves to return to Hollywood and to resume his career in comedy.

It’s an ending that has been read as a validation of Sturges’ own vocation, and that may very well be true. However, it bears a wider and more ambiguous meaning as well. To be sure, one might wonder if Sturges is implying that all comedy is inspired work? Could we apply his premise, say, to Jackass: The Movie (2002)? Such questions get to the very core of the nature of comedic art — questions that date back to Plato (who generally warned against comedy) and Aristotle (who generally commended it).

What’s more, in linking Christian charity with comedy and laughter, Sullivan’s Travels makes a provocative theological point. Yes, a key aspect of Christian discipleship concerns the so-called corporal works of mercy, e.g., feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and so on. But there are also spiritual works of mercy, and, rightly done, comedy would seem to have a role here. After all, laughter provides comfort to those who are sorrowful, and the heart of Jesus’ message is, in the end, “good news.” (The English word, “gospel,” comes from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good message.”) Thus Sturges’ intuition to situate Sullivan’s redemption in a church is not incidental but, rather, critical to his overall point. Comedy’s most basic impulse — to make people happy — finds its footing in the salvific work of the Body of Christ.

The Big Short (dir. Adam McKay, 2015)

Plot  Based on Michael Lewis’ 2010 book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday MachineThe Big Short tells the story of a handful of financial insiders who, in the mid-2000s, realized that the American housing market was on the verge of collapse.

Themes  Not unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Big Short is a kind of morality play, whose flamboyant direction belies a purposeful condemnation of the American financial sector. Yet, whereas The Wolf of Wall Street takes the viewpoint of a “pump and dump” scam artist, The Big Short centers on a handful of investors who discovered one of the greatest scandals in American economic history — namely, that the housing boom of the 2000s was being propped up by risky subprime loans. This perspectival difference facilitates a different approach to the problem. Scorsese’s film revels in the hedonistic nihilism of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), effectively answering the question: what does the dark underbelly of American capitalism look like? It is an intoxicating portrait, albeit one that is reluctant to probe its anthropological implications. There’s no doubt that Belfort is a “bad guy,” and yet, the film suggests, is he not just an extension of a systemic problem? Such, at any rate, seems to be the point of his early tutorials at the hands of Wall Street veteran (Matthew McConaughey, as memorable as possible in a five-minute role):

In contrast, director Adam McKay imbues The Big Short with reflections on the human condition writ large. Sure, there are a number of puzzling — if also fascinating — commentaries on banking practices, so many, in fact, that one would by no means be foolish to watch the film with the Barron’s Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms in hand. But the film keeps circling back to a single question: did not the roots of the 2007-08 financial crisis lie in the hearts of people, rather than in mere systemic breakdown? Throughout the film, it is observed that the willingness to take on jeopardous subprime loans stems not only from human greed but also from gullibility and, yes, “stupidity.” In other words, people so badly wanted to live in luxury that they were ready to overlook facts; their investment practices did not reflect reason so much as bet against reason:

Of course, this conclusion runs counter to what Adam Smith saw as one of the basic presuppositions of capitalism — namely, that market economies are driven not just by self-interest but, more precisely, by rational self-interest. That The Big Short suggests otherwise gives it postmodern, counter-Enlightenment appeal that, in my view, opens it up to theological commentary. For, after all, Christian theology has long maintained that humanity, for all of its philosophical and technological ingenuity, is marked by a fall from the good. This fall is not insuperable — such, indeed, is the “good news” offered by Jesus Christ — but it is stubborn and ever ominous. One dismisses it only at one’s peril.

McKay’s film underlines the latter point, and thus it stands as a surprising complement to a book such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). While so many are preoccupied with human progress, these works fix on a more sinister side of human nature — the one that confounds the rational egoism apparently underlying modern life. They remind us, in turn, that no human endeavor is pure, just as no bet — even one vouchsafed by institutional authority — is a “sure thing.” As the book of Ecclesiastes so pointedly puts it: “Bubbles…everything is bubbles.”

Hail, Caesar! (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

Plot  The film is set in Los Angeles, 1951. Capitol Pictures’ executive, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), works tirelessly to keep the scandalous behavior of the company’s stars out of the press. Hilarity ensues.

Themes  Though in many ways a screwball comedy, Hail, Caesar! introduces a number of important themes. The most obvious one is that of the entertainment industry itself, which the Coens satirize with knowing affection. Not only does Mannix have to deal with egomaniacal actors, demanding executives, gossip columnists, and aggrieved writers — the latter being communist sympathizers who, led by Herbert Marcuse (yes, that Marcuse), wax poetic about Marxist theory and “the new man” — but he has to do so with the public in mind, making sure that the best “picture” is made. It’s enough to make a man feel servile, and that, indeed, is what a recruiter (Ian Blackman) from The Lockheed Corporation tells Mannix in a series of meetings at a dim Chinese restaurant — namely, that life in Hollywood amounts to little more than a joke, while “real work” is being done by the military-industrial complex.

And yet — in Hail, Caesar!‘s second major theme — Mannix can’t escape the feeling that making films is important after all. Artistic work gives expression to humanity’s greatest hopes and dreams, and filmmaking is the modern world’s quintessential art form. Thus cinema is uniquely suited to “embody” (to borrow Mannix’s phrase) sacred stories such as “the tale of the Christ,” which, in fact, is the subtitle of Capitol Pictures’ latest “prestige” movie, Hail, Caesar!. With this in mind, Mannix hosts a gathering of religious leaders, hoping to convince them that the film takes its religious subject matter seriously. “Does the depiction of Christ Jesus cut the mustard?” he asks with amusing frankness. The ensuing debate is not only comical, but it hints at the challenges of any rendering of the sacred:

To be sure, as Mannix well knows, what goes on behind the scenes of any cinematic project is messy, though the finished product may nevertheless foster genuine inspiration. The Coens, it seems, are too ironical to explore this latter point in detail, though one scene comes close. While filming the climactic scene of Hail, Caesar!, the film’s pampered star, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), delivers a long soliloquy on the person of Christ. For a moment, everyone in the studio stops what they’re doing, transfixed by the notion of this loving and merciful Savior — that is, until Whitlock forgets his line (the word “faith,” not coincidentally) and the director is forced to cut the scene.

Still, despite the disarray of the artistic process, Mannix comes to believe in his work. A pious Catholic, he confesses to his priest that he is tempted by the Lockheed position, because it would be “easy.” In contrast, the motion picture business is “hard” but “seems right.” The priest, sympathetic yet wearied by Mannix’s scruples, softly responds, “The inner voice that tells you what’s right — it comes from God, my son.” Mannix, in turn, darts from the confessional, now certain that his career is a calling. As he puts it earlier in the film, “You have worth if you serve the picture.”

Verdict  Hail, Caesar! is not one of the Coen Brothers’ masterpieces, but it is masterful all the same. The film is that rarest of rare breeds — an intelligent comedy. Of course, this is a genre to which the Coens have already contributed in films such as Raising Arizona (1987) and O Brother, Where Art Thou(2000). For those who have ears to hear, Hail, Caesar! is likely to join their ranks.

THE REVENANT and Other Issues

I’ve been meaning to write on The Revenant for the last couple of months, but, alas, I haven’t been sufficiently motivated to do so. Don’t get me wrong: I thought it was a pretty good movie, and “the bear scene” lived up to the hype — and then some. But The Revenant also left me a little cold (no pun intended), and it ultimately struck me as an ode to Terrence Malick, albeit with more violence and lesser philosophizing. With other writing commitments on weekdays — and my sons’ baseball games on weekends — the task of analyzing a “revenge film” just didn’t seem enticing. Moreover, excellent reviews of The Revenant are already available. In particular, Steven Greydanus’ piece on the film merits reflection, not least in light of recent events.

Looking ahead, there are a number of acclaimed movies that, shamefully, I have yet to see. This neglectfulness is likewise a matter of being overcommitted…well, that and catching up on too many television shows. The good news is that, as of this writing, I’m just a season behind in The Americans and Game of Thrones respectively (don’t tell me about Jon Snow!), and I’ve now started Mr. Robot. They are all fantastic TV, but I do miss feature films, which present their material in pithier fashion and offer far more diversity. After all, one could argue that, however great, small screen offerings like Mad MenThe SopranosBreaking Bad, and The Americans are the same story with different settings and plot details: the basic theme — that people aren’t who they seem to be — is essentially unchanged.

In any case, here are some films that I hope to watch over the summer and review in due course. There are quite a few here, so my write-ups will need to be brief (2-3 paragraphs). But, hopefully, they’ll demonstrate that theological ideas and insights remain crucial to the cinematic medium.

  • Son of Saul (2015)
  • Risen (2016)
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
  • Spotlight (2015)
  • The Big Short (2015)
  • Room (2015)
  • The Lobster (2015)
  • Love & Mercy (2015)
  • Anomalisa (2015)
  • Sicario (2015)
  • Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
  • Maggie’s Plan (2016)
  • The Witch (2015)

On a final note (and with a nod to one of my upcoming projects, Theology and the Films of Terrence Malick), I was elated to learn that Malick is already at work on another film, namely, Radegund, which will be about Blessed Franz Jägerstätter — an Austrian Catholic layman, who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II. Malick, then, is returning to his roots in historical subject matter, and this is a vehicle that should perfectly suit his authorial interests.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016)

Batman v Superman is an intriguing premise in need of a better movie. For most of its 151 minute running time — a running time that, trimmed of excess explosions and frivolous plot excursions, should’ve been closer to 100 minutes — it produces more sardonic laughs than genuine thrills. My favorite: late in the film, Lex Luthor (a manic Jesse Eisenberg) unleashes a gigantic monster on the city of Metropolis. Known as Doomsday, it is a mutant fusion of the body of Superman’s former nemesis, General Zod, and Luthor’s own DNA. Needless to say, it ain’t pretty:

Apart from apparently hitting the weights — no CrossFit for this thing, just straight iron — Doomsday is also surprisingly nimble. It bounds up buildings in the manner of King Kong, and, to make matters worse, it absorbs whatever energy is fired at it, including nuclear warheads. One might quibble that the creature’s look is too derivative (it could be the love child of the Incredible Hulk and one of the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings), but this is not a monster you’d ever want to see in your city. Thus I audibly laughed when a stoic news anchor, covering Doomsday’s destruction of the Metropolitan skyline, comments that at least it didn’t happen during rush hour!

Such unintentional laughs are not uncommon in Batman v Superman, but they hardly exhaust the film’s problems. Again, the plot is horribly convoluted: in addition to genetically-engineered monsters, there are Russian arms dealers, African warlords, Senate hearings, the wreckage of alien spaceships, father-son issues, and even a love-scene in a bathtub. And yet, all of this is but window-dressing for the essential plot concern, which seems to make more sense in the abstract than in the film itself: Batman (Ben Affleck) has come to distrust Superman (Henry Cavill), because he recognizes that Superman bears power that, wielded improperly, could destroy humanity. Thus he aims to kill Superman by way of kryptonite-flecked weaponry — a plan that Luthor himself facilitates, believing that his path to world-domination would be cleared if Superman were out of the way. But Luthor’s scheme is ultimately exposed, and, in an epiphanic moment, Batman and Superman realize they must work together if Luthor (and his pet demon) are to be stopped. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Doomsday lives up to its name, even as director Zack Snyder ensures that a sequel remains in the offing.

To be sure, no one is going to confuse this narrative arc with, say, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But there is potential for depth here. Snyder has set up a classic allegory, which owes more than a little to the Christian tradition. Superman, of course, represents the divine, whose otherness is experienced by human beings as both a source of hope and fear. Batman seizes on this latter aspect, thereby intimating a distinction emphasized in medieval theology (William of Ockham, especially) and later in the thought of Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin — namely, that the divine will is not “limited” by the good but, rather, is radically contingent and self-determining. What God did yesterday, so to speak, has no bearing on what God may do today; God can do as he pleases. Such a perspective seems to safeguard divine freedom, but there is a cost: faith in God becomes a matter of blind trust and, consequently, rationally indefensible. True, some may cower before the divine will, but others will perceive it as a threat that demands neutralization. The latter is effectively Batman’s position, which he doesn’t renounce until he realizes that Superman’s will is, indeed, conditioned by the good — that is, by the fact that Superman’s love for his earthly parents reveals his essential humility and benevolence. In turn, Superman and Batman are not only mutually sympathetic but can now unite with one another in order to conquer evil and death. Thus the immanent virtues inculcated by Batman (justice, fortitude, devotion) are analogous to and perfected by the transcendent attributes of Superman, who, in the film’s denouement, demonstrates the very depths of love’s sacrificial character.

Such, at any rate, is how one might try to read Batman v Superman theologically, and, seen in these terms,  it suddenly looks like an attempt to cinematically manifest certain key elements of the Christian message. Of course, I’m hardly the first person to make this connection, and it’s worth adding that Batman v Superman‘s predecessor, Man of Steel (2013), was directly pitched to Christian audiences. Now, in and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, and I appreciate Snyder’s desire to explore the ostensive conflict between immanence and transcendence and how it might be overcome through divine self-giving. There’s only one problem: Batman v Superman is just not a very good movie. Instead of letting the story speak for itself, Snyder overwhelms it in a barrage of explosions, CGI effects, and schmaltzy dramatics. Batman v Superman may be a film about faith, but, in the end, it is defined by a lack thereof.

Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2015)

In his classic study, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell argues that the “hero myth” is a universal aspect of human culture — a myth that bears a fundamental tripartite structure. First, the hero departs the ordinary world in order to undertake a quest in a strange and dangerous realm. Next, the hero is initiated into a number of trials, which threaten her task. And, finally, the hero returns to the world from which he came, not only with greater self-knowledge, but also with a gift (or “boon”) for those left behind. Campbell is clear that these stages do not necessarily unfold in the same way; rather, it is the structure that is consistent, so much so that he refers to this heroic narrative as a “monomyth.” In other words, despite the differences separating various tales (say, about Beowulf, Odysseus, and Jesus), they are all united by an underlying framework.

Of course, Campbell’s theory has garnered critical scrutiny over the years, but it nevertheless sheds light on the reception of Steven Spielberg’s films. While often hailed as one of cinema’s great technical filmmakers, Spielberg has also been accused of peddling shopworn themes and techniques to audiences. On a superficial level, there are various Spielbergian “tics” such as track-in shots and his frequent collaboration with composer, John Williams. But there are also recurring motifs, from familial dysfunction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. the Extra-TerrestrialIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, etc.) to threats against humanity from the wild forces of nature (Jaws, the Jurassic Park franchise, etc.). And yet, since the release of Schindler’s List in 1993, perhaps no theme has characterized Spielberg’s work as much as “the hero.” Indeed, while Spielberg has framed the quest of his heroes in a variety of contexts, he has also — in a way that would make Campbell smile — told essentially the same story: the hero (Oskar Schindler, Capt. John Miller in Saving Private Ryan, Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, etc.) undertakes a mission that will challenge him both morally and emotionally, and yet, through courage and acumen, he is able to overcome the obstacles facing him, thereby providing a “boon” to those he loves.

Such, at any rate, is how it appears. And it must be said that Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, falls into a similar pattern. Based on real-life events, the film tells the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an American insurance lawyer asked to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, in an Oscar-winning performance), an accused Soviet spy. It is the height of the Cold War, an era that Spielberg recreates with customary brilliance, and Donovan is pressured to provide only nominal legal counsel. Although he refuses to go along with such coercion — mostly out of principle, but also out of a grudging appreciation for Abel’s dedication — Donovan loses the case and is left to plead for Abel’s life. He argues that, should an American spy be found in similar straits, Abel would serve as collateral. And, needless to say, that is precisely what happens. In a pair of unrelated incidents, two Americans are captured by Soviet authorities, and both are held in East Germany. Thus the CIA tasks Donovan with a secret mission: he is to travel to East Berlin, where he will seek the exchange of Abel for one or, if possible, both of these American detainees. This proves to be an altogether taxing process. Donovan has to weigh manifold political interests and machinations, whether on the American or on the Soviet side. Moreover, he has to fight through poor housing conditions and an increasingly nasty cold. Still, as if on cue, Spielberg goes on to show that Donovan’s “courage and acumen” ultimately secure a happy, if nevertheless exhausting, outcome.

It is tempting to conclude, then, that Spielberg keeps rehashing the “hero myth,” and yet his preferred hero muddles such an interpretation. Here I will focus on Donovan, but, suffice it to say, analogies could be readily applied to Schindler, Miller, et al. First of all, Donovan is not a man of obvious power or influence; he is not an Achilles or an Aeneas but an Everyman who just wants to do what is right. Second, Donovan’s primary talent is not charisma, still less is it physical strength; rather, he excels by way of humility and perseverance. It is Abel, in fact, who calls attention to this side of Donovan:

Third, and lastly, Donovan is political but not partisan. He realizes that a person of good will is called to act in the world, but his actions are guided by his conscience and an unswerving commitment to the dignity of all human beings, rather than to a party platform or to a particular ideology. This sort of moral character may seem humdrum or old-fashioned, but, in Spielberg’s hands, it is shown to be controversial. Donovan, for example, stirs up the ire of those around him, even that of his own family:

In short, Donovan by no means wants to be a hero; yet, in his intellectual commitment to the good, and in his willingness to act on this commitment, he allows himself to become one. This humble trust in and devotion to the good may not entirely place him and other Spielbergian heroes outside the purview of Campbell’s monomyth. But it does underline how such a concept lacks sufficient nuance. In other words, while Spielberg’s heroes bear the contours of Christ figures — in ethical rather than in ontological terms — such characteristics are hardly shared among many other heroes, who pursue a local good through power, fame, charm, or popular appeal. That is not to say, of course, that Spielberg is making films that intentionally draw on the person of Jesus Christ. It is just to say that, when Spielberg is accused of reworking “hero movies,” the sort of “hero” in question deserves consideration. For, on that score, it may be that Spielberg is more countercultural than often acknowledged.

Knight of Cups (dir. Terrence Malick, 2015)

By now, Terrence Malick’s story has become the stuff of legend. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 and, subsequently, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, he began a doctoral dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, but his supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, did not find it “sufficiently philosophical.” Frustrated, Malick left academia — albeit not before publishing a translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (1929) — and embarked on a career in filmmaking. His first feature, Badlands (1973), was hailed as a masterpiece, and his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), has been deemed one of the most beautiful works in the history of cinema. And then, shockingly, Malick did not make another film for two decades — a move that was as mysterious as it was controversial. But the layoff did not hurt him. In 1998, he returned with The Thin Red Line — one of the finest war films ever made — and then followed it with two other acclaimed pictures: The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). The latter, in particular, was considered a groundbreaking work, so much so that the late Roger Ebert situated it among the ten best films of all time. This was arguably the apex of Malick’s career. Feted as a master, a visionary, he had entered a fraternity along with figures such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg: he was one of America’s greatest living directors.

Then came Malick’s 2012 film, To the Wonder. It was hardly an abject failure — in the last review he wrote, Ebert said that it was not just a movie but a noble attempt “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need” — but Malick’s critical and popular reputation undoubtedly took a hit. Though it was made in the same manner as The Tree of Life, featuring lyrical voiceovers (in multiple languages), minimal dialogue, and a loose plot structure centering on metaphysical questions, it failed to resonate as its predecessor did. Several thought Malick had become formulaic, verging on “self-parody.” Others were perplexed by his new filmmaking process, which, among other things, provided its cast with an abundance of scripted lines…only to leave them on the cutting-room floor. Still others speculated that Malick was no longer concerned as much with his audience as with reflecting on his own life, since both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder contain obvious autobiographical references. And, finally, there were some who thought To the Wonder was just plain bad, lacking a “coherent narrative” and resembling a “high-end perfume ad.” Suddenly Malick had become a cause célèbre — an auteur famous for avoiding fame, a “Hollywood Bigfoot,” whose mercurial films people seemingly loved to hate.

Whatever the case, the reception of To the Wonder has done nothing to deter the septuagenerian filmmaker, who is scheduled to release no less than three films in the next couple of years. The first is Knight of Cups, which premiered last February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will come out in the United States on March 4, 2016. Due to a project I’m currently wrapping up, I was fortunate enough to see Knight of Cups last month in New York, and, within five minutes of its start, one thing was clear: it is by no means a retraction of the direction Malick has taken as of late. On the contrary, it is more like an extension of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, so much so that the three films are demanding to be seen as a kind of trilogy — an intriguing idea, already adumbrated on the Web, which nevertheless exceeds the scope of this review.

Still, the similarities between Knight of Cups and Malick’s two prior efforts are instantly instructive, for they demonstrate that Malick is making films like this on purpose. In other words, his most recent style of filmmaking is an aesthetic choice, rather than a faltering accident. But this point raises a question: why is Malick making films in this way? What do his peculiar approaches to narrative, cinematography, and editing add to his cinematic vision and, perhaps, to the cinematic medium writ large?

Again, this is an impossibly large question, which cannot be fully answered in this context. But I’ll offer a suggestion. Malick now seems less interested in telling a story than in picturing a certain way of being-in-the-world. He is, in short, trying to film “affect” — a notoriously difficult term to define, but one that has been described as “the experience of feeling or mood, of acting or of being acted upon.” Of course, one can tell a story about such things, but Malick seems to want the viewer to feel along with the characters in the film. Hence, with The Tree of Life, the audience does not just watch a movie about growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; rather, Malick constructs the film in such a way that one shares in the experience. By limiting dialogue as well as featuring jump cuts and POV shots — and thereby resisting the tendency to turn the film into a static object observed by a passive subject — The Tree of Life “gets inside” its subject matter:

Likewise, To the Wonder is not a mere story about two lovers, who, after a blissful romance, slowly begin to drift apart; on the contrary, it tries to record what it feels like to fall in and out of erotic love — an almost universal experience, which explains why Malick’s characters increasingly resemble archetypes. Indeed, they are not concrete, independent characters but, rather, stand-ins for the viewers themselves. This is why the above term “record” is critical. It stems from the Latin recordari, which literally means “to restore to the heart.” Malick, it seems, wants to facilitate our exploration of the most primal and basic experiences of human life, whether the loss of a loved one, the thrill of new love, or the childlike intuition of God’s presence.

What experience, then, does Knight of Cups highlight? The film centers on Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, who flits across the surface of life. To be sure, Rick’s existence is essentially seduction after seduction: Hollywood moguls wine-and-dine him, and he finds himself in the bed of a myriad of beautiful women. It would seem to be a perfect life, except that it isn’t. One of Rick’s brothers has died, another (Wes Bentley) is on the verge of a breakdown, and his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) — a high-minded doctor, who tends to the lame and to the needy — laments their failed marriage. Hence, no matter how much “fun” Rick has, limitations and shortcomings surround him. Like the earthquakes that rattle southern California, Rick is unstable, dangerous. He is dangerous to those who love him, but, just as importantly, he is dangerous to himself. For insofar as he runs from sensual pleasure to sensual pleasure, he is in peril of losing any sense of who he really is and of what he really wants. Nothing summarizes Rick’s predicament better than the words of one of his smooth-talking Hollywood suitors: “Let me tell you about you.”

Some have complained that this hardly qualifies as a spiritual crisis, but it is worth pointing out that Søren Kierkegaard — a thinker whom Malick has studied and whom he has quoted in both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder — argued otherwise. Famously, Kierkegaard divides human existence into three “stages”: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. And, doubtless, Knight of Cups is a “recording” of the aesthetic stage, where the self seeks a succession of ephemeral, sensual experiences at the expense of an earnest confrontation of life’s meaning and purpose. The dangers of such a lifestyle are manifold: the aesthete is anxious, solipsistic, and terrified of boredom; he will stop at nothing to keep his despair at bay — a desire for which other persons, especially the vulnerable, are often sacrificed. And yet, in the end, the joke is on the aesthete, since he fails to indviduate and, consequently, vanishes into the ether of his own nihilistic misery.

It is just this fate that Rick intuits and, however achingly, seeks to resist. Yet, once more, the point of Knight of Cups is not tied to a tidy overcoming of the protagonist’s dilemma. How can it be, when the protagonist is not so much Rick as the one who also grapples with the aesthetic — that is to say, everyone. Ultimately, then, Knight of Cups seeks to expose aestheticism (in the Kierkegaardian sense) as a trap from which an egress must be sought. But it does not say this; it impresses it. That many will resist such provocation is certain, and, admittedly, Knight of Cups is not always easy viewing. But Malick is pushing at the borders of what the cinematic medium can achieve, and he has deemed that, whatever problems his recent trilogy invites, the risk is worth taking.

Brooklyn (dir. John Crowley, 2015)

“Homesickness is like most sicknesses; it will pass.” So says the kindly Fr. Flood (Jim Broadbent), as he tries to console Eilis Lacey (the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan) — a young Irish girl who has emigrated to Brooklyn. Weeks earlier, Eilis left the small town of Enniscorthy in County Wexford with a combination of excitement and expectancy, but adjusting to America proved to be a challenge. She did not know anyone in Brooklyn, and the very rhythm of life there was different — faster, more anonymous, alienating. Making matters worse was her mother’s frail health, which her sister was now left to tend to on her own. Thus Eilis had confided in Fr. Flood, hoping that he would encourage her to return home to Ireland. But he does just the opposite, enrolling her in bookkeeping classes and requesting her involvement in the local parish. “We need Irish girls in Brooklyn,” he jokes.

The importance of “home” is, indeed, the key theme in Brooklyn. What makes a place “home”? Is it just somewhere you live? Or is it determined by something else — something indefinable, amaranthine, even mysterious? And, if so, need it be limited to one place? Can one have two homes? Eilis is faced with precisely this conundrum. At a parish dance in Brooklyn, she meets Tony (Emory Cohen, who imbues his role with winsome earnestness), an Italian-American plumber who soon comes to love Eilis even more than he loves the Dodgers. Slowly but surely Eilis gives in, not just to Tony, but also to Brooklyn. They look forward to a future together — perhaps a home on Long Island — and Eilis’ homesickness dissipates…just as Fr. Flood predicted.

But, then, bad news arrives from Enniscorthy, and Eilis is forced to return to her family. Commercial air travel is still not an option, and the visit promises to be lengthy. Hoping to seal their relationship, Tony presses for a private civil marriage, to which Eilis agrees. Yet, upon reaching Ireland, Eilis finds herself swept back up into the flow of her “other” home: once overlooked in Enniscorthy, she is now the center of attention — the girl from New York. She is offered a job, invited to parties, and eventually courted by a gracious and well-to-do bachelor, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson). No one knows about Tony, and Eilis even begins to ignore his letters. Maybe Enniscorthy really is home?

Director John Crowley sets up this scenario with palpable, even old-fashioned romanticism, and it’s to his credit — along with the performances of Ronan, Cohen, and Gleeson — that Eilis’ dilemma is felt so deeply. But what of the dilemma itself? Brooklyn, of course, works on various levels. In one sense, it chronicles an experience that is so characteristic of the modern West — that of emigration, of leaving one’s home to start another elsewhere. Yet, beneath this socio-historical level, there is also the issue of home itself. Here Brooklyn is somewhat more ham-handed, chiefly because it does not properly account for Eilis’ final decision. This is a significant flaw in terms of the story’s plot, but it does little to change its theme. In the end, Eilis realizes that home is more than a dwelling, more than a place where one is raised. No, home is a goal, a destination, for home is where love is most profoundly realized.

Brooklyn, it is true, does not theologize this point, but it’s hard to miss its allegorical import. Christian mystics have long understood the spiritual life in terms of exitus and reditus — “exit” and “return.” Just as the individual, in being born, exits from her divine origin, so is the goal of her earthly life to return to the love from which she came. But this divine love is not just a starting point; it is also the “site” where she is truly known and made complete. That such an abstract, metaphysical scheme should overlap with a “love story” may seem surprising. And yet, Christians have long seen marriage as a sacrament of God’s love for humanity. Thus such stories — especially ones as sincere and moving as Brooklyn — are always already more than the sum of their parts. In highlighting the importance of one’s temporal home, they gesture toward the eternal one that grounds it.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (dir. J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Much of the response to the long-awaited Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been a combination of relief and excitement — relief because the film avoids the gross miscalculations (the stilted dialogue and serpentine plot structure, not to mention the infamous Jar Jar Binks) of the franchise’s previous three installments, excitement because it seems primed to advance the story for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. After seeing the movie, I can understand both of these sentiments. The Force Awakens is a well-paced popcorn flick, which nicely blends a cast of both old and new faces. Moreover, it ends with a gripping scene, which promises more of the same in the not-too-distant future.

And yet, despite its relative success, The Force Awakens fails to address what I take to be a decisive problem: why was it made at all? Of course, in terms of box-office receipts, this is an easy question to answer. But it becomes more complicated if one attends to the narrative arc of the series itself. After all, Return of the Jedi ends with the redemption of Darth Vader, the destruction of the Death Star, and the overthrow of the Galactic Empire. It is a denouement that presupposes a linear history, from the rise of Emperor Palpatine (Darth Sidious) and his Sith henchmen (including Vader) to the rebellion led by Jedi such as Yoda and Vader’s son, Luke Skywalker, to the Untergang of the Emperor and his plan to rule the galaxy according to the Dark Side. Thus the celebration on Endor at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi does not mark the end of a battle but, rather, the end of a war, that is to say, the end of Star Wars. Good has triumphed over evil.

The very existence, then, of The Force Awakens means that this celebration was premature — a point that may explain why series founder, George Lucas, has stated that the new film is more of a vehicle for fan interest than a continuation of his own vision. It is tempting to reason that Lucas’ view here is simply a matter of sour grapes, but, I suspect, he is also concerned with the narrative and thematic unity of Star Wars. It has always been an overtly religious series, promoting what Lucas himself terms “spirituality” and inspiring at least one prominent figure in contemporary philosophy of religion. Thus the victory of the Jedi, who serve the Force through the knowledge and practice of the good, implies the primacy of light over darkness. Yet, of necessity, The Force Awakens calls this story into question, and its title — to the extent that it is coherent at all (could the Force, which “binds the galaxy together,” ever actually go to sleep?) — even suggests that the Force is metaphysically neutral. Rather than an ultimate source of good, the Force is simply a power that can be exploited however one wishes, without eschatological repercussions.

Intriguingly, this new way of conceptualizing the Force may shed light on one of the more common criticisms of The Force Awakens — namelythat it’s closer to a collage of the previous installments than a film in its own right. As Kyle Smith of the New York Post has put it:

[R]ight about the time I was thinking, “Surely they’d never trot out another Death Star,” they trotted out another Death Star. There’s also another dramatic confrontation on a catwalk, another wise old soul who urges the heroes to return to Jedi ways, a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” moment, another Empire (renamed the First Order), another Emperor (the Supreme Leader), another Darth Vader type (Ren, played by Adam Driver) and a starting point that kicks us back to the beginning of the original film: The Jedi are nearly extinct and the Empire (oops, First Order) is being completely unreasonable.

In short, the plot of The Force Awakens is redundant, even circular. But this circularity follows from its metaphysics, which, as noted, no longer understands the unfolding of the galaxy in linear terms. On the contrary, what we now have is something closer to paganism’s cyclical understanding of time, where divinity is found in an ongoing alternation of life and death, light and darkness. With this in mind, it only makes sense that the story would repeat itself, for that, in fact, is the story — the eternal repetition of the same.

Ironically, the possibility of this sort of interpretation rests on the shoulders of Lucas himself, who, over the years, has struggled to clarify the nature of the Force. Yet, if his ideas were muddled, his story was not. Now, that has been lost as well.

But look on the bright side: there are already three more Star Wars films in the works. While Hollywood and its business interests can’t do much with a benevolent, triumphant Force, they can certainly take advantage of a disinterested one. I’ll probably go along for the ride too, though, on these terms, Star Wars means something different than it once did. And that’s okay. At least the One Ring has been safely destroyed.