Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2015)

The original film in the Rocky franchise — Rocky (1976), which went on to garner multiple Academy Awards, including Best Picture — was an ode to rough-around-the-edges classics such as John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Yet, where its forbearers plunged into squalor and despair, Rocky made transcendence central to its message. For Rocky Balboa was not just a boxer but, rather, an archetype for everyone who seeks to overcome his or her limitations — a point summed up in Rocky’s iconic climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (pictured below).

In that sense, the latest installment of the Rocky series, Creed, does not stray too far from the original film. However, under the leadership of talented young director Ryan Coogler, it incorporates enough twists to revitalize what had become a stale franchise. Creed centers on Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan), son of former heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed. Though preternaturally talented, Adonis has every reason not to step into the ring: his looks and mind can only be marred by a career in boxing, and, ominously, his own father had died on the mat. But it is on just this point that the film turns, since Adonis is at once attracted to and repelled by the life of Apollo. He wants to be like his father, even as he longs to step out of his shadow. Thus he seeks out Apollo’s old friend, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone, who is quite good in a smaller role), hoping that the venerable yet weary champion can coach him to a greatness of his own.

Of course, framed in these terms, it is inevitable that Creed will culminate in a make-or-break fight. But this eventuality is, in truth, secondary to the film’s exploration of Adonis’ paradoxical psyche: he is a rich man working in a poor man’s sport; he is a rebel against that which he loves; he is a frontrunner destined to serve. A different, more jaundiced film might refuse to reconcile Adonis’ predicament, but, true to form, Creed seeks transcendence. It’s not that Adonis comes to imitate his father or, conversely, to repudiate him. On the contrary, he comes to realize that it is only in accepting his legacy that he will be able to overcome it. A Kierkegaardian reading of Creed might contend that, in the end, the film portrays the harmony of “necessity” (the life that Adonis has received) and “possibility” (the ideal life to which he is called). But, of course, this conclusion is not so different than that of the gospel, which insists that one is only able to redeem one’s life when one gives up the desire to control it.

Ex_Machina (dir. Alex Garland, 2015)

The question of “artificial intelligence” has been a recurring motif in cinema at least since Stanley Kubrick’s epochal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In that film, five scientists are on board the Discovery One spacecraft, heading for an undisclosed mission on Jupiter. The ship is largely controlled by HAL 9000 — a computer that is said to be “foolproof and incapable of error.” Referred to as “Hal” by the ship’s crew, the computer is an ostensibly benign force, speaking in an unfailingly polite tone and even granting interviews to the BBC. However, when the astronauts confront Hal about a computing error, the machine begins to systematically liquidate the crew, preferring to kill human beings rather than to be deactivated — an almost silent rampage, which is only stopped when, in a chilling scene, the last remaining astronaut disconnects the computer.

Like its forerunner, Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina envisions a situation in which machines, endowed with self-consciousness by human beings, choose to turn against their creators. And yet, in a twist on Kubrick, Garland also suggests that — given the human propensity to seek power over others — it may be that the machines are justified in such a rebellion. Ex_Machina is set on the isolated estate of Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac, in an effectively creepy performance), the CEO of a major tech company along the lines of Google. Nathan is all but locked away in his home, alternately working, lifting weights, and consuming copious amounts of alcohol. His guests are few: a Japanese maid named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and, as the movie begins, a young computer programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson). Nathan has asked Caleb to spend a week with him in order to run a Turing test on his latest creation — a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Lithe, with a flat yet husky voice, Ava is immediately attractive to Caleb. However, as the two begin to connect, their relationship takes an ominous turn: Ava confides to Caleb that Nathan is a liar, and soon she is asking Caleb to help her escape. But this is no easy task, given that Nathan’s home is more like a prison than an abode, full of inaccessible rooms and disquieting security cameras. Hence, in order to liberate Ava, Caleb will have to neutralize Nathan. It sounds like a reasonable plan, until a further possibility arises: what if Ava is the one who cannot be trusted?

Garland relies on suspense, rather than action, to drive the film’s plot. The scenes with Ava are particularly taut, with Caleb’s uncertainty punctuated by the slow thump of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s techno-score. At the same time, however, the plot of Ex_Machina strains credulity more than once, and its basic premise — that Nathan is a manipulative and possibly dangerous mastermind — is plausible just to the extent that one has sympathy for his robotic creation. In an interview, Garland himself has conceded this point, explaining that “there is a message that [one should] be nice to something that is sentient.” But what, exactly, is the nature of Ava’s sentience? And how can we get past the fact that, on the inside, Ava is all metal and wire, rather than flesh and blood. The film refrains from delving deeply into these questions, and it hardly helps that (to me, anyway) Ava never really seems human. She is analytical to the point of exotic aloofness.

On the other hand, Ava’s inscrutability may very well be the rub, since, after all, Ex_Machina tries to work on a metaphorical level too. It is more than a little curious that, in Ava, Nathan has chosen to create a female robot. Moreover, he is clear that she is capable of sexual intercourse. Could he, then, create more such robots — indeed, a kind of harem? Even worse, is he trying to “pimp” Ava out to Caleb? And who is to say that Caleb himself doesn’t have designs on taking advantage of her? Though ostensibly decent, he himself admits that Ava fits his “porn profile.” With this in mind, the film’s denouement might be read not only as opposition to, but also as vengeance against, a misogynistic, patriarchal culture. At the very least, it is a step, however unsure, in that direction.

Still, perhaps even this sort of reading fails to do justice to Garland’s vision. At the beginning of the film, Caleb compares Nathan’s work to that of the “gods.” But what sort of gods? Nathan does not create in and for love — that would hew closely to Christian metaphysics — but to enjoy the power of total self-determination, which bears notable Nietzschean overtones. Nathan, in other words, is not beholden to anything…not to the wilderness that surrounds his haunt, not to Caleb, and certainly not to Ava. Intriguingly, those who enter Nathan’s orbit begin to take on this personality trait, seeking power and dominance rather than love and mercy. Alas, such is the world that comes strictly from human making: it is a web of bio-mechanical impulses devoid of a higher logos. Thus it is telling that, in the end, Ava is far more interested in freeing herself than in helping others. She is not a hapless victim but an exploitative force, and this makes her all too similar to those whom she would otherwise overcome.

Deux jours, une nuit (dir. Luc Dardenne & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, 2014)

The Belgian filmmaking tandem, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, are well known for their minimalistic films, which focus on the economic burdens and moral ambiguities facing working-class persons in the Low Countries. Deux jours, une nuit [Two Days, One Night] builds on this foundation. Though it features a bona fide movie star in Marion Cotillard, it is a typically unassuming film, which presupposes that mundane concerns — even, and perhaps especially, when seen as mundane — best reveal the flaws and virtues of human beings.

Cotillard plays Sandra — a working mother in Seraing, Belgium, who has taken a leave of absence from her job in a factory. The reason for her leave is not explicitly stated, but it is psychological in nature. Sandra is alternately frenzied and wearied, and she pops pills in order to cope with anxiety. Supporting her through this process is her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), whose patient encouragement is equaled by the recognition that, if the family is to keep their home, Sandra needs to return to work. Unfortunately, however, the factory has been able to maintain productivity during her absence, so much so that the management has presented her coworkers with an offer: if they vote to liquidate Sandra’s position, they will provide a cash bonus to everyone on staff. After learning of this proposal, Sandra has only a few days (thus the film’s title) to convince her peers of her worth. With this in mind, she sets out to meet with each of them prior to the vote.

Though at times this quest strains credulity, the Dardennes resist the temptation to melodramatize it. Sandra is not so much a “hero” as a nervous wreck, and her coworkers are not so much villains as ordinary persons facing ordinary problems — rents, childcare, and the like. With only a couple of exceptions, none of Sandra’s opponents want to see her removed; it’s just that they need the money. Herein, then, lies the tension at the heart of the film: will these ordinary people be able to muster the courage to deny themselves what, in purely economic terms, makes good sense? And can Sandra summon the strength to ask them to do so?

Without divulging the ending, it is worth noting that, for the Dardennes, even these questions withstand the pat answers typical of Hollywood. Ultimately, Deux jours, une nuit is neither a comedy nor a tragedy but, rather, something in between. But in this “in between” is precisely where the film’s connection to theology lies. As the Christian tradition has long professed, the field of human activity certainly is not heaven, but it is not hell either. On the contrary, earthly life is shot through with ambiguity, and so the ethical challenge — for human beings, anyway — is not to vanquish evil but to pursue the good amid uncertainty. “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” Søren Kierkegaard famously wrote, and yet willing the good and possessing it are two different things. Indeed, to will the good unreservedly may very well entail that one lose something. Alas, this is a lesson that Sandra must confront, though, as the gospel emphasizes (Lk 9:23-24), she also learns that sacrifice is the condition for new life.

Interstellar (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2014)

Since its premiere in October 2014, there has been more than a little debate about whether or not Interstellar is a “religious” film. Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus claims that, for all of its metaphysical interests, Interstellar never really addresses the question of God — an omission that he contrasts with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), another sci-fi film that clearly broaches religious themes as it braces for its dénoument. And yet, Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson calls Interstellar an “inescapably (r)eligious film,” as does Megan Garber of The Atlantic, who considers it an exploration into “the spiritual implications of space.” What gives?

Part of the issue, doubtless, has to do with what counts as “religious” in today’s increasingly secular culture. For, as Wilkinson and Garber note, the very plot of Interstellar bears concerns that can’t help but raise questions about the destiny of human beings and the role of the supernatural therein. Matthew McConaughey plays Joseph “Coop” Cooper, an astronaut and scientist, who is led by a series of uncanny experiences to a secret NASA plant. There he learns that the crop blight plaguing the Earth will not abate and that he is to head an expedition to a wormhole near Saturn, where, it is hoped, he will find a new planet for the Earth’s population or, at the very least, a place where several thousand human embryos can be raised and the human race preserved. Preceding him in this endeavor are twelve other persons, and, while a number of them are presumed dead, three have sent back encouraging feedback about planets near a black hole, Gargantua. Though torn — Coop is leaving behind a family, including his intelligent yet fragile young daughter, Murph — he agrees to lead the mission and leaves with a small crew of scientists and robots. The journey to the wormhole alone will take roughly two dozen years in Earth time, and Coop is unsure if he’ll ever see his family again.

Already, then, a key theological question is indicated: what, if anything, binds human beings to the Earth? And, in Interstellar, an answer is given: nothing. Indeed, the film might be fairly characterized as anthropocentric. Human beings are in charge of their own destiny, and so not only can the Earth be left behind, but there is no reason to be attached to it. It’s just the “rock” where humanity got its (accidental?) start and, sensu stricto, is in no way preferable to any other planet. But this is a far cry from the biblical account of creation, which was recently emphasized in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si. As he writes:

The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15). “Tilling” refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving. This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

Of course, Francis’ reading is in line with Catholic orthodoxy, to which Nolan need not adhere. And yet, one might wonder just what is lost in the transition from the older, Catholic perspective to Nolan’s more Darwinian approach. If human beings are not, in a certain sense, bound to the Earth, then why should they care for it? Perhaps human development, following the law of evolution, will ultimately transcend what the Earth can provide, and so the planet should simply be stripped of its resources and discarded as a sign of “progress”? This viewpoint is not explicitly stated in Interstellar, but it is telling that, in one scene, Coop laments how human beings have wasted too much time “staring in the dirt,” rather than seeking their place in the stars.

In any case, as the film moves on, the plot becomes as cumbersome as the imagery sublime. Coop’s crew lands on a number of potentially habitable planets, including one whose gravitational force results in recurring (and destructive) tidal waves:

Moreover, due to gravitational time dilation, Coop’s experience in space is occurring at a startlingly quick rate in Earth-time. Murph is now an adult, working with NASA to find an equation that might harness gravity. Her efforts have proven unsuccessful, but then something unexpected occurs. Coop plunges his ship into Gargantua, only to emerge into a tesseract wherein he is capable of interacting with multiple dimensions of reality. Thus he is able to transcend spacetime and to communicate with Murph through gravity waves — a discovery that dovetails with the uncanny experiences that inaugurate the film. Eventually, the tesseract collapses and, in a whir of color and light (which suggests Nolan’s fondness for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) Coop finds himself in a space station orbiting Saturn, where he is reunited with the now elderly Murph. The mission to save humankind has proven successful, but, just as importantly, Coop has been reunited with his daughter.

Here, again, Interstellar skirts up against various theological issues. For example, Coop’s ability to outstrip the normal limitations of human nature (finitude, temporality, perhaps even mortality), not to mention his “second coming” at film’s end, suggest godlike status — a point arguably intimated by his initials, J.C. And yet, Coop’s powers are not conferred by a deity, nor are they intrinsic to his nature. Rather, they were bestowed by a future human civilization, which has learned to master the very conditions that burden human beings.

In the end, then, Interstellar dares to imagine a humanity that itself has become divine. It is a theme, I suppose, that could be spun in a Christian direction. After all, as Nolan sees it, science itself is not a dispassionate discipline, motivated by objective data and perfunctory inquiry, but is driven by love — love of our children and, if not our planet, then our race. And from where, one might ask, does that love originate? Why, indeed, are we the way we are? Such questions are ripe for theological interpretation, but, as noted at the outset, Nolan doesn’t bite. Just why is a matter of speculation, though it seems safe to say that, for Nolan, it’s far more interesting to think about where humanity is going than where it came from. For when we look to the stars, not as a heavenly abode but as a world to conquer, we are able to save ourselves. And, in this conclusion, Nolan turns science into a religion unto itself.

Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

What is the goal of cinema? Should films strive to reproduce reality, or are they illusory manifestations of their auteurs‘ vision? This is, arguably, the classic debate in film theory, eliciting contributions from thinkers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein, Sigfried Kracauer, André Bazin, and F.E. Sparshott. Of course, one reason why the discussion persists is that it defies easy answers. Recently, in my course on “Theology and Film,” I asked students to weigh in on this question, paying particular attention to a film we had studied during the semester. Many of them chose either Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and, despite the differences between these two films, they found support for either side of the debate. Sure, Malick’s attention to the natural world suggests a realistic, “open” style of filmmaking, but, then, his well-known use of voiceover is only possible through editing technique (though whether or not that makes it less real is another question). Likewise, Nolan’s employment of special effects, not to mention his embrace of the superhero genre, implies a cinematic experience abstracted from reality; and yet, for all of that, does not The Dark Knight confront a number of pressing “real-world” issues, from the post-9/11 fear of terrorism to the very possibility of absolute moral obligations?

Perhaps, then, this issue was just on my mind when I finally got around to seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, but I couldn’t help but think of how this film gets to the heart of this theoretical conundrum. The story of the CIA’s attempt to find Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty is, in a number of respects, an example of cinematic realism. For example, The New Yorker‘s David Denby praises Bigelow’s portrayal of moral ambiguity, noting that Zero Dark Thirty “pays close attention to the way life does work.” And, famously, the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” (what many would simply call “torture”) has divided both critics and filmgoers. The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, claims that Zero Dark Thirty is an attempt to “normalize” torture and, in turn, to legitimate the methods of American military power. Yet Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Daily Beast, views it rather as an exposure of torture and of the tactics of “armchair warriors” such as former Vice President, Dick Cheney. What’s interesting, however, is that all of these perspectives agree on a decisive point — namely, that Bigelow does, in fact, make a film that hews closely to the real, that does, in fact, reproduce life as it actually is, for better or for worse.

But is this true? In other words, is is it not also (or even more) true to say that Zero Dark Thirty has pretensions of being realistic but, in truth, is closer to “movie magic,” a figment of Bigelow’s imagination, translated to the screen with admirable dexterity? Much could be said in favor of this perspective. After all, the film was not shot in Pakistan, where most of it is set, but in Manimajra, India. And, ironically, residents there were said to be excited about the film’s Oscar prospects — a reception quite different from that portrayed on film. But this is only a crude example of a deeper issue, which, I think, hits on the weakness of Zero Dark Thirty. As one critic has complained, the film’s protagonist, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), is depicted as relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit of bin Laden. Indeed, we are given little information as to her motivation, other than an amorphous sense of anger and revenge. The same could be said of Bigelow’s development of other characters, whether Maya’s fellow CIA agents (including Jason Clarke, in a key role) or the Al-Qaeda operatives they are pursuing.

Surely, however, this is an illusion. History doesn’t just “happen” but, rather, is animated by various ideas and systems, be they economic, political, or theological. Yet, in sidelining such considerations, ostensibly in the name of “realism,” Bigelow fails to do justice to what is really real. Hence, paradoxically, Zero Dark Thirty is not quite as serious as it means to be. It might have explored the curious points of overlap, whether in the East or in the West, between fundamentalism(s) and power; it might have considered moderate political or theological voices; at the very least, it might have offered a clearer rationale for its main players, so that they become more than one-dimensional cutouts. But it doesn’t. Content to stick to the “facts,” Zero Dark Thirty lacks the philosophical substructure that might have made it truly important; it crumbles, finally, under its own weight.

Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller, 2014)

In January 1996, the American philanthropist, scientist, and heir to the Du Pont family fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont, shot and killed a man on his Pennsylvania estate. That man was Dave Schultz — an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling and the head of du Pont’s “Team Foxcatcher” wrestling team. After his arrest, du Pont pled “not guilty by reason of insanity” and was found guilty of murder in the third degree. He would die at a Pennsylvania correctional institute in 2010.

Such are the bare, yet grim, facts of du Pont’s demise. But why did he kill Schultz? And how did this ornithologist and philatelist become intertwined with U.S.A. Wrestling, so much so that he housed a training facility on his property? Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher aims to explore these questions, and it does so with muted tension and an almost palpable sense of dread — qualities that earned Miller “Best Director” honors at Cannes in 2014. That Foxcatcher also bears political undertones, treating du Pont (Steve Carell, a long way from Brick Tamland and Michael Scott) as a symbol of American privilege and conceit, casts a wider light on its narrative. In trying to understand du Pont, Miller suggests, we may be to able to better understand why hard-working persons like Dave Schultz are “shot down” in their pursuit of the American dream.

It is an ambitious premise, and Miller’s execution is admirable. Yet, I’m not sure that it ultimately works. For one thing, Miller is only able to guess at du Pont’s motivation, both with regard to Team Foxcatcher and with regard to his killing of Schultz. Perhaps it was a lonely upbringing, exacerbated by a demeaning mother? Perhaps it was suppressed sexual desire, particularly in relation to Schultz’s younger brother, Mark (Channing Tatum, in a breakout performance). Perhaps it was drug and alcohol addiction? Or perhaps it was the realization that, wealth aside, du Pont really never had anything — indeed, that money just can’t buy me love?

Ironically, any of these reasons might lend themselves to theological exploration. After all, human fallenness and the concomitant frustration of desire are classic theological motifs, which have their roots in the very first chapters of the Bible (Gen 1-3). But Miller fails to delve into these topics, even in a philosophical mode. The socio-political symbolism — he relishes the fact that du Pont refers to himself as “Golden Eagle” — is just too inviting, too “important.” Even worse, such speculation may simply be beside the point. Further exploration of the du Pont case suggests that, while du Pont certainly was rich, he was also certainly mentally ill. Doubtless it is convenient to turn him into an archetype, but, in this case, there is a very real question about the suitability of such an approach.

Du Pont was a fallen human being, compromised by the frailty of our condition. And there is a depth, a genuine sadness, in such a truth. But, alas, the stuff of political tragedy it is not.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott, 2014)

There has been so much criticism of Exodus: Gods and Kings that it’s hard to know where to begin. Critics were generally unimpressed, arguing that the film’s technical achievements overwhelmed its human interest. For a number of Christian outlets, however, the trouble did not lie in director Ridley Scott’s love of CGI but, rather, in his all-too-loose rendering of biblical events. Muslim audiences raised similar concerns, so much so that the film was banned in countries such as Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. Still others bristled at Scott’s penchant for casting Anglo-Saxon actors as Egyptians and Hebrews — a move that Scott defended as financially necessary. And, finally, there were the comments of Christian Bale, who plays Moses in the film. Bale admitted that, in his view, Moses was “troubled” and “mercurial,” possibly even “schizophrenic.” Needless to say, such remarks attracted more than a little attention, not all of it flattering.

Geez. Can’t a guy make a 150-million-dollar, biblically-based epic action film anymore?!

In truth, the controversy surrounding Exodus: Gods and Kings has made it almost impossible to evaluate the film on its own merits. For my own part, I am sympathetic with much of the criticism mentioned above. At the same time, however, I found Scott’s attempt to depict the Exodus story intriguing, albeit far less so than Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Indeed, unlike Aronofsky’s magical adaptation of the Noah cycle, Scott treats his source material with flinty seriousness. He wants it to be a credible adaptation of Exodus, but credible according to whom?

One might tender a number of reasonable answers. For the faithful, Scott clearly portrays Moses as a hero, who, despite an independent streak (which, it should be added, is attested in Scripture), relies on God for his power. For the skeptics, he suggests that the great miracles of Exodus — for example, the parting of the Red Sea (Exod 14) — were actually triggered by natural occurrences. For those desiring drama and romance, he attends to the fraternal tension between Moses and Ramesses (an awkwardly cast Joel Edgerton), as well as Moses’ desire to return to his wife, Zipporah. And, yes, for those merely wanting a Hollywood adventure flick, he’s got battle scenes and dazzling special effects, not to mention Bale and his Occidental cast members.

The trouble, of course, is that it’s hard to be all things to all people — a point borne out by the widespread criticism of Exodus: Gods and Kings. But there may be a deeper issue here as well. Artistic renderings of biblical events tend to fail just to the extent that they lack commitment, and, by that, I don’t necessarily mean creedal commitment. For instance, George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) is measured to a fault, featuring an all-star cast (sound familiar?) rather than inspired filmmaking. In contrast, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) stirs with its combination of neorealist cinematography and varied film score (from Bach to Odetta), in spite of Pasolini’s atheism.

In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Scott is more Stevens than Pasolini. Certain only of a hefty box-office draw, his film fails to move or to hearten or to perplex. But this means that the text has been domesticated, turned into a means to an end. And, as Kierkegaard points out, such is a common yet perilous tendency in the “reflective” age of modernity, when the cost is often counted in advance.

The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956)

By all accounts, John Ford’s The Searchers is not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time but one of the greatest films of all time. Indeed, according to the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (TSPDT), it stands as the ninth most-acclaimed movie ever released, and no less an authority than Martin Scorsese has called it one of his favorite films. But what, exactly, makes The Searchers so special?

Taken by itself, the plot doesn’t seem unique. Ethan Edwards (John Wayne, in an iconic role) is a Confederate veteran who has returned to his home on the Texas frontier — hard country matched only by Ethan’s hard-bitten personality. Clamorous, bigoted, and possibly criminal, Ethan is a poor fit for the homestead of his brother, Aaron (Walter Coy), who hopes to quietly go about his work and to provide for a family that includes a son, two daughters, and an adopted son of Native American extract, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter). Yet, when a Comanche war party attacks the ranch — Ethan and Martin had been lured away to help round up stolen cattle — tragedy ensues. Most of the family is murdered, and the two girls are taken hostage. Ethan, Martin, and a ragtag bunch of Texas Rangers head out in pursuit of the Comanche band, but, outnumbered and weary, the Rangers give up, thus leaving Ethan and Martin to fend for themselves. Even worse, when the corpse of the oldest daughter is found, it becomes clear that they are the last hope for the youngest girl, Debbie (Natalie Wood).

The tension between the two “searchers” lies at the heart of the film and, along with Ford’s captivating landscapes, accounts for The Searchers‘ reputation. Whereas Martin loves his sister and is hopeful that she can be rescued, Ethan is bent on vengeance. Indeed, he is convinced that, with the passing of time, Debbie has either been murdered or has assimilated into Comanche ways. In either event, she is less important than the killing of her abductor, a Comanche chief known as Scar. Moreover, Ethan swears that, if Debbie has become a Comanche, he will kill her too — a prediction that comes horrifyingly close to being true.

In this way, Ethan emerges as an icon of postlapsarian Adam. The world, in his view, is a cruel, merciless place. It has hurt him, and so he is right to hurt it back. For him, in short, the measure of a man lies in the degree to which he refuses compassion and, instead, imposes his will on others. Yet, when a tip leads Ethan to Scar (and to Debbie) again, he is given a chance to see — at last — another side of life, to bestow mercy instead of seeking revenge.

The German cardinal and theologian, Walter Kasper, has recently argued that the shift from a rigid sense of justice to an excessive, even unfathomable, mercy is central to Christian belief: “[T]he call for mercy surpasses the cry for justice in the Bible. The Bible understands mercy as God’s own justice. Mercy is the heart of the biblical message, not by undercutting justice, but by surpassing it.”

Of course, it would be a stretch to say that Ethan represents such a lofty notion. Nevertheless, in coming to save Debbie, he takes a first step toward redemption, which, in truth, is tantamount to a life in service to mercy. Indeed, it is no accident that Ford’s famous closing shot — his camera peering out from a dark doorway — frames Ethan as he wanders into the light.

Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn, 2014)

Richard Dawkins — Oxford don, evolutionary biologist, and world-famous advocate for atheism — has written that “[n]atural selection is a deeply nasty process.” That is to say, from the perspective of evolutionary biology, there is no reason to expect that any organisms (including human beings) would ever exhibit “super niceness,” which Dawkins defines as a benevolence that goes beyond “reciprocal altruism” and therefore puts the good of the stranger above one’s own. Indeed, as he explains, “from a Darwinian point of view, human super niceness is just plain dumb.”

Where, then, does this “super niceness” come from? Dawkins isn’t quite sure — after all, “in a wild population, it would be removed by natural selection” — but he admits that it has much in common with religion. Both “super niceness” and religion are, he says, “stupid ideas” that spread through human culture like viral epidemics. Yet, whereas the latter is something that ought to be eradicated in society, the former is something that should be promoted. What we need to do is take the methods responsible for the transmission of religious belief — namely, tradition and rhetoric — and apply them to “super niceness.” In this way, we could exchange one form of “irrational belief” for another.

With this in mind, a film like Guardians of the Galaxy emerges as an interesting test case. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that its makers were concerned with either evolutionary biology or religion. Released in July 2014, smack in the middle of the summer blockbuster season, it features all of the hallmarks of a profitable popcorn flick — big special effects, a catchy soundtrack, extended action sequences, and a cast of zany characters that appeal to a variety of viewers. And yet, its underlying theme is nothing other than “super niceness.” The protagonist, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), is a young, cocky space pirate in the mode of Star Wars‘ Han Solo. Through a series of misadventures, he finds himself the leader of a motley crew of outcasts, ranging from an acerbic talking raccoon, Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), to a lissome alien assassin, Gamora (Zoe Saldona). Each of these characters wants something different, but, as time passes, they come to recognize that they have much in common, starting with a mutual hatred of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) — a vicious military leader who, as an agent for the nihilistic super-villain, Thanos, is bent on dominating the universe. In order to stop Ronan, Quill and his band have to put aside all self-concern and, instead, risk their lives not only for one another but also for the entire solar system. In other words, they learn to live according to a code of “super niceness” rather than one of “reciprocal altruism.” And it is only with this decision, which indeed proves costly, that they are able to become “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Of course, this is a fairly typical plot in superhero films. And, even if it does not redefine the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, Guardians of the Galaxy pulls it off well enough. But what interests me in this case is not so much the film itself as the fact that it was made at all. After all, if Dawkins is right, such parables of “super niceness” really shouldn’t speak to us. We should receive them as pia desideria — spiritual aspirations that have little-to-no purchase in our daily lives. Or perhaps we should reject them as thinly-veiled repetitions of the Christian mythos, where the courageous self-denial of a Star-Lord (Quill’s adopted moniker) overcomes evil and gathers together a fractured community. At best, Dawkins would argue that films like Guardians of the Galaxy serve to encourage “super niceness” in a post-religious era, effectively fostering a virtue that would otherwise be absent from our species. On this reading, we don’t watch such films because they’re true in some ontological sense; rather, we are hoping to make them true, to render them meaningful for our culture. “Super niceness” is a meme and nothing more.

And yet, none of these rationalizations seem to stick, because, in the end, they don’t explain why people turn out in droves to watch a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy — or why we should even prefer “super niceness” to brutality if, in fact, it is brutality that allows our species to thrive. Dawkins’ account, then, is reductive. It can explain our world to us but not why it matters to us like it does. It can explain what Guardians of the Galaxy, qua film, may hope to achieve but not why we continue to thirst for its message of “super niceness.” In short, might not the popularity of such films be an indicator of human singularity, of an ineradicable longing for redemption, reconciliation, and charity, of what thinkers from another age called the imago dei?

Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh, 2014)

What intrigued me was the idea of how difficult it must be to uphold a sense of truth and goodness when you’re being vilified. We’re in a very strange time now where it’s difficult for people to believe in heroes any more – it’s kind of revolutionary now to think of goodness as an aspiration, but I believe we’re swimming against the tide with Calvary. The story is about the notion of goodness.

— Brendan Gleeson

John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary is not a great film: its plot requires more than a little credulity, and its stabs at humor miss more often than not. It is, however, an important film — one, I daresay, that will remain with its audience long after they view it. With a nod to Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953), Calvary begins in a confessional in a small church in the West of Ireland (probably County Sligo, given the lurking presence of Benbulbin). An unidentified parishioner confesses to Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) that, as a young boy, he was horrifically abused by a Catholic priest and that he wants to take the life of Fr. James as recompense. He reasons that the depth of his hurt and vitriol will be clearer if he murders a good priest rather than a bad one. For his act is as symbolic as it is personal: he does not want to simply kill Fr. James but the very idea of a priesthood — that is to say, of a group of persons who mediate the will of a loving God.

Fr. James is given a week to get his affairs in order, and so the film unfolds as a kind of Passion Week, chronicling each day of the priest’s slow but certain ascent up his own Calvary — a term that references Golgotha (“place of the skull”), rendered Calvariæ Locus in Latin, the hill on which Jesus died. What we see is an unflinching look at the challenges of being a priest today: some of Fr. James’ flock admire his commitment to the Gospel but openly ignore his counsel; some prefer to mock his faith, noting the quaintness of believing in God amid the brutality of the universe; some distrust him, wondering if his kindly persona is nothing but a cover for nefarious motives; still others actively disdain both him and his office and are unafraid to express their feelings with violence. And this is to say nothing of his fellow clergy, who either want to avoid contact with the laity or who are beginning to explore popular skepticism (one priest is seen perusing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion). Of course, these responses to Fr. James are also responses to God. As Pope Benedict XVI once wrote, “[A priest] represents Jesus, who is never absent in the Church,” and hence, insofar as his office is concerned, a priest “never acts in the name of someone absent, but in the person of the Risen Christ.”

But this task, Calvary suggests, is precisely what’s at issue. In re-presenting the person of Jesus, Fr. James is offensive to others, whether in his presumed arrogance (in claiming to mediate on behalf of God) or in his palpable lowliness (in doing so in such humble fashion, without wealth or honor). Indeed, one cannot see the good he is seeking — to comfort and to encourage the afflicted — without passing through the crucible of offense. Within the context of the film, one such person is Fiona (Kelly Reilly), Fr. James’ daughter, who has struggled to accept his priestly calling after the death of his wife and her mother. In particular, Fiona resents the fact that, rather than focus on the healing needed in his own life and family, her father has chosen to minister to a parish of ingrates and misanthropes. Towards the end of the film, however, the pair arrive at an understanding: both of them, albeit in different ways, have spent far too much time worrying about what’s wrong than doing what’s right. As Fr. James puts it, “[F]orgiveness has been highly underrated,” not just in his relationship with Fiona, but in the Church’s ministry and its relation to the world — even a world as bellicose as this one.

It is this wisdom that gives Fr. James the strength to complete his passion and to meet his would-be killer — a conclusion that is no less gripping despite its inevitability. But is Fr. James’ witness in vain? McDonagh does not answer this question directly and perhaps for good reason. In the wake of the abuse scandal in Ireland, America, and elsewhere, there are no straightforward answers. What Calvary does suggest, however, is that the Church can only regain its footing through a commitment to goodness — a commitment that refuses to waiver in the face of scorn and suffering. It’s a cutting message, but not a hopeless one. Like its namesake, Calvary is not so much about death (death of the good, death of the Church, death of God) as about what comes after death. Life.