‘Midnight Mass’ is the best vampire show ever made, and it’s not even about vampires

Why is Midnight Mass so affecting? Why is a story about a vampire descending on an isolated town — a description that would fit 30 Days of Night or any number of inferior genre films — the best work of Mike Flanagan’s career?

Never mind that vampires do not “descend” on the town so much as coalesce out of the town itself. Never mind that the story is more a meditation on where our beliefs come from and the innate fallibility of human interpretation than that of a traditional horror film. Writers and directors remix horror elements all the time, so what makes Midnight Mass different?

The answer, I think, is that the show is true. No, “Crockett Island” does not exist and vampires do not stalk remote caves in Jerusalem (as far as I know. I haven’t checked any caves in Jerusalem). But this is a rare, almost singular story in which, despite the presence of a supernatural entity, its themes and emotional power ring completely true in the real world. That sounds deceptively obvious and simple, but let me try to explain.

The show is not based on a tired gimmick, such as showing what might “really” happen if a “real” vampire showed up in the “real” world. Such films ultimately create their own universe, trapping anything they have to say about the human experience within that bubble. You can even make the vampires Nazis, CEOs, or United States Senators, but ultimately the analogies and metaphors and satire will only really make sense within that world, because it isn’t “our” world.

A scene from 30 Days of Night, which teaches us the valuable life lesson that a UV lamp can kill a vampire. Also, vampires love, too. Relatable!

And yet, as a side effect of brilliant storytelling, Midnight Mass creates a convincing depiction of what might really happen if a real vampire showed up in the real world. Huh.

That’s because the story isn’t making a point about vampires, figurative or otherwise. The film’s trio of main characters — Riley (Zach Gilford), Erin (Kate Siegel), and Monsignor Pruitt (Hamish Linklater) — are not primarily metaphors or satirical stand-ins. They are human beings wrestling with how to see the world in the face of unimaginable horror: the horror of guilt, of miscarriage, of an untested system of beliefs being truly tested for the first time. Nor is the vampire a symbol in the show’s eyes. It is a humanoid creature with the wings of a bat; the characters, not the camera, interpret the creature, a dynamic that forms the crux of the show’s power.

Indeed, the mystery surrounding the vampire’s existence is one of the show’s masterstrokes. Flanagan never stoops to the stereotypes of the genre, which would usually demand that a character googles “vampire” and reads from someone’s blog as if it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica, or else visits a renowned “vampire expert” who is inexplicably paid by a major university to research vampires for a living. In Midnight Mass, the word “vampire” is never mentioned — I use it here only for convenience — and a muted, vague, two-second reference to “myths” in this 7+ hour show is the closest we ever get to a confirmation that these characters are familiar with the concept of a vampire. This frees up the show’s more logical characters to speculate about scientific explanations while the mostly kind-hearted Pruitt and his manipulative, hypocritical scumbag of an apostle, Bev, work overtime to convince themselves that the vampire is a biblical angel.

To Flanagan’s credit, despite the show ultimately becoming one of cinema’s most savage takedowns of religion’s susceptibility to erroneous interpretation, Pruitt and his flock are not dismissed as idiots, nor is religion and spirituality as a whole tossed out with the bathwater. Pruitt’s story — from the moment he meets the vampire in that cave in Jerusalem and feels, for the first time, that confusing mixture of fear and reverent awe that he will struggle with for the remainder of the show, to the moment he awakens to his mistakes and tries to set things right — is told with empathy, not mockery. A few inspired scenes of wood blocks depicting Pruitt’s meeting with the vampire and his subsequent tribulations are infused with the same contradictory blend of earnestness, tragedy, grandiosity, and humility that Pruitt himself feels. Despite knowing better, we want to believe in his conviction that all things, no matter how horrific, have a grain of goodness within them.

Pruitt comes face to face with a vampire. Or is it an angel?

On the other side of the philosophical divide is Riley. As an atheist myself, Riley initially struck me as a Christian’s idea of an atheist, given that his worldview as expressed in the first few episodes can be boiled down to something like, “a kind god wouldn’t let children starve in Africa.”

But as the show progressed, I realized that the point of Riley’s character is not his atheism, but his refusal to compromise on his belief that certain things in this world are simply bad. No silver lining, no redeeming truth, just evil and bad luck and mistakes. It’s this rigid moral compass, forged by his accidental killing of a young woman in a drunk-driving accident, that Riley’s simplified philosophical musings early on are supposed to express. This sets up a clear confrontation; not between Catholicism and atheism, but between moral elasticity and a clear-eyed appraisal of good and evil. While Pruitt bends, hiding behind his belief system when his moral fiber is tested, Riley chooses to die rather than lie to himself and become the very evil he cannot ignore. In death, Riley sets into motion the events that will ultimately lead to Crockett Island’s salvation.

Finally, there is Erin, who falls roughly in the center of this ideological divide. With Riley’s death occurring in Episode 5, Erin becomes the de facto protagonist, and the conversation she has with him only days before his death becomes the emotional and philosophical core of the show. In that conversation, which takes place quite informally in Erin’s living room — a purposeful decision that I think makes the scene all the more relatable to anyone who has experienced the most challenging conversations of their lives on a couch beside a friend or family member — Riley describes what he imagines death will be like. His speech pairs a strictly biological description of the body’s death with a mystically tinged interpretation of the body breaking down into its elemental particles and seeding the universe, representing a blend of rationality and non-specific spirituality that a good portion of viewers will relate to.

Erin and Riley have a couch convo about life and death.

Erin, who has just discovered that she has miscarried — a consequence of the vampire blood Pruitt has been mixing into the sacrament at mass — opts for a comforting fantasy in which she meets her unborn daughter in something like Heaven. In a scene of incredible emotional complexity, Flanagan projects both empathy and hope for her take on death while also subtly suggesting that she doesn’t really believe everything she’s saying. Erin’s speech, in which she constantly teeters between extreme sadness for the loss of her child and happiness at the prospect of seeing her again, is the first example of a recurring question in the show: why does death, whether our own or that of others, cause so much grief and fear in people who believe they will live on?

Flanagan’s answer seems to be that belief isn’t real until it is tested. That’s true of Riley, whose prior religiosity broke under the weight of his mistakes, but whose subsequent moral convictions did not falter when faced with death. It’s true of Pruitt, who finds his faith morphing exponentially to account for a monstrous being that grants him seductive gifts, only to discover a more resilient and honest faith near his end that sees him through his death with grace. And it’s true of Erin, who, as she dies after essentially saving the world, realizes that what she really believes is a happy medium between Riley’s rationality, Pruitt’s hopefulness, and even the stunningly beautiful way that vampires perceive stars. She is energy, the same energy that burns within stars and vibrates with the constant, invigorating thrum of life. And that constancy, that ever-cycling and ever-expanding flow of energy, is hope.

Hope. Riley rejects it, Pruitt is seduced by it, and Bev preys upon it. But only Erin accepts it.

In the show’s final seconds, as Bev tears at the sand beneath her, flailing frantically for any way to escape her death, we ask ourselves what she believes. But perhaps we should be asking ourselves a different question:

What do I believe?

Note: There is so much going on in Midnight Mass that I can’t possibly talk about it all — not in this analysis, anyway. In the interest of economy, I did not mention the incredible performance of Rahul Kohli as Sheriff Hassan (Yes, Hassan. Apparently some people have missed that “Sharif” is a racial jab — a reference to actor Omar Sharif and a bastardization of “sheriff” — used by characters in the show to belittle him; it’s not the character’s name). Nor did I mention Robert Longstreet as Joe Collie. Longstreet plays a sad, lonely man better than anyone on the planet. I didn’t even mention my favorite scene in the film, which I will probably write about in the near future. I could go on and on, but the point is: it couldn’t all go here. Sorry about that.

Avalanche: the pinnacle of literary songwriting

Some songs wow us with powerful, strident lyrics that take a political or emotional stand. Others lead with instrumentation, letting the lyrics take a back seat or omitting them altogether. Sometimes — quite rarely — the lyrics and instrumentation come together seamlessly, creating an unforgettable experience that speaks both to our minds and ears.

Yet for a form of art that has its roots in poetry, popular music is rarely literary. Songs are usually too short, too sparse, too hurried or just too simplistic to develop the rich threads of figurative meaning that can be found in novels, in the visual arts, or even — in a sense — in symphonies. Songs that attempt to “make a point” often do so in clumsily direct fashion, leaving us with surface-level screeds that do a good job of telling us what the artist thinks, but fail to make us think. Songs are not interpreted so much as they are received — passively, while we are driving to work or drifting off to sleep or (for the true multitaskers) reading. So the exceedingly rare piece of popular music that nests its themes in metaphors, symbolic imagery, poetic language and ambiguity, all while engrossing the listener in a masterful sonic landscape, is a towering accomplishment.

Love or hate? Avalanche has both.

Today, I want to talk about one such accomplishment: Avalanche by Leonard Cohen, released in 1971 on his Songs of Love and Hate album. Before I say anything else, I’ve included the lyrics below. Do yourself a favor and give it a listen before continuing. In this age of YouTube and Spotify, you have no excuse!

Well I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul
When I am not this hunchback that you see
I sleep beneath the golden hill
You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn, learn to serve me well

You strike my side by accident
As you go down for your gold
The cripple here that you clothe and feed
Is neither starved nor cold
He does not ask for your company
Not at the centre, the centre of the world

When I am on a pedestal
You did not raise me there
Your laws do not compel me
To kneel grotesque and bare
I myself am the pedestal
For this ugly hump at which you stare

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me
They’re the crumbs I’ve left behind
Your pain is no credential here
It’s just the shadow, shadow of my wound

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you’ve gone away from me
But I can feel you when you breathe

Do not dress in those rags for me
I know you are not poor
And don’t love me quite so fiercely now
When you know that you are not sure
It is your turn, beloved
It is your flesh that I wear

This is a song that will mean something different to everyone who hears it. A Christian will identify with its apparent references to Jesus, while a Jew might recognize “the golden hill” as a reference to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. A closer listen will suggest that what at first seems to be a conversation between God and a lowly vagrant might actually be the vagrant talking to himself, a reading that might appeal to an atheist or agnostic. Seizing on that reading, a Buddhist might interpret the song as a struggle between a man’s worldly self and the true, universal nature of his being. And, of course, anyone with any belief system might subscribe to all or none of these approaches — Cohen himself explored Judaism, Buddhism, and elements of Christianity throughout his life.

But despite the wide variety of potential interpretations, do not make the mistake of thinking Avalanche is copping out by avoiding a straightforward reading. The song, after all, is about uncertainty. The narrator is an “ugly hump” and a “cripple” one minute, and the next he is an enlightened being with no need for such concerns as food or warm clothing.

The cripple here that you clothe and feed
Is neither starved nor cold
He does not ask for your company
Not at the center, the center of the world

The narrator himself is engaged in the act of interpretation, though in this case he is interpreting his own body, his own soul, his own personality.

If it’s not clear by now, I’m in the camp that believes the narrator is one man, divided in two. There is the god-like, spiritually fulfilled man (some might prefer to call this his soul) who issues commands with the authority of a higher being:

Do not dress in those rags for me
I know you are not poor

Then there is the physical person, the body, which the narrator constantly disparages and degrades until, in the penultimate stanza, he makes a surprising admission:

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you’ve gone away from me
But I can feel you when you breathe

Again, there are many ways one could interpret this section. But we can also make a few eliminations: If this is God’s voice, references to longing and asking don’t seem to make much sense. Conversely, if this is a man talking to God, the man’s claims that he has no greed or need seem oddly divine, or at least awfully prideful, and they don’t square with the self-loathing manner in which he disparages his body. But if this is the figurative soul talking to the body, the fog clears. Spiritual fulfillment, it turns out, is not enough for the narrator. He needs the body, even though spiritual discipline has supposedly rid him of greed or need. Quite literally, he feels his body when it breathes, which reminds him that he can never truly free himself from the constraints of a physical existence.

This is also one of the most emotionally resonant parts of the song; no matter your interpretation, hearing Cohen’s delivery of I can feel you when you breathe, followed by the gentle but unstoppable undercurrent of classical guitar, conjure an indelible image of something important and hopelessly delicate floating just out of reach on a breeze — or, perhaps, on a breath.

Moving onward, my interpretation is backed up by the final two lines of the song, which are also its most ambiguous:

It is your turn, beloved
It is your flesh that I wear

If the narrator is indeed two halves of the same man, then it makes sense to say that his soul is “wearing” the flesh of the body, as oddly horrific as it sounds on a first listen. Carrying on the admission of need from the previous stanza, the man’s spiritual self has decided to allow the body to coexist — not as a “hump” or “cripple,” but as a partner, if not an equal.

This is all to say nothing of the orchestration of the song, which perfectly uses Cohen’s voice as its own instrument. Cohen’s steady but angry growl projects both hope and despair in equal measure, and a subtle but powerful violin backing helps the piece build emotional momentum as it approaches its conclusion. And the fragile strumming of classical guitar always seems close to falling apart under its own weight, suggesting (to the imaginative, perhaps) the frailty of the body as a container for the mind and spirit.

The sum total is a masterpiece, a song that traverses the depths of human existence with all the skill of an epic poem, and I’m skeptical that we will ever see its equal.

What’s your favorite example of literary songwriting? Let me know in the comments!

Valhalla Rising: A masterclass in cinematic stillness

With The Green Knight, David Lowery’s adaptation of the old Arthurian tale, set for release on July 30 in the US, I’m revisiting Valhalla Rising, a violent but meditative Viking tale that features a similar infusion of psychedelia, nature and a medieval setting. The following is as much analysis as review, so — as usual — spoilers abound.

Like many of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films, Valhalla Rising has a reputation as a “love it or hate it” kind of film. For some, its vicious yet matter-of-fact violence is a non-starter. For others, the film’s almost eerie stillness, both sonically and visually, makes for a strange and off-putting experience. But for me, these elements and more make for one of the most original and absorbing depictions of Vikings ever put to film.

Released in 2009, Rising stars Mads Mikkelsen fresh off his claim to superstardom as a Bond villain in Casino Royale. Mikkelsen is a mysterious, one-eyed Norse warrior known only as One-Eye, who is kept as a slave in the Scottish Highlands and forced to fight other slaves to the death. He does so with brutal efficiency. His moniker is given to him by a boy (Maarten Stevenson) — who belongs to the clan but often seems more like a fellow slave — because One-Eye is mute.

“The boy” speaks for One-Eye, but Maarten Stevenson’s greatest contribution to the role is the way he convincingly builds a relationship between the two characters without the help of two-way dialogue.

Despite being the most straightforward part of the film in terms of narrative, the opening is also quite mysterious. Why is One-Eye being forced to fight like some kind of Viking Mandingo? We learn from the opening title card that this is a time of religious persecution, in which Christians have brought the fire and brimstone of the ongoing First Crusade to Scotland and are violently persecuting the “heathen” Scandinavians. It is also implied that the money earned from betting on these Viking brawls is the only defense the tribes of the Highlands have left against the Christians.

Truth be told, this opening setup is never given a satisfactory explanation, and it doesn’t need one. It exists to show us that One-Eye is an odd kind of savage, ruthlessly effective in combat but curiously unmoved by the violence he creates.

From the outset, we know there is something different about One-Eye. Even those not versed in Norse Mythology might recognize the missing eye as a reference to Odin, the venerated god who often appeared to humans in the guise of a one-eyed wanderer (the eye having been exchanged for the gift of wisdom). One-Eye also experiences red-tinted visions that turn out to be accurate visions of the future.

Soon enough, One-Eye makes his escape with the boy in tow, and the film becomes something that is less concerned with plot than with an allegorical descent into Hell. But rather than show this descent through hellish imagery, Refn chooses to depict consistently beautiful — if unforgiving — landscapes. Much like One-Eye himself, the land plays host to violence but keeps it at a cold distance, remaining stoic and picturesque regardless of the madness and bloodshed that plays out in its domain. Indeed, one gets the sense over the course of the film that One-Eye shares some kind of connection with the natural world.

Hell on Earth

The descent begins when One-Eye and the boy meet a troupe of Christian Crusaders who intend to make the journey to Jerusalem. Interestingly, the Christians do not reject the obviously heathen One-Eye, instead speculating that he might bring them luck on their journey to the Holy Land. Like the omamori charms of Japanese Buddhism to an American Christian, One-Eye is an exotic curiosity to the crusaders. Though they are aware of his brutally effective reputation as a warrior, they underestimate him. But One-Eye, who appears to have no particular destination of his own, agrees to accompany the crusaders on their journey.

Understandably, this is where the film begins to lose some viewers. The groups embarks in a simple canoe, seemingly ill-prepared for a journey of this magnitude, and we are made to feel their lethargy and desperation as the canoe sits on dead water in the middle of a dense fog for days on end. We already have a silent protagonist and a mostly-silent score. The canoe journey, then, is a kind of visual silence, a stillness that settles over us as viewers much like the fog that drapes over the crusaders.

More time rowing, less time praying?

As filmgoers, we are used to seeing visual cues that let us know when something important is happening. A stagnant image, then, reflects stagnation. But while the ever-present fog around the canoe blocks out any evidence of a transition, there is a transformation happening under our noses all the while. The crew begin to regard One-Eye with distrust, suspecting that he has cursed them to be stranded for all eternity or, worse, is leading them to Hell (Hel in Norse terms), where the boy says One-Eye is from.

Eventually, after a few ill-fated outbreaks of violence against One-Eye, the group arrives in a new land, though the not the one they had set out for. Refn’s direction pays such exquisite attention to the details of the landscape that we need no obvious cues to tell us they have arrived in North America, even as feathered arrows begin to fly from the treeline.

All of a sudden, we recognize the toll the journey has taken on the crusaders. One of them wanders off, only to return covered in reddish brown clay and with the apparent ability to hear One-Eye speaking. Others seem to regress into something like a vegetative state, their heads lolling to the side, their eyes staring into the distance. The leader of the crusaders is convinced that they must conquer this land in the name of the Lord, and he is almost comically persistent in this belief no matter what misfortunes befall the crew. Only One-Eye seems relatively unaffected, though his visions seem to increase in frequency and intensity.

It’s tempting to assume the group has literally arrived in Hell, especially when a chapter title seems to announce as much, but the truth is that the crusaders have found themselves far outside their element. They are in a land they neither know nor are capable of conquering, a land filled with unfamiliar artifacts and funeral pyres that seem satanic to their eyes. To make matters worse, arrows sometimes zip through the air from out of nowhere, striking them down without a moment’s notice. Now more than ever, the film’s carefully considered cinematography emphasizes that the land is so much bigger than these characters, so full of secrets they can never hope to penetrate.

A crusader ponders his future in this strange new land.

This segment of the film feels heavily inspired by Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch’s so-called “acid western” that also features disembodied arrows appearing from nowhere like divine karmic forces. Even the soundtrack, which begins to rise in intensity as madness overtakes the group, seems to echo Neil Young’s dark, improvised score to that film. Dead Man is a fitting influence, given that both films set their protagonists marching toward an inevitable destiny of sacrifice and death. In this case, One-Eye’s visions tell him he will soon meet his end at the hands of the local natives. Rather than attempt to avoid his fate, he stays the course with all the calm certainty of a man who knows more than he will ever let on.

By now, it’s obvious that One-Eye is more than a man, especially when it’s revealed that he has been speaking to the boy the whole time without actually speaking. One-Eye is clearly some kind of god or higher spirit; as one character says quite early in film, “the Christians have but one god. We have many.”

It seems a bit too on the nose to assume that he is Odin, though his act of sacrifice in the film’s final moments echoes Odin’s sacrificial hanging from the sacred tree Yggdrasil. The boy’s claim that he comes from Hell (which now has some authority, given that we can assume he heard this from One-Eye himself) also complicates his origins.

Regardless, it’s his purpose, not his name, that is important. The film’s finale finds him and the boy surrounded by natives — the same natives that appeared in the vision of his death. He touches the boy’s arm tenderly, perhaps the first genuine display of emotion he has shown in the film, and then he offers himself to the natives unarmed. The message is clear: take me, leave the boy. One-Eye’s purpose, it turns out, is to protect the boy.

Only now, as One-Eye is beaten to death and his spirit walks peacefully into a lake, do we fully understand the arc of the film. The crusaders, who are mostly converted Vikings that drop their faith the moment things begin to get dicey, are bereft of purpose. Promised riches by their devout leader, they had been more than willing to set out for Jerusalem, but North America has nothing to plunder, nothing to ravage. There are only trees, grass, and the hot sun. Robbed of their thin motivations, the minds of the crusaders rot.

Good luck with that.

The boy, on the other hand, finds purpose in One-Eye, who he comes to regard with the respect and deprecating humor one reserves for a father. Even in death, we sense the boy will be protected; One-Eye’s face appears in the clouds as the film ends, his spirit having been taken back into nature.

Most of this is communicated to the audience through quiet glances and near-silent images, adding up to a film that ultimately feels profoundly peaceful. That’s a novelty, sure, but it’s more than that: to watch Valhalla Rising is to regard humanity — in all its violence, pride, greed, fear, and love — through the serene eye of that ever-present, silent witness: the landscape.

The Ladykillers and the glory days of Tom Hanks

Will we ever see another character as brilliant as Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD?

In recent years, Tom Hanks has taken a well-deserved rest from demanding roles that showcase his acting range. With a few exceptions sprinkled in (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Captain Phillips) he has largely become one of those actors who appears to play himself rather than disappearing into his roles, though we can be thankful he is still suitably picky about his roles. By no means has he sunken to the depths of the “I Give Up” club, currently populated by the likes of Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino and Bruce Willis.

Al Pacino flexing his acting chops.

But look back a decade or two, and it can be shocking to recall just how vibrant and masterful Hanks’ performances once were. Today, I want to focus on one performance in particular: his turn as a criminal mastermind in the 2004 Coen brothers film The Ladykillers.

Bewilderingly, this hilarious black comedy received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences alike upon its release, despite being far more memorable than the brothers’ prior effort, Intolerable Cruelty. But even the critics who denounced the film for not being a carbon copy of the 1955 original had to admit that Hanks had delivered a special performance. He had taken a role that, on the page, was essentially a more refined, cynical version of Ulysses Everett McGill from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and transformed it into a delightfully surreal depiction of a man who is at once learned, stupid, and more than a little insane.

Waffles, forthwith

The film’s plot revolves around Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD (Hanks) and his bizarre crew as they endeavor to rob the underground vault of a nearby riverboat casino, which they intend to accomplish by tunneling through a root cellar in the home of Marva Munson, a devout and feisty old widow. They gain access to the widow’s home by pretending to be a troupe of classical musicians in need of a practice space, and as is usually the case in a Coen brothers film, it’s all downhill from there.

Goldthwaite and his not-so-carefully chosen team of criminals.

Hanks does not carry the film by himself, of course. J.K. Simmons has never been more perfectly cast as an explosives “expert” whose authoritative demeanor and disarming self-confidence mask his utter ineptitude, and Irma Hall’s incredible range of facial expressions in her role as the god-fearing widow makes for a comedy gold mine. But Hanks is the glue that makes them stick. His performance flaunts a syrupy deep-south accent, which is paired with the linguistic acrobatics of William Faulkner and Edgar Allen Poe—if the two had a love child who grew up to be a circus freak performing spoken word poetry at Mississippi renaissance fairs.

Hanks’ performance has been described as over the top, but Hanks does not receive enough credit for his expertly controlled execution. Whereas “over the top” implies a degree of randomness or unrestrained goofiness, the consistency and internal logic of the character’s behavior elevates the performance into the realm of genius. Goldthwaite — or “the professor,” as he is also known — is an accomplished liar, but we believe him when he says he is a student of classical literature and philosophy. He quotes Poe at will and speaks like a funhouse reflection of a character from a Faulkner novel, all the while spouting references that no one around him understands.

In fact, we come to suspect that he prefers to surround himself with people who are a few rungs short of a ladder. As we learn around the midpoint of the film, Goldthwaite’s father spent much of his life in the “state nervous hospital,” and it seems likely that the professor has taken to projecting his intelligence in order to mask the streak of derangement that runs in his family. The result is a man who wields his expansive vocabulary with all the precision of a sledgehammer, resulting in unforgettable lines such as, “Madam, we must have waffles. We must all have waffles forthwith!”

We must all think, and we must all have waffles, and think each and every one of us to the very best of his ability.

But to his team of prospective vault robbers — which consists of Simmons’ Garth Pancake (and his partner, Mountain Girl), “inside man” Gawain (Marlon Wayans), a former Vietcong general (Tzi Ma), and the brainless but strong Lump (Ryan Hurst) — he is a genius who will make them rich.

Only the widow Munson is wise to the absurdity that is Goldthwaite, and the scenes in which the two characters interact (Goldthwaite trying to thump her into submission with a barrage of classical references and Poe poetry, while she hits back with the naiveté and brutal honesty of a woman who has nothing to prove to anyone but her god) are some of the funniest in the film.

Some will disagree, but for me, The Ladykillers is a highlight of Hanks’ career. Though it lacks the narrative weight of Forrest Gump or the poignancy of Apollo 13, the film is a showcase for what he is capable of when given the right role.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll readily admit that if anyone deserves to rest on autopilot at this stage in their career, it’s Tom Hanks. Nevertheless, whenever I watch yet another film in which Hanks plays Hanks, I can’t help but wish I was back in a theater in 2004, watching The Ladykillers for the first time. You’re a national treasure, Tom. Do what you like. But in these strange and difficult times, would it hurt to give us a Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr, PhD now and again?

Richard Donner’s Ladyhawke: Ripe for a remake

It turns out Matthew Broderick makes a great wisecracking medieval thief. Who knew?

I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Richard Donner, a talented director perhaps best-known today for his excellent Lethal Weapon films. Looking back over his filmography, which includes The Omen and Superman: The Movie (Christopher Reeve’s first appearance in the role), I realized I had never seen 1985’s Ladyhawke. Being a fervent admirer of both Donner and Rutger Hauer, who stars in the film as mysterious medieval knight, I pronounced this oversight a travesty and watched the film immediately.

The result was that rarest of desires in an era of never-ending sequels, reboots and remakes: I want a Ladyhawke remake.

A rare bird

As a medieval fantasy, the film occupies an expansive genre that, unlike most genres, has few consistent tropes. These films can be strikingly (and off-puttingly) modern, as in Nicholas Cage’s Season of the Witch, which feels more like an episode of Supernatural than a medieval epic. On the other hand, The Green Knight, David Lowery’s hotly anticipated adaptation of the old Arthurian tale, looks like it will opt for an approach verging on the psychedelic (à la Valhalla Rising). So it’s no surprise that Ladyhawke has a few novel elements of its own to offer.

The story initially revolves around the thief Gaston (Matthew Broderick), who, in the opening minutes of the film, becomes the first prisoner ever to escape from a supposedly airtight dungeon in medieval Italy. Oddly, the reality of the dungeon does not seem to match its legend. Gaston escapes down a sewer grate—is he the first prisoner in the history of the dungeon to be small enough to fit?

But no matter; such things are soon forgotten. As Gaston makes his escape, he maintains a more or less constant conversation with God that continues for the rest of the film—though he seems to view the relationship as an “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” kind of deal. The humor derived from Gaston’s asides, which alternately thank God for a perceived miracle, scold Him for sending mixed messages, and casually rationalize questionable behavior, are one of the film’s pleasures. His sliding scale of devoutness feels like a fresh but period-faithful take on a character that would otherwise be mostly forgettable.

Why forgettable? Because when Rutger Hauer arrives, he steals the show. Hauer is Navarre, a former Captain in the guard of the corrupt Bishop of Aquila, and you haven’t known cool until you’ve seen him peering out from beneath a black hooded cloak atop a sleek black horse, his faithful hawk (hawke?) perched on his arm.

That’s no hawk; that’s a ladyhawke. And a…manwolfe?

Navarre recruits Gaston to lead him straight back into the lion’s den of Aquila. He aims to sneak in and kill the Bishop, who has plagued the Captain and his lover with a sadistic curse.

Now, anyone with half a brain will have figured out the nature of the curse relatively quickly, not least because of the film’s title and numerous hints throughout the first hour. But the film waits until close to the halfway point to finally reveal that Navarre transforms into a black wolf each night, while his lover, Isabeau, transforms into the titular hawk during the day. Consequently, the two are “always together, eternally apart,” a twisted punishment bestowed by the Bishop as vengeance for his inability to win Isabeau’s love.

This is a fascinating premise—unfortunately, Donner and the film’s three(!) writers don’t quite know what to do with it. The Bishop is not so much a character as a tall, sneering mass. Why, exactly, is he a Bishop? It seems a fitting title for a medieval villain, but nothing about the character or the narrative leans into that role in any substantial way. There is something of an inversion of morality in Gaston—a man of questionable morals and situational devoutness—ultimately winning out over the “divinely anointed” Bishop. But this feels like a relic of a previous script draft that probably had more complicated themes of religion and morality, and it’s Navarre, not Gaston, who ultimately defeats the Bishop and shatters the curse.

They’re animals in the sheets

For the human-to-wolf and human-to-hawk transformations, Donner wisely chooses to avoid directly showing the change with some kind of terrible 80’s special effect, but his solution is almost as bad. The same close-up, slow-motion footage of a hawk—which looks like it was filmed in the dark with a smoke machine and a clearly visible spotlight (ahem…the sun) in the background—is first used in the opening credits, and then again and again each time Isabeau transforms. Needless to say, it starts to feel copy-and-pasted after the second, third, and fourth times.

Donner’s goal with this approach is two-fold: first, he wants to create ethereal, dreamlike transformation sequences that represent the sort of “mystical femininity” (perhaps a dated concept) that Isabeau embodies. Unfortunately, the repetitive footage feels out of place each time. For Navarre’s transformations, Donner resorts to a more subtle, grounded form of visual trickery, which works better. Only once—when Isabeau’s eyes shift from human to hawk in a hauntingly tragic close-up shot—does a transformation scene reach the poetic heights Donner was striving for.

“I am sorrow.”

Secondly, Ladyhawke is a fantasy film in which magic is conspicuously absent. Yes, Navarre and Isabeau are cursed, but there is no hook-nosed witch to be found, and the curse is framed in explicitly religious terms (the Bishop, a Christian authority, called upon Satan to create the curse) rather than in the more mystical terms that are most common in fantasy films. There are no sorcerers, no wands, no beams of magic light. No one is flung across a room at the wave of a hand or the flick of a wrist. Rather than drowning the film’s magic in visual flair, Donner seeks to ground the magic as much as possible in the real world. After all, Ladyhawke isn’t about magic; it’s about love.

Once more, this is a commendable approach that sets the film apart from its peers, and it partly explains—but does not excuse—why the Bishop is such a mundane, ordinary character. It also explains why our heroes’ wild animal counterparts are not humans in animal bodies, but are in fact the animals they appear to be. The black wolf and hawk retain instinctual attachments to friends and wariness of foes, but they do not communicate meaningfully with anyone, and memories are not shared between forms.

In one scene in which the wolf falls through some ice and nearly drowns, he scrambles about indiscriminately, as any wolf would do, and nearly turns Gaston’s chest into ribbons before the rescue is successful. Later, Navarre is appalled when he sees the damage he inflicted as a wolf. The scene feels like an outlier, a dead stop in a story that was just beginning to build some pace. The scene does serve to build the necessary trust between Navarre and Gaston, but one imagines this could have been accomplished more efficiently.

Still, I like the scene because it feels like another holdover from a more complicated film, one that more deeply explored themes that only briefly surface in the final story. Where does beauty end and tragedy begin in Navarre’s and Isabeau’s wolf and hawk forms? Each gets only a single moment to fully express the depths of their pain: Isabeau, when asked who she is, responds, “I am sorrow.” We believe her. Navarre, upon seeing Isabeau transform just before he is able to touch her, unleashes a scream so profoundly soulful that we feel, in that moment, the wound left on his heart each time the lovers play out their tragic cycle. But there is more to mine. Do the hawk and wolf contain a semblance of morality? What does the answer to that question tell us about human morality? And, most importantly, does love transcend physical form?

These are depths that could be plumbed in a modern remake, and a combination of practical effects and CG trickery could preserve the grounded atmosphere while improving the cheap, dated look of the film’s transformation sequences. Whether such a film would do any of these things is, of course, an open question.

Funkyhawke

Finally, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room: the soundtrack, which consists of funky 80’s synth rock thrown up against a few random bits of traditional orchestral score. Now, I’m a fan of funky 80’s synth rock, but while the novelty is interesting initially, it quickly becomes irritating over the course of this two-hour film. To be clear, I’m not talking about a fully developed score that ebbs and flows with the highs and lows of the story. No, this funky 80’s synth rock is played in tiny little chunks whenever something exciting is happening on screen. The chunks are too small to develop into anything interesting, but substantial enough to take most audiences out of the film.

Would funky 80’s synth rock make this scene cooler? No. No, it wouldn’t.

Almost as distracting are the more traditional chunks of score, given that it seems entirely random whether you’ll get funky 80’s synth pop or some violins at any given moment. It’s not the medieval setting that makes the soundtrack inappropriate—I mean, 1927’s Metropolis has a disco edit, and it’s groovy. But Ladyhawke’s soundtrack doesn’t match the action or the story at all. It’s as if Donner was listening to some funky 80’s synth pop while he was filming and thought, why don’t I shove some of that in there? It turns out, by the way, that that’s exactly what happened.

Anyway, I’ll stop speaking ill of the dead. Ladyhawke, despite its flaws, is an enjoyable watch. Fantasy fans will enjoy the magical twist; those who don’t usually enjoy fantasy will appreciate the film’s grounded approach. Young men can find in Navarre a non-toxic male role model guided by his love for Isabeau.

Donner deserves praise for choosing the path least traveled for several of the film’s most interesting elements, even if the paths don’t always lead where he hoped they would. So when you’re reading through the obituary articles this week and keep seeing Lethal Weapon and Superman highlighted as Donner’s top credits, spare a thought for Ladyhawke.

*Don’t forget to leave a comment!

High Noon: a subversive masterpiece

For a film that has inspired so many rip-offs and re-imaginings in the past 70 years — with a title that has become synonymous with the Western genre itself — High Noon (1952) stands alone as a remarkably offbeat work of Western cinema. Yet it is largely forgotten by today’s moviegoers, who can be forgiven for assuming that once you’ve seen a John Wayne picture or “Bonanza,” you’ve seen it all.

The title does the film no favors today; it recalls the gunslinging showdowns we can see in a thousand other films. But the genius of this film is not in its (single) shootout, nor in any macho bravado from its protagonist, an aging town marshal on the cusp of retirement with his new bride. Instead, the film subverts the old “team up” formula that sees the first two acts dedicated to assembling and getting to know a posse that will ultimately take down the bad guys. In High Noon, Gary Cooper’s marshal Kane starts with a room full of friends and admirers — gathered to celebrate his wedding to an alarmingly young Grace Kelly — and sees them abandon him one by one in his quite literal hour of need.

Kane’s troubles begin when a gang of outlaws rides into town, led by the murderous — but freshly pardoned — Frank Miller. Kane had put Miller away five years prior, and there is little doubt his gang is out for bloodshed.

So far so predictable, right? Well, from the opening credit shots of the outlaws gathering on the outskirts of town, we know this is no ordinary film. These shots, otherwise silent, are accompanied by a quietly haunting theme that establishes the soft-but-persistent percussion beat that will continue to appear throughout the film. As the music fades, we get a lingering, almost silent shot of the three outlaws riding side-by-side, their faces hard and unmoved, as if chiseled from stone. We don’t who they are yet, but the cumulative effect of the soundtrack and the cinematography tells us that something is wrong.

The film opens on the always-menacing Lee Van Cleef in his first film role. He doesn’t have a single line in the film.

Things only get more non-traditional from here. Instead of riding into town with torches lit and guns blazing, the outlaws head straight for the local railroad station, where their leader is due to arrive on the noon train. This gives Kane about an hour to assemble a posse, an hour that passes in real time in the film.

As I’ve already let on, the posse doesn’t materialize. One early betrayal comes from Kane’s deputy (Lloyd Bridges), a younger, dumber, and more macho lawman who quits after Kane refuses to promise him the marshal job after retirement. The deputy is a satirized version of the more traditional Western hero who speaks brashly, kisses women without their consent, and substitutes muscle for brains. He is even branded with what would have been a damning insult for a man at the time of the film’s 1952 release, when a woman tells him his broad shoulders don’t make him a man.

With his deputy gone, Kane turns to the townspeople, who earlier in the day seemed so appreciative of the work he had done to make the town safe. Now, everyone has a reason to leave Kane out in the cold. Some, like the proprietors of the bar and hotel, remember the prosperity they enjoyed when Miller and his band of carousers had frequented their establishments. One friend hides rather than admit he’s afraid to die, while others say it’s just not their problem.

But not everyone’s excuse can be so easily dismissed as selfish or cowardly. Martin Howe (Lon Chaney of The Wolf Man fame), Kane’s predecessor as marshal, says he’s simply too old and arthritic to be of any use. Kane’s skeptical glare tells us this probably isn’t true, but the camera lingers on Howe after Kane departs, and we learn the real reason for his reticence: nihilism.

“It’s all for nothing,” Howe laments to himself. “All for nothing.”

Howe, it seems, has been down this road before. He knows the townspeople can’t be counted on, and he now believes that a career spent protecting people who will never return the favor is a waste. He has nothing left to give to others, having drained his capacity for self-sacrifice in his past life as a marshal. If you look up foreshadowing in the dictionary, Howe’s sad face will be staring back at you.

Kane appeals to Howe’s better nature, but it’s too late. Howe knows what’s in store and wants no part of it.

Then there is Amy, Kane’s bride. A Quaker ever since witnessing the deaths of her brother and father to gun violence, she threatens to leave Kane if he doesn’t leave town with her. Her refusal to stand by him is an enduring reminder of the marshal’s loneliness. Every time they meet, each hoping the other has changed their mind, a band-aid is placed on the wound, only to be ripped off anew when she reaffirms her commitment to pacifism. Yet she is never really gone; the film’s theme song, which features the refrain, “Do not forsake me oh my darling,” repeats time and time again in the background, reminding us that no matter how many times friends turn their backs on Kane, only one relationship really matters in the end.

And finally there is Kane himself, whose motivations are not as clear as they first appear. Western stereotypes tell us he is there to selflessly protect the town, but he tells his wife he cannot flee because Miller will follow them anywhere they go. Later, when asked again why he won’t just run away, he says he doesn’t know.

When he visits a church to try to round up a few volunteers, one parishioner explains that the gang is after Kane, not the town, telling him to leave because “we don’t want to see you die.” This sounds like sound advice until one considers the parishioner isn’t saying, “We don’t want you to die,” but is actually saying, “We don’t want to witness your death.”

This is the key to understanding what is going through Kane’s head. He may not be too proud to ask for help, but it turns out that he is too proud to admit that the help is more for him than for the town at large. Sure, one churchgoer cautions that the town will go to ruin if outlaws like Miller are allowed free reign, but the truth is that no one seems particularly afraid of Miller. They didn’t put him away; Kane did. They won’t have to face him in the street; Kane will.

Kane isn’t trying to rally a defense force for a town of innocents. He’s simply asking for a bit of reciprocity, a touch of empathy in return for years of dedication to the safety of the townspeople.

Kane, all alone as he awaits the arrival of the Miller gang.

Many see a political allegory in this film, and it has been a favorite of several U.S. presidents, from Eisenhower to Clinton. Certainly, while Kane sees himself as part of a community, the town’s citizens see him as an “other,” little more than a man they pay with their taxes to worry about things so they don’t have to. In short, a politician.

“I pay for the marshal and deputies to keep the town safe,” one citizen says. “This isn’t my job.”

Another points out that the fault lies with the politicians “up north” who pardoned Miller, an almost comically unhelpful observation and not a particularly convincing reason to refuse Kane’s pleas for help.

But beyond the theme of a town disconnected from the man they have hired — or elected — to represent them in the unsavory matters of the law, the emotionally resonant core of the film is the loneliness of a man who has given everything to his town, only to be abandoned when he finally needs a little help in return. It’s a refreshing turn for a genre that generally seeks catharsis through gunfights; while the film does end with a shootout, it’s not one the audience is supposed to look forward to. The frequent shots of clocks ticking throughout the film, juxtaposed with the near-constant betrayals and abandonments Kane suffers, evoke a sense of dread, not anticipation. And when we reach the conclusion, the film has one more subversion up its sleeve.

Amy, Kane’s bride, makes the last-minute decision to return to her husband when she hears the first shots ring out. Managing to get the drop on one of the gang members, she shoots the man in the back, killing him. Then, briefly captured by Miller, she refuses to be a simple damsel in distress and struggles free, creating an opening for Kane to fire and end the fight for good.

The strength of Amy’s character doesn’t fully emerge until the final scenes of the film, but when it does, we remember.

There’s a lot to unpack there. The film pairs what is traditionally an unforgivable sin for Western heroes — shooting a man in the back — with what is otherwise a positive choice to stand by Kane. Like the motivations of the townspeople and Kane himself, nothing is black and white. We know Amy made the right call, but we also see the pain the act creates in her, an exhausted sort of pain that shares a kinship with the nihilistic resignation of Howe, the former marshal. This is not a loss of innocence — Amy lost that long ago, with the deaths of her father and brother — but it’s the loss of an alternative, a way of life that doesn’t involve violence.

In breaking the mold of the helpless damsel, the character of Amy was a source of consternation among hallowed titans of the genre like John Wayne and Howard Hawkes. Wayne, who had run the film’s writer out of the country for suspected communist sympathies and saw the film as an allegory for the practice of blacklisting, called the film “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Hawkes remarked, “I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife. That isn’t my idea of a good Western.”

Indeed, the film’s depiction of masculinity feels quite modern, from its ridicule of the muscular and brash deputy to the moment when, 15 minutes before Miller is due to arrive, Kane considers giving in to fear and fleeing on a horse.

That moment is also when we get the film’s first real fight scene, between Kane and the deputy. The catalyst for the fight? The deputy wants Kane to get on the horse and leave. Like the churchgoers, he doesn’t want Kane to die in the town, right in front of him, where the moral implications of shirking his duty are unavoidable. As far as fights in Western films go, it’s not the most exciting, but the clash between the different versions of manhood the men represent is far more interesting than the drunken brawls and feuds over lovers that characterize so many other films in the genre.

Unorthodox to the very end, the film closes not with a triumphant celebration but with Kane’s scornful repudiation of the townspeople who had left him to die. He tosses his badge to the ground and rides away with Amy, leaving everyone else to reckon with their choices. We get the sense that he will be living for himself and for his family from now on, having acquired the cynicism but not the broken spirit of former marshal Howe.

Not exactly the most communist of messages, is it, Mr. Wayne?

Okja: a monument to authenticity.

Okja, like much of director Bong Joon-Ho’s body of work, is a special film for a lot of reasons. It successfully blends a fairy-tale aesthetic into what is essentially a real-world film with real-world characters and real-world consequences. It manages to pull off genuine comedic moments with English-speaking characters despite being helmed and mostly written by a South Korean (comedies directed by people who speak a different language than the one spoken onscreen have a long and unfortunate history of failure).

But I’m here to talk about one particular trait of this film that makes it stand high above its peers in my view: its full-throated commitment to taking on the meat industry and issues of animal welfare.

Okja is the story of a girl, Mija, who raises an unusually large “super pig” (the eponymous “Okja”) on her grandfather’s farm in South Korea and forms a close bond with the animal over the course of 10 years. At the end of that period, the pig’s owner — the pork conglomerate “Mirando Corporation” — comes calling, but finds Mija unwilling to send her friend to slaughter.

Mija with Okja, an unusually large pig that enjoys bellyflops and naps.

Plenty of films have featured themes involving environmental activism or animal rights over the years, but if those themes aren’t simply plot dressing, then they are usually watered down to preserve marketability, making them feel almost apologetic in their half-hearted activism. Take 2013’s The East, for instance, which starred Elliot Page and Alexander Skarsgård as vigilantes working to expose the ecological crimes perpetrated by a large corporation. The film is fine, but like so many other films, it portrays environmental activists as just as morally bankrupt as the corporation they are trying to bring down.

That’s par for the course in our era of antiheroes, in which a film isn’t considered realistic unless it’s slathered in so many shades of gray that you can’t tell the heroes from the villains from the victims, but anything gets old if every film is doing it.

That’s why, when a group of environmental activists are introduced in Okja, led by the charismatic Jay (Paul Dano) and working to save Okja from the clutches of the amoral Mirando Corporation, I began to get a little nervous. Jay seems to fit the template. He’s a smooth-talker and projects warmth and magnanimity to an almost exaggerated degree; much like Skarsgård’s character in The East, who turns out to be a megalomaniac willing to kill to achieve his aims.

This impression was strengthened after a scene in which Jay savagely beats a member of his group for failing to properly translate between him and Mija, who doesn’t speak a word of English at the beginning of the film. Upon further reflection, however, I realized this scene exists solely as a moment of cathartic fantasy for Joon-Ho, who had previously been pressured by Harvey Weinstein to cut 20 minutes out of 2013’s Snowpiercer and clearly had a bone to pick with inaccurate translations. The scene is never followed up on thematically and truly seems to exist apart from the film’s narrative. Odd, perhaps, but easily forgivable.

Bong Joon-Ho making his Oscars kiss after winning for 2019’s Parasite.

Indeed, there is no further wanton violence from Jay or anyone else in his group (the Animal Liberation Front, a real-life movement that has no formal leadership or structure). Aside from a genuinely funny moment when one of the activists refuses to eat anything because “all food production is exploitative,” there is no bowing to a consumer-friendly middle ground, no eleventh-hour reveal that “both sides” are to blame. From beginning to end, the corporation attempting to exploit and kill Okja is portrayed as cynical and deceptive, fronted by gleeful so-called “environmentalists” but working constantly toward only one interest: profit. And from beginning to end, Jay’s Animal Liberation Front is there for Mija and Okja.

Late in the film, the activists are caught by police in a desperate attempt to free Okja, and they are mercilessly beaten in a brutal but poignant scene that removes any doubts about the group’s purity of purpose. The scene also recalls Joon-Ho’s attention to activism in his earlier films, particularly in The Host and Memories of Murder (the former had a scene in which a character mused almost mournfully about how no one uses Molotov cocktails in protests anymore). One gets the sense that Joon-Ho holds deep respect for activists, particularly those who are willing to get their hands dirty. For this director, activism isn’t lining up in neat rows and obeying all traffic laws while carrying strongly-worded signs; it’s standing face to face with authority and refusing to back down.

In this film, that “authority” is the Mirando Corporation, which convincingly — and often hilariously — embodies the modern marketing tactic of “corporate activism” or “corporate social responsibility,” wherein a company engages in activism on a particular social issue to improve public perceptions of their business practices. For the Mirando Corporation, that means masquerading as an environmentalist, “earth conscious” company while conducting horrific genetic experiments on pigs away from the public eye. And in a true masterstroke that could only be the product of American Capitalism, it’s those very experiments that are repackaged and spun to the public as a revolutionary cure for world hunger.

Tilda Swinton turns in a deliciously goofy performance as a pair of sibling CEOs heading the Mirando Coporation, but that goofiness exists only to bring the amoral conniving of the corporation to the surface rather than burying it under softball satire as so many other films would have done. Mirando could have easily been a much more cartoonishly evil company, but the attention paid to the calculated hypocrisy of its leadership and marketing reflects the same commitment to thematic authenticity that we see in the unrepentant “goodness” of the Animal Liberation Front. Joon-Ho clearly did not want to make a film that watered down its message by turning its villains into caricatures, any more than he wanted to make a film that traded its moral compass for mass appeal.

Indeed, that authenticity made the leap from the screen into the life of the director himself. Making the film prompted Joon-Ho, once a lover of South Korea’s street barbeque culture, to become a temporary vegan and — as far as I can tell — a permanent pescatarian. That’s a kind of sincerity rarely seen in the film industry, and it shows. This is a film made by someone who cares, and regardless of your opinion about the meat industry, it’s worth seeing for that reason alone. Take it from me: you just might shed a tear.

The Dead Zone (1983) and the heroic struggle

One day, during my freshman year of college, my Literature professor asked the class a seemingly simple question: What is a hero? I raised my hand. This was a question I had thought a lot about while working on my own writing, so I felt qualified to answer, even if I knew my answer wasn’t going to be exactly what the professor was looking for.

“A hero is someone who suffers, whether through a tragic flaw in their own character or through an external force,” I said. “The heroic struggle is not only against an antagonist or villain, but against the suffering itself. In the end, the hero manages to perform an act of good in spite of — or even because of — that suffering.”

Frodo goes through hell to destroy the One Ring in “The Lord of the Rings.”

I had a few examples in mind, both from literature and personal experience, when I said this. There was Frodo Baggins, who experiences physical and mental anguish, loss, and betrayal on every step of his journey before committing a selfless act to save those who, in a sense, have inflicted that pain upon him. There were the tragically flawed heroes of Shakespeare, whose Hamlet is plagued by his own indecisiveness and suffers for it at every turn through the horrific consequences of his impulsive but well-meaning actions. There were the doomed heroes of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion.”

There was my own father, who toiled in a nightmarish, oven-like blade factory for decades to give his sons the opportunities he felt he never had. He had his own “tragic flaws,” to be sure, but more than anything, he faced the great Enemy Without a Face, the menacing but untouchable fog of a society that wanted nothing more than to pound him into the ground (the same fog, perhaps, as that glimpsed by Chief Bromden in the opening scene of “Cuckoo’s Nest”). But for all the suffering that followed him from childhood into his final days, he succeeded in giving me the skills I would need to survive the world that haunted him.

Unfortunately, my vision of heroism as tragedy did not sit well with the professor.

“No no no,” he replied, waving his hand dismissively. “I’m talking about heroes in the literary sense. The classical sense. A hero is a character of noble birth and unnatural talent who performs great deeds in pursuit of honor.”

This is a picture of Beowulf.
Beowulf, a “hero in the classical sense.”

Technically, he wasn’t wrong. And I can’t say I was surprised by his reaction; In 5th grade, I answered an essay prompt about “Heroes of the 20th Century” by writing about a Holocaust victim and was similarly “corrected.” But the professor’s dismissive attitude was also representative of what I saw — and still see — as restrictive cultural ideas about what constitutes heroism.

The Dead Zone — Tragedy as Heroism

When it comes to film (this is supposed to be a film website, after all), this sort of suffering hero is as rare as they come — The Lord of the Rings being a notable exception. It’s important to clarify that I’m not talking about films like The Last Samurai, Avatar, or Dances with Wolves, which, despite having tragic elements, tend to depict legendary martyrs pursuing — you guessed it — honor and glory. They also tend to transpose historical and cultural suffering onto white saviors, which has been discussed adequately elsewhere (for the record, I still like these films). Nor am I talking about the murdered-wife-and-kidnapped-child trope that fuels tragedy-chic violence from a neatly manicured but oh-so-depressed bad boy.

No, I’m talking about real suffering. The kind that overwhelms the hero physically and mentally, the kind that isn’t overcome merely by defeating a villain or learning a life lesson that could have been gathered from a Saturday-morning cartoon. This is suffering that can only be defeated by the sheer power of the human will, almost always leading to an emotional climax that I believe is unmatched in its power by any other type of story.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I recently re-watched “The Dead Zone,” a film from 1983 that was somewhat popular upon release but has been largely forgotten by today’s moviegoers. Directed by David Cronenberg and based on a novel by Stephen King, “The Dead Zone” is not a typical horror film. Rather than relying on gore, jump scares or a cackling, mustache-twirling villain, Cronenberg grounds the film’s horror in the suffering endured by the film’s main character, Johnny (Christopher Walken).

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD

Johnny (Christopher Walken) with his cane, an ever-present reminder of the painful price of his “gift.”

After a serious traffic accident, Johnny, a mild-mannered schoolteacher in rural Maine, experiences the following series of unfortunate events, in order:

  • A coma that lasts for 5 years, during which his girlfriend marries someone else. No, she does not have a change of heart after he wakes up — they remain separated despite the love they share.
  • The emergence of an ability to sense tragedy in the past, present or future of anyone he touches. This quickly becomes a painful burden, as he cannot touch anyone without receiving unwanted information through shocking, violent flashes. He is forced to become a social pariah by skeptical reporters and an ever-needy public desperate for his help.
  • The death of his mother, due at least in part to stress caused by negative media coverage of his newfound abilities.
  • The discovery that he is not recovering from the coma, but is in fact slowly dying.
  • A bullet wound in the shoulder, sustained while helping the police track down a serial killer.
  • Death.

With a list like that, one might expect the film to be hopelessly dour, even pointless. But the immense suffering Johnny endures affords the film tremendous emotional weight as it builds toward its climax, when he must choose whether to assassinate a U.S. Senate candidate he knows will eventually become a tyrannical president who will start a devastating nuclear war.

Fictional characters are often presented with a weighty moral decision, but they are usually in a position that makes that decision relatively easy. Perhaps they are the “chosen one,” surrounded by an adoring cast of sycophants that will honor their heroism with joyous whoops or an ecstatic parade. Perhaps the hero is so uncommonly intelligent that he “defeats” the choice itself, finding a way to do the right thing without suffering any consequences.

In Johnny’s case, only he knows what Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) — a shrewd politician whose violent vindictiveness and borderline insanity is unknown to the public — will do in the future. Going through with the assassination means being known not as a hero, but rather as a black mark on the history of the nation. That makes “the right choice” the ultimate act of selflessness from a man who has every right to be selfish.

Johnny, making his choice.

Indeed, Johnny receives no material reward for his final act. While he misses the kill shot, he does manage to end Stillson’s political career, effectively preventing nuclear war. But he is mortally wounded in the process, and though he is comforted by his former girlfriend — whose love for him still lingers — she will be forever confused, perhaps even angered, by his actions. There are no convenient fantasies of martyrdom, no adoring masses. No easy outs. Only one true source of solace exists for Johnny as he dies: he did the right thing.

If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, I don’t know what will.

In a culture that punishes outcasts but hails disingenuous modesty as heroism, here is the black sheep of heroes who just wants to be left to die in peace. Here is a hero who claims victory over the cruelest adversary of all: pain.

-AF-

A tribute

When we prance stupidly in the sun
The darkness coils into shadows
Beneath our feet
And we pretend we have escaped.
And when those shadows slither around our legs
And bring us to our knees
We cry out, “They’re back!”
As if they had ever left.

Suffering is transient
Eternal
But the middle way is a lie
Transcendent numbness.
Darkness and light
Not twins
Mother and child
Snakes, all.

Day and night, I hear them hiss.

You loved me
But I did not love you
Enough
Until now.
You gave me winding scars
That I might cut off their heads
And you cried when you were happy
Because you knew the price.

Death was not kind to you
But it freed you from the sliding, slinking things
That cling to us all
From birth to earth.
Maybe now, father
Without light or dark
Without a road in the middle
There is only peace.