‘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.

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.

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?

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-

What ‘Blade Runner 2049’ means to me

We often hear that films, like all forms of art, are “subjective.” But what does that actually mean?

There is a deeply personal side to watching movies that we rarely acknowledge. Reviews, for good reason, generally address the more “objective” qualities of a film—the quality of its camerawork or soundtrack, for instance, or whether or not its actors were convincing in their roles. Then there is film criticism, which, like its literary counterpart, delves into the themes and background of the work. But even if you combine these, as Roger Ebert often did, you still have only half the picture of the true experience of a film.

How were you feeling when you entered the theater? Were you still thinking about how your boss chewed you out earlier in the day? Maybe the film triggered a long-forgotten childhood memory, or a character’s voice sounded just like your mother’s. Perhaps a comic relief sidekick everyone hated was your favorite character, if only because you once knew someone just like him.

These are not objective measures of a film, but we should not discount them, either. After all, there is a reason few critics agree on their favorite films. What pushes a film from great to magnificent is not perfect technical precision or classically trained actors; it’s the moments when something inside us connects with something in the film, and for a time, the line between reality and performance fades away.

With that said, let me tell you about a time when, for me, a great film became magnificent.

I saw Blade Runner 2049 four times when it entered theaters in October of 2017. I like to watch great films more than once, but four times in the span of a few weeks was unusual even for me. I’ve already written an analysis of some of the film’s themes, which provides plenty of reasons why I should like it, but that’s not the whole story. You see, in October of 2017, I was working as a manager at a big-box retailer (if you would like to know which one, consider that the experience of working there felt like repeatedly banging my head against a brick wall, and its name references that same wall). Despite several positive developments in my life (including marriage), I was languishing in depression. I have always had something of a morose personality, but the deeply cynical realities of working in this particular environment were driving me into the ground at an alarming rate.

Along came 2049. Somewhere around the scene where K (Ryan Gosling) learns—or thinks he learns—that he is more than your average replicant, I began to sense a working-class parable in the making. K is essentially a slave at the beginning of the film, and he is closely monitored for any signs of dissatisfaction with his role via a “baseline test.” He is an arm of the State, which could just as easily be a megacorporation, and his identity is tied to that entity. Developing his own sense of self is forbidden for two principal reasons: First, it would affect his ability to do his job. Hunting replicants depends on accepting the narrative that they are inferior and unworthy of free will, because denying that narrative means empathizing with those he is supposed to kill or capture. Second, a sense of self, with all the emotions and aspirations that come with it, would rob the powerful of much of their hold on society. Consider Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), a rock star of an entrepreneur who derives his immense wealth and power from the assumption that his replicants are completely under his control. Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), K’s boss, also alludes to a figurative wall separating humans and replicants that must remain in place to prevent all-out war between the oppressors and their slaves.

I connected with K immediately, because I felt similar pressures to conform and defer to questionable authority. Staff meetings were thinly-disguised baseline tests; Incomprehensibly stupid instructions were sometimes given for seemingly no other reason than to ensure I would blindly do as I was told. Employees with difficult home lives or mental issues were steamrolled unceremoniously by an unsympathetic system run by traumatized nutbags. A certain deceased entrepreneur (you might say he contributed a “ton” of bricks to the “wall” I mentioned earlier. Gosh, I’m clever) was practically worshipped as a prophet for his pure and altruistic motives, even as the corporation he founded raked in monstrous profits by terraforming local economies to suit its business model. Wallace would have been proud.

It felt good to see K realize, all at once, that he had far more potential as an individual than he had been allowed to believe. The rage and sadness he felt at simultaneously understanding the extent of his oppression and becoming aware of his own capacity for free thought made me think about how I might have been limiting myself in my depressive haze. As tears streamed from K’s face, I recalled a time when I had broken down in tears in the middle of an aisle at work, having dwelled a moment too long on the vast difference between what I wanted to do with my life and what I was doing with my life. I felt trapped on a path I had never intended to take. I sensed that K, too, felt his life had been guided by a malevolent hand.

Of course, K eventually realizes that he is not, in fact, the “chosen one” he believed himself to be. This is the film’s most brilliant touch, because by the time this happens, K has already steered himself onto a path of self-actualization. As it turns out, the idea that he was the first natural-born replicant was never his primary motivator. It was simply a push in the right direction, a red pill that allowed him to see past the life society had built for him. His true motivation is the knowledge that he is an individual, that he serves no master but himself.

This internal drive is underlined by his rejection of the replicant freedom fighters, who seem at first to be saviors but treat him as just another cog in the machine, a pawn to be sacrificed, an arm of the rebellion. He defies their orders to kill Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), saving the old hunter instead. Rather than swapping one set of overlords for another, he serves only his own will.

The scene in which K fights to save Deckard, battling against the ocean’s inexorable tide and Wallace’s replicant minion, struck me more powerfully than any other part of the film. It has been noted by many critics that the enormous waves thrashing into K in this climactic scene function as a nod to Rutger Hauer’s final rain-drenched scene in the original Blade Runner. While this is certainly true, the waves meant something far more profound to me. As I watched K struggle to hold his ground against the unstoppable elements, I began to feel a perverse sense of pride. I know what that feels like, I thought. I’ve been doing that every day.

The waves represented every outside force conspiring to weigh me down. They represented internal forces like doubt, mental exhaustion, and fatalism. They represented the overwhelming power of a society that wanted to cram me into a corner and leave me there to rot. And yet, dealing with these same forces, K fought on.

Maybe I could, too.

From that day forward, whenever I began to slip into despair, I would remember K standing firm as waves whaled into him on the shore, and I would find the strength to keep going. I had never had what you might call an “idol” growing up, but suddenly K, a fictional character, fit into that slot perfectly. In less than two months, I found a job that was better in every way, a job where I could use my degree and where the work environment did not make me feel like I was competing on “Survivor.” This was no coincidence. Crazy as it may sound, Denis Villeneuve’s film inspired me to climb out of the quicksand and better myself. 2049 understands what it is like to be dehumanized by a power structure consumed with its own self-interest and corrupt, insular morality. It understands how people become machines, and how machines become people. Regardless of whether or not Villeneuve and the writers fully intended to create a story about a working-class drone rising up to defy the dictates of society, that was the film I saw, and I will forever be grateful for it.

How will Ghost in the Shell treat its lead female?

The Ghost in the Shell franchise has enjoyed many iterations over the years, each one depicting lead character Motoko Kusanagi in various stages of undress. In some cases, this has related to the overall themes and philosophy of the work. Other times, not so much. This has me wondering: How will the new film, starring Scarlett Johansson and releasing on March 31 in the United States, depict its lead female?

The 1995 Ghost in the Shell animated film — the first exposure to the franchise for most in the U.S. — manages to depict its main character as nude or semi-nude throughout without sexualizing her. She is often filmed from a low angle, emphasizing her power and authority. Her sole vulnerability is an existential crisis, in that she is constantly in the process of examining her own psyche, wondering if her transition to a cyborg body robbed her of humanity. By portraying a woman in this way, with so few concessions to a male audience, the original film functions as a important example of feminist film and an intriguing look at what it means to be a woman (or, more broadly, a human) free from sexuality. It wrapped all this up in an incredible work of sci-fi existentialism.

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Major Kusanagi as she appears in the 1995 film

The subsequent anime series, Stand Alone Complex, tackles some intriguing themes but constantly depicts Motoko in an extremely sexualized bathing suit-like outfit (in a police work environment, no less) and is filled with every variety of gratuitous, sexualized nonsense the directors had at their disposal. Unlike the original film, the camera is nothing more than a stand-in for the male eye. Though Motoko is never nude, she is more eroticized in her bathing suit outfit than she ever was in the original film. Interestingly, though, the sexualization is only visual. Motoko is treated seriously in every other way; if one were to read the dialogue without seeing the animation, there would be no indication of the ridiculous outfit or the camera’s single-minded focus on her body. This attempt to have it both ways — catering to a horny male audience while telling a serious story about a female lead character — makes every scene unintentionally hilarious. While the series can sometimes reach impressive depths of emotion and intelligence, its failure to reign in the visual treatment of its lead character cannot be ignored.

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A shot from Stand Alone Complex

Then there’s the original manga (Japanese comic book, for the uninitiated). Despite being the source of most of the 1995 film’s philosophical underpinnings, it included an undeniably pornographic two-page spread of Motoko engaged in a lesbian orgy.

So…in theory, both approaches could work in a feminist film. A woman “free” from sex and a woman who likes-sex-very-much-thank-you-may-I-have-some-more both deserve to be depicted in film with equal respect. But so far, I’m inclined to say the former tack is more successful, with the exception of rare films like David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Usually, when a film says it’s doing the latter, what it’s actually doing is knowingly titillating the audience and reducing feminine rebellion or independence to “look how little clothing I can wear and not even care! Wooo!” In other words, a woman’s “strength” becomes inextricably tied to her sex appeal. For a film to successfully depict a woman who is also a sexual being, it needs to shed the male eye, and this is depressingly rare.

There is, of course, a third path filmmakers have attempted: Depict a woman as strong mentally or emotionally, but avoid any hint of sex appeal by any means necessary — cast an older actress, apply a mask of “uglifying” makeup, etc. This approach is wonderful if it feels unintentional and natural (in the BBC series “Broadchurch,” Olivia Colman’s character is a brilliant detective who is never sexualized, and it’s a breath of fresh air because you would never see her in an equivalent part in an American production, unless her part was about parenting or some other marginalizing role). But when it’s completely intentional, which happens more often, it can imply that womanhood, sexuality, and psychological strength should not or do not exist together in women for the purposes of film.

So, which approach will the new film take? We can rule one thing out already: Scarlett Johansson will not be “uglified.” She is a talented actress, but the trailers make it clear the film will not shy away from her sex appeal. Her body in the new film, an artificial shell that imitates a female body but does not approach the lifelike realism of her body in the original animated film, is an attempt to be faithful to the original’s nudity while maintaining broad market appeal. However, it clearly delineates an obvious physical difference between her and a person with a natural body, which may somewhat lessen the viability of the character as a metaphor for womanhood.

You see, the original film visually framed her existential conflict both as one between body and mind, and also between body and gender. What does the outward appearance of a female body actually mean? Is a mind gendered? She is even referred to at one point as an “Amazon,” an explicitly gendered reference to women of Greek myth who were said to alter their bodies (by cutting off a breast) to make it easier to wield a bow. And let us not forget that the film opens with a line that calls into question Motoko’s ability to menstruate in an artificial body.

In the upcoming film, however, the visual metaphor is dampened by the fact that the body screams, “fake!” Her central conflict will likely be more about the conflict between “real brain” and “fake body,” perhaps eliminating the gender slant altogether. Yet the nature of the body, alone, will not necessarily define the film’s approach. The film could conceivably tackle the body vs. gender issue by making her “fake” body the whole point.

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The major’s cyborg body as it appears in the upcoming film (via Paramount)

We are left, then, to consider Hollywood’s track record, and the verdict isn’t good. Johansson’s “Black Widow” in the Marvel films is worryingly close to the portrayal of Motoko in Stand Alone Complex. While Widow is strong physically and psychologically, she wears a skin-tight outfit tailor-made for a male audience, and her role in the films is usually as a partner for one of the male heroes. Furthermore, the new Ghost cost almost $200 million; with that kind of investment, it’s safe to say director Rupert Sanders won’t be aiming for an existential character study. Sex appeal is a money-maker.

Thus, of the three approaches we started with, we are left with only one that could still lead to a successful film: a Motoko that is openly sexual, placed within a story that makes her question the relationship between her body and her gender. I’m not optimistic, but I am hopeful. If Hollywood pulls this off, it will be a miracle, but it doesn’t hurt to root for miracles once in a while.