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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Evil in Contemporary American Film: Deep Darkness and Eschatological Hope

“He unveils the depths of darkness, brings shadow dark as death to the light.”

Job 12: 22 (NJB)

“Now that I look back, it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Commentators and year-end articles have fallen over themselves to argue that Fall 2008 represents a sort of historical watershed for America. Perhaps it does; when 80 percent of Americans can agree on anything—even the fact that the country seems to be going to hell in a hand basket—something historical must be taking place. But my subject in this essay is something simpler, if also something involving history: I suspect that we will look back at Fall 2008 as a cultural watershed as well—the end of a cycle of ascendant evil in American popular culture.

Cultural critics argue that popular art of any era does (at least) two things: First, it holds up a mirror to the culture that produced and consumes it. Second, if a cultural artifact is also artful, it asks hard questions of the culture that produced and consumes it. So it is that recent American films reflect—and interrogate—9-11, the so-called War on Terror, the destruction of New Orleans, and the economic downturn.

In dark times, the mirror held up in front of us cannot help but be murky as well. Movies emerging in 2007 and 2008, however, have been so dark that people—even people who aren’t cultural critics—could not help but notice. At the time of the 2008 Academy Awards, when thorny films like There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and Michael Clayton were Best Picture picks, journalists asked me why the Oscar films seemed so much darker than usual. Then, in the summer of 2008, Americans elevated The Dark Knight—perhaps the most artful, difficult, and disturbing blockbuster ever—to the top of the box office and made it the second-highest-grossing film of all time.

In this essay, I want to suggest that some of these recent films retell archetypal biblical narratives of evil or reflect powerful biblical understandings of evil. Hendrikus Berkhof argued that sin can be manifested in several ways: from our own personal sinfulness, through unhealthy interpersonal interactions, and for largely external reasons, including corrupted institutions and cultural understandings that we allow ourselves to participate in or by which we are shaped.[1] In similar fashion, I’d like to argue that the films I’m going to discuss here examine Personal Evil, Social Evil (what Berkhof called interpersonal sin), and Systemic or Cultural Evil, although typically they include more than one of these categories. I also want to include (and begin with) a category Berkhof did not discuss that many American people of faith nonetheless take as a controlling narrative, namely, Cosmic or Supernatural Evil.

Cosmic Evil

Whether or not we personally agree with them, we all know of biblical readings that God and Satan are on opposite sides of some cosmic divide, contending for the souls of humankind, and such interpretations of Job or Daniel or Revelation or other apocalypses are widely held in our culture. The notion of Cosmic or Supernatural Evil also provides a filter through which we can examine the cinematic worlds unfolding in two of 2007’s best films, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. These are challenging films, especially from a theological or religious point of view; for many spiritually sensitive viewers, these movies seem like disturbing expositions of theodicy, cinematic universes where evil triumphs and God is silent.           

It is true that whether we are talking about Daniel Day Lewis’ greedy oilman, Daniel Plainview, or Javier Bardem’s unstoppable killing machine, Anton Chigurh, in both of these films (as well as in The Dark Knight, where Heath Ledger’s Joker steals the show) evil gets the best lines and is represented by the most dynamic characters.  A viewer might watch the two former films and believe that evil triumphs, that in There Will Be Blood the forces of greed represented by Plainview triumph over the forces of God represented by Eli Sunday (Paul Dano), or that in No Country the goodhearted and noble Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is driven from the field of battle by the unfathomable evil of Anton Chigurh. However, both films present more ambiguous versions of conflict between good and evil than might be seen at first glance, and both also dramatically reject their dynamic figures of evil by movie’s end.

In There Will Be Blood, Eli Sunday may be a preacher, but ultimately he does not serve the God of Abraham and Sarah; indeed, I think it would be fair to say that this mercenary evangelist worships the same God Daniel serves: Mammon. As Richard Niebuhr notes in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture, “the confession of a life lived is greater than the confession in words,” and Eli’s actions mark him as a very different character than does his pastoral identity; Eli is no radical monotheist.[2] Daniel Plainview’s victory over a debased preacher who serves the gods of his culture does not in any way diminish the God of Israel; there is no cosmic struggle here. It is true that Daniel ends up with power and money—but he does so without love or peace or companionship. By the movie’s final scenes, Daniel Plainview is a rich but ruined man rattling around alone in his mansion like Charles Foster Kane.

For his part, Anton Chigurh in No Country is nothing more than a soulless automaton. He may be the most powerful character in the film—as well as the most frightening. But would anyone wish to exchange places with him? This movie’s narrative also rejects the idea that some cosmic struggle has taken place and evil has won, and in both of these films the wages of sin is truly death, if a living death neither character would acknowledge.           

One pivotal scene in No Country for Old Men reinforces the dramatic judgment on Chigurh and rejects the notion of some sort of overriding cosmic evil. In one of the few structural changes the Coen Brothers make in adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel, they relocate Chigurh’s confrontation with Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) toward the end of the film, where it will have more force as conclusion, and they revise the conversation between Carla Jean and Chigurh so that it emphasizes his own moral agency. Carla Jean does not consent to predict the coin toss—Chigurh’s way, throughout both novel and film, of implicating Fate in his violent actions—as she does in the novel.

“The coin don’t have no say,” Carla Jean tells him in the film’s conversation, frightened but certain. “It’s just you.”           

In other words, it is his choice to kill her—as he does—not fate, not the will of God, not the power of cosmic evil. She grants him no more power than that.

It is personal evil, pure and simple. 

Personal Evil

In the third chapter of the book of Genesis we are told that the mother and father of us all walked in the cool of the Garden with the Creator. But one day, they were offered a choice to violate the trust of the Creator and to seize something He did not wish them to have. So our father and mother chose the Food that does not Fill, the God who does not save, and their personal choices reshaped the world forever.           

The choices of the main characters in No Country and There Will Be Blood alsoembody personal evil, although personal evil is not limited to the villains of these stories. As we have observed, Eli in There Will Be Blood is not simply an innocent victim, while Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in No Country also acts out of selfishness and greed in his choice to steal and keep the drug money that drives the story (and which, in narrative terms, truly is the root of all evil).           

We can find personal evil strongly displayed in The Dark Knight as well, although again, at first glance, it is so dynamic that it seems to look very much like cosmic evil. Writers working in the Batman mythos have attempted over the past sixty years to explain the villain called The Joker, although these explanations are ultimately unsatisfying.[3] Several times in the film, the Joker asks someone, “Do you know how I got these scars?” and each story he tells could account for someone so twisted and vengeful, although ultimately we never know which—if any—of these stories is true. The Joker is simply an agent of chaos, and his madness is both tempting and terrifying. Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred (Michael Caine), tells Bruce, in words that might be speaking of Daniel Plainview and Anton Chigurh as well as the Joker: “Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But for all that, they are merely men—evil, powerful, difficult if not impossible to understand (“There isn’t a word for what he is,” Clarice Starling says of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs), but still, for all of that, fallible and only human.            

In the twenty-fourth chapter of the book of Joshua, Joshua recounts the salvation history of the Children of Israel and then he offers this life-defining challenge to his listeners: “Choose today whom you will serve.” That choice may make someone into a killing machine, it may make someone into a ruthless tycoon, but it begins with an individual choice. That is not to say, however, that our choices for good or evil are not affected by those of others. In 3:10 to Yuma, for example, another of the 2007 films I have often discussed with interviewers, outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) captains a gang of Old West cutthroats who reinforce each other in evil. Even Ben, a cold-blooded killer, finds himself pushed to match the extremes of his second in command. “I wouldn't last five minutes leading an outfit like that,” he explains to an admirer, “if I wasn't as rotten as hell.”

Interpersonal Evil

A day came when the Children of Israel, left to their own devices in the absence of their leader Moses, decided collectively that they would renounce the God of Israel and forge their own God. In the thirty-second chapter of the book of Exodus, we hear how they convinced Aaron to create for them a Golden Calf and how, together, they all worshipped it, calling it the God who had brought them out of Egypt.           

Interpersonal evil can be observed in a number of recent films—Ben Wade’s gang in 3:10 to Yuma, the early reactions of the panicked commuters on the ferry in The Dark Knight, the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix—and while again, we might argue that evil is ultimately an individual choice, these films acknowledge that sometimes a group behaves less morally than an individual. As Reinhold Niehbuhr wrote in Moral Man in Immoral Society, “In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships.”[4] An individual can be influenced toward and supported in evil by others of like mind, and these films show examples of that. But good can also flow between persons, influence them, or support them in positive action, as with the Order of the Phoenix. In 3:10 to Yuma, likewise, we see the power of interpersonal good in the conflict at the heart of the film. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) proves to be a figure of such honesty and good that Ben Wade actually has a last-minute transformation—what in religious terms we would have to call metanoia—as a result of that exposure. He guns down his own gang, willingly gets on that train to Yuma so Dan’s family can collect the reward money for him—and smiles as he rides off, since, we discover, he has escaped from Yuma before.           

What even the darkest of these contemporary films suggests is that individual redemption remains possible, that evildoers have, at least, the opportunity to change. This choice is offered to Daniel Plainview by his son and to Anton Chigurh by Carla Jean in her last moments of life; in The Dark Knight, the convicts on their ferry and the pushy and angry commuter on his boat surprise the Joker—and us—by choosing the good.            

But how can we choose the good when the system itself is stacked toward evil? A primary reason that the films of the past five years have been so dark is the specter of societal or cultural evil. Our recent films have recognized the darkness around us as well as the darkness within us, and they have brought it to our attention in ways that, as we have noted, make it impossible to ignore. 

Societal Evil

In Palestine in the first century C.E., the Roman Empire held sway over the region, their soldiers imposing the Pax Romana through the threat—or the actuality—of violence. The leaders of the Jews were aware that they owed their elevated status—such as it was—to Roman forbearance, and they knew that the Roman mania for order was offended to the fullest by words and actions challenging their rule. A large number of Jews had already been crucified outside Jerusalem. So when a Jewish teacher and healer named Jesus began to excite the attention of the people, a group of Jewish leaders decided that—given the world they now inhabited—there was only one thing they could do. As it is recorded in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John, their high priest said, “It is better for one man to die than an entire nation.” And so they gave their fellow believer in the God of Abraham and Sarah over to the Roman occupiers to be tortured and executed—a horrible choice, to be sure, but perhaps the best available when violence or the threat of violence was built into the very system that governed them.  

The Bourne Ultimatum, also released in 2007, was the third film in the series starring Matt Damon as repentant US government assassin Jason Bourne. Jason carried out kill missions on behalf of the American people; in the last film, we’re told that the program that began with Bourne has gone on to assassinate American citizens as well. In one of the movie’s final scenes, Jason Bourne, repentant man that he now is, pursues his past to the place where he became Jason Bourne, cold-blooded killer, and regains his memories: that he voluntarily submitted to the program of brain-washing and training that made him an unstoppable assassin, that he executed an unknown man as a demonstration of his willingness, and that although he had entered the program out of patriotic motives, he himself was to blame for the person he became.           

In this film, we can see all three of the human forms of evil displayed vividly: the personal choice that Jason makes when he decides to become a killer, the wheedling and urging of extra-personal evil in the persons of his handlers. But in images reminiscent of the Abu Graib photos, in the clear visual references elsewhere in The Bourne Ultimatum to water boarding, and in the patriotic notion that sometimes the good guys have to do really bad things to defeat the bad guys, we can see the last few years of American history come to life and our societal sins laid bare for all to see. Jason chose, yes, but his individual choice is given its impetus by the resources and the training he is given by a society willing to do anything to maintain its power and security. His choice is magnified by his inability to see that he serves a corrupt and corrupting system.

I talked about The Bourne Ultimatum with audiences in Munich and Stuttgart in the summer of 2008, and while my largely agnostic audience didn’t always relate to the spiritual impulses I was describing, they certainly understood the idea of societal evil; Germany has seen how that looks. When a system rewards individuals for doing evil or punishes them for not doing evil, we are dealing with a society that is complicating the individual decision in ways almost beyond bearing. But, as we see dramatically at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, one can still choose good over evil, even in a flawed system. When Damon’s character announces, “I’m not Jason Bourne any more,” we are witnessing another stirring example of metanoia, that rejection of evil and movement in the direction of something radically different.

Evil may always get the best lines.

It may even win an Oscar or three.

But in the midst of that deep darkness, some light at last seems to be growing, and, as cultural critics know without having to consult their faith, any change in the way we view ourselves and our culture shapes our cultural artifacts anew. Good and evil will always struggle in dramatic narratives—what sorts of stories would we have if they didn’t?—and we’ve given evil a good hard look in film and in life in recent years. But perhaps, as Batman says to the Joker after his plans fall through, this nation is, now, “full of people ready to believe in good.”

I don’t know what that will look like on our theater and video screens.

But I will confess that I am more than ready to find out.

Greg Garrett, Baylor University

Notes

[1] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Study of the Faith (Sierd Woudstra, trans.; rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 208-9.

[2] H. Richard Niebuhr, Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (London: Faber & Faber, 1960; repr. Louisville, Westminster John Knox, 1993), 36.

[3] An attempt at a sociological/psychological explanation of the Joker by Alan Moore underlies The Killing Joke, one of the first important graphic novels; Moore’s Joker is a product of his environment as well as insanity. Frank Miller, who includes the Joker as a major figure in The Dark Knight Returns, presents him as an insane force of nature who cannot be explained, a characterization similar to that in The Dark Knight.

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man in Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Scribners, 1934), xi.

 
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