Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forgive & Forget It Jesus, It's Chinatown: Christian Reflections on a Few Good Crime Movies

“There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”
~ Romans 3:10

“And again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”
~ Ecclesiastes 9:11

Movies about crime allow us an opportunity to become temporary voyeurs of a world we know or assume exists somewhere on the wrong side of the tracks. Most of us would never venture there willingly, but this illicit subculture is ripe with human drama and can offer insights about ourselves and our society.

Crime films are legion and often recognized as the best the medium has to offer--The Godfather, and so on. The subject material autmatically supplies two essential elements of an entertaining movie: conflict and spectacle. Many movies about crime of both high and low caliber coast by on this fact alone. But as I was thinking about how I love a lot of movies about crime, I decided the most interesting ones were not simply about crime fighting (police procedurals, most comic book movies) but also about the criminals themselves. Because taking the criminal perspective offers an opportunity to understand the criminal in all of us, one restrained by social conditioning, fear of the law and hopefully transformed or being transformed by the grace of God.

I scribbled down some crime movies I know and love that fit this description. I didn’t want to have to watch anything new in order to make some good recommendations and offer some thoughts, so there may be omissions that reflect this (like The French Connection, Scarface or A Clockwork Orange). I’ve also omitted some that are over-exposed, so I won’t be writing about The Godfather or Pulp Fiction--God knows there’s enough people on the internet already doing that.

I don’t know whether I need this caveat or not, but if you don’t like blood and profanity in your movie selections—well, stick to the ones that were filmed before Woodstock. This blog entry includes some YouTube clips--I've indicated where I think someone might be offended.

9) The Departed

“When I was your age they would say we could become cops or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this--when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"

Martin Scorsese is one of several directors on this list who made a career of filming the minds and lives of on-screen reprobates. The Departed came in 2006 as a late career return to form for the director, painting the town (and the walls) red with a cracker-jack screenplay about opposite undercovers in the Boston mob and state police. I think what you can get a sense from in this film is both the capacity for those seeking good to resort to the wrong means and the ability of those seeking bad to masquerade as good guys. It paints the pursuit of justice into a morally murky, testosterone-charged corner. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon both do fantastic jobs depicting men who have lost or are losing their moral center, and all of these boiling identity conflicts seem to literally explode out of their heads by the film's end.

The following video contains brief strong language, a racial epithet and a glimpse of strong violence. The boy Jack Nicholson's character takes under his wing grows up to be Matt Damon--the scene sets up his induction into the criminal underworld. Notice that his gateway to crime is groceries, comic books and a father figure.

8) In Bruges

In Bruges is a witty and elegiac comedy about hit-men sightseeing in “the most well-preserved” town of medieval Europe (Bruges, Belgium). Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson achieve an odd couple rapport in a screenplay that tries to find what dignity a couple of murderers might have. If that dignity remains disconnected from an authentic sense of socio-moral location for these two men, the actors work hard to sell the vulnerability. Farrell’s neophyte gunman is seeking a kind of absolution or reprieve from a tragic hit-gone-wrong, Gleeson comes alongside him with something resembling fatherly compassion and ultimately selflessness. Ralph Fiennes figures in as their livewire boss and wrench in the gears. The resulting and banter and gunfire plays out in stark relief to the somber historical setting and is rendered melancholic by a spare and haunting melodies of the score.

7) Jackie Brown

Adapted from a book by crime-wit writer extraordinaire Elmore Leonard, this hip caper centers on So-Cal flight attendant Jackie Brown as she becomes caught between cops, criminals and a bail bondsman over a bag full of money. Quentin Tarantino cast 70’s icon Pam Grier in the title role and gives her a mo-town soundtrack to underline themes of economic desperation and feminine empowerment. She plays both sides off each other in a series of crosses and double-crosses in order to do something for herself in a world that’s given her nothing. The budding /potential romance between her and the bondsman (the charmingly weathered Robert Forster) adds an element of wistful sweetness amid all the thuggish posturing. Strong supporting performances from Robert DeNiro, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton round out the cast.

6) Fargo

Sarcastically “based on a true story,” Fargo takes a simple tale of blackmail and sublimely twists it into a violent absurdity. A scheming weasel of a Minnesota car salesman attempts to squeeze money out of his cantankerous but wealthy father-in-law by having his wife kidnapped. The aftermath takes one turn down Murphy’s Law lane after the next, until most of the principal characters are dead or in handcuffs. Said salesman (William H. Macy) squirms his way through the film in a staggering display of wimpy depravity. The silent hulking introvert who acts as one of the two kidnappers unravels all the carefully laid plans via violent outbursts which erupt unexplained from his ineffable depths. And the highly-praised Frances McDormand stars as a sweet and pregnant cop who seems smarter than everyone else in the movie, and providing the film’s bleak universe with both a brain and a heart.

In the following clip, you can see the seeds of discontent take root as the car salesman's foolish first scheme unravels right in his face.

5) No Country for Old Men

The film's opening narration:

Also from Fargo’s directing duo of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country is a kind of successor to that film—without the brain and heart. To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, “If there’s a bright center to the universe, this is the film that’s farthest from.” It’s bleakness is accentuated by the casualness with which it transpires couple with the characters’ weary resignation to it. The plot is almost inconsequential—bag of money, wanted by more than one person. However the filmmaker’s find in Cormac McCarthy’s source material another ineffable killer in the creature of Anton Chigurh, a relentless hitman in a bowl cut and armed with a cattle-dispatching tool powered by compressed air. It resonates thematically as crime film especially in its depiction of law enforcement’s confusion and impotence in the face of indifferent and careless evil.

The film's utter hopelessness for mankind to solve its darkest problems forces the question of Christian hope. Where do we place our hope? Who do we trust for our security? The resurrection of Christ calls us to look at a world as bleak as the one of this film and still live and act as beacons of love and selflessness within it.

4) Chinatown

“Forget it Jake—it’s Chinatown.”

The above quote has become a shorthand for the cruel and indifferent mess of the world. It also serves as a shorthand for the movie itself, a meandering noir whose gumshoe protagonist (Jack Nicholson) is lost in a web of murder, a women, powerful men and something to do with water rights in 1930’s Los Angeles. Filmmaker Roman Polanski is a Holocaust survivor and a probably disturbed man with a notorious and high-profile criminal history. In Chinatown he uses noir tropes of elusive truth and capricious conspiracies to flesh out a dark world that exists right on the sunny L.A. streets. The infamous revelation at the center of the film seems arbitrary, and exists almost solely to push home the perverse cruelty of the universe. But as someone with a deeply personal connection to one of the greatest criminal acts of the modern world, the wounded cynicism of this film may have something to say about the toxic circumstances which engender misanthropy and criminal rebellion against society’s norms.

3) Psycho

Hitchcock believed in playing the audience like a musical instrument, keeping a tight rein on their suspense and investment with the events on-screen. If not quite his masterpiece, the stabby thriller Psycho is a virtual study in the manipulation of audience expectation when it radically shifts gears after the “shower scene” it made famous. The film begins with a crime—again a missing bundle of money—which brings an otherwise innocuous woman ought into the countryside where the ominous Bates Hotel and its caretaker(s) wait to receiver her. Rather than play out as a sin-and-consequences morality play, Psycho works mostly as a mystery about evil lurking in unexpected places. Whether a chummy hotel clerk or pretty office receptionist, the criminal mind and behavior is right beneath the surface. One of the many ways Psycho was timely was its release in a year (1960) pitched right as America’s postwar conformity was ready to explode and unravel as the country’s crimes (like racism) began to pierce the repressive Eisenhower-era façade.


2) Heat

What Heat asks of its leading male characters is whether they can live the lives their compelled to have and still function as human beings. Both Al Pacino’s manic cop and De Niro’s laconic bank thief are loners, incapable of maintaining extracurricular relationships due to their work commitments. Pacino holds onto the angst engendered by dead hookers, child-abusing junkies and other tragedies entailed by his job because it “keeps him sharp; on the edge; where [he’s] gotta be.” De Niro’s commitment is to have nothing in his life he can’t walk out on in thirty seconds—otherwise he’s dead. The crime and pursuit essence of the film is slick, smart and excellently choreographed. It takes on an epic scope by the sheer number of sharply-drawn characters caught in a web which boils down to one man’s pursuit of the heist and another’s pursuit of the law.

1) Goodfellas

“Ever since I could remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.”

This actually based-on-a-true-story movie is great for so many reasons. Through and through, director Martin Scorsese infuses the whole film with the texture and verve of a raucous Italian family at mealtime. The speech patterns, the cars, the machismo, all the little ethnic idiosyncracies—the film gets them all so right. Moreover, in Henry Hill we’re given an entry into the mafia world we can identify with—and a lifestyle aspiration. Because Goodfellas illustrates the seduction and pull of a lifestyle that offers everything, anything you can think of; it’s the American Dream in a heartbeat. Nowhere is this more lucidly and vividly displayed than the famous Copcabana tracking shot (I can't find a good embeddable version.  Follow this link if you're curious).

It’s at once a technically marvelous, unbroken camera pan through an elegantly choreographed scene and a window into how life in the mob made the world Henry’s oyster. His smitten date can only wonder, “Where do you work?”—it’s uttered with the kind of rapt disbelief usually reserved for high-powered men quick to rattle of their achievements, accolade and prestige. The allure makes the criminal life relatable, demonstrates to us how our often hidden and internal desires for such things could pull us down the same path.

"Everything was for the taking... And now it's all over."

This past year the majority of the ministry work I did was in the local jail. I learned there that I couldn’t afford the pretense that I was a better human being than the men I worked with. I think another reason crime movies are appealing is that they can show what it’s like to act out in seductive, self-serving and ultimately destructive ways. It’s fun to see people run off with the cash, the car, the women, the respect, and so on, but it’s telling that so few crime movies allow their characters redemption without some kind of cost.

Ex-mafioso Hill ended up straight-jacketed by the Witness Protection Program to save his own skin. But he also eventually lost his marriage and his government cooperation by getting slapped with drug charges not too many years later. I find crime movies fascinating because they allow a window into either a take-everything-you-want life I’ll never have or the dark mess of the criminal life or both—because they show human beings letting go of the repressed release valve that keeps so many of our self-destructive tendencies. Sometimes a criminal with nothing left to lose seems more honest, more real about who they really are. He or she can offer us not a window but a mirror, making us ask our usually self-righteous selves—what’s the difference? Acknowledging our own utter helplessness in the morality department empowers us not only to seek the saving power of Christ all the more intensely, but also to see the helpless, broken and cruel in the world around us as desired by God to be recipients of his grace.

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