Monthly Archives: September 2013

Prisoners

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners begins with a foreboding prologue in which we heard the Lord’s Prayer as suburban dad Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) helps his teenage son track and shoot a deer from a distance. Photographed with quiet, slow zooms and a wintry ambience (cinematographer Roger Deakins has never been better), this cryptic scene sets the tone for the tense, contemplative, and oddly beautiful 150 minutes that follow in what is one of the year’s most surprising films.

Prisoners is about imprisonment on a number of levels. First, the literal sense: in addition to the young kidnapping victims around which the plot revolves, at least four other major characters find themselves imprisoned at various points in the film. The physical imprisonment of one character in the film’s genius final shot is especially jarring.

But the film is also about how we are prisoners in other ways: prisoners to our notion of happiness; prisoners to our job or cause (see Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki); prisoners to our need for retributive justice and—perhaps most importantly—prisoners to our own guilt and shame.

The film suggests that, in a sense, human existence is one big imprisonment. We’re constantly locking up our depravity and protecting ourselves from ourselves. We try to keep our more sordid tendencies hidden and our propensity for evil at bay. But this is easier said than done. In one sequence, snakes escape from formerly locked-tight containers—and similarly, evil is always desperate to break free and roam wild. It wants to infect the good. Part of the power of Prisoners is that it depicts the insidious tactics of evil in a manner that feels utterly close to home. It’s not just about big, bad, nightmarish villains. It’s about the little ways that all of us get infected.

Read the rest of my review of Prisoners here.

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“Parents Screwed Us Up” Movies

As I’ve reflected on a few of my favorite films of 2013 so far–The Place Beyond the Pines, The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12–one thing that I’ve thought about is the way that each of these films is in some way about the damage inflicted from one generation upon another. They are films about kids and their parents (mostly their dads) who messed them up.

In Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper play two men from very different backgrounds who make choices that have a decided impact on their offspring. The movie is very clear (perhaps too clear) about its themes of fathers, sons, and the woes they bestow on each other through inherited sin. The film does raise interesting questions about one’s freedom to break out of the cycle and chart a new path (the “open road” last shot pretty much sums it up), and in many ways it inverts the logic of the “we are cursed by our forebears” approach. But it’s still a film that hammers home the havoc that is wrought in families based on decisions made higher up the family tree.

On the surface, James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now seems mostly to be a simple, sweet high school love story. And it is that. But the film’s second half spends a good deal of time explaining the brokenness of its protagonist, Sutter (Miles Teller), by–you guessed it–revealing the utter deadbeat-ness of his deadbeat dad (Kyle Chandler). The film makes a point of noting that these kids are part of a generation of divorce and broken homes. Sutter has a hard time thinking of any friends whose parents aren’t divorced. He and Aimee (Shailene Woodley, whose parents we never even see on screen) must succeed in spite of that fact. When it comes to healthy relationships, their parents didn’t give them much to work with, did they? Or so the film suggests.

Destin Daniel Cretten’s Short Term 12 is perhaps the most explicit and wrenching in its depiction of the way parents screw up their kids. Set in a group home, where abandoned, orphaned, and abused kids reside temporarily before the “system” figures out a permanent solution, Short Term 12 is about how weary, broken, love-hungry kids can beat the odds stacked so heavily against them. Almost every character in this movie is under the age of 30, and every single one of them has major issues on account of their negligent, absent, abusive or otherwise imperfect parents. Even the film’s heroine (Brie Larson), whose job it is to help heal the broken young people under her care, is majorly struggling with her own parents’ despicable failures.

What gives? Why all the movies about parents going wrong in parenting and children doing their best to compensate for the missteps of their upbringing?

Even in Sofia Coppola’s underrated The Bling Ringwhich (unlike the three films discussed above) does not condone or sympathize with the behavior of its young subjects, parents are depicted as disturbingly negligent, enabling and foolish (see Leslie Mann’s Secret-quoting “cool mom”). Coppola isn’t as direct in tracing her teen characters’ troubles to their bad parents as opposed to their own bad choices, but the connection is still there.

Part of this trend surely has to do with the fact that today’s young people have grown up in a world of therapy and psychology, where a sophisticated understanding of how one is shaped by one’s family (particularly one’s parents) is not only normal but expected. We are a generation that has grown up more fascinated by nurture than nature. We are told we are living a “story” and that we are our story is both an offshoot of our parents’ stories and ours to continue in whatever direction we’d like. The simultaneous belief in both the determinative power of the cards we’ve been dealt and our sovereign power to reinvent and redeem ourselves is a tension we hold dear (sometimes favoring one belief over the other, when it’s convenient). In any case, it makes for good drama and good stories (hence all these movies).

Sarah Polley’s excellent documentary, Stories We Tell, is another example of a recent film exploring the ways our parents’ stories shape our own, for good or ill.  As she tries to find out who her parents are and were, Polley shows us just how captivated we are by our own heritage and how much love, resentment, anger, confusion and hope can be bound up within our understanding of being someone’s son or daughter.

All of these films suggest that an individual’s brokenness, frailty and failings are in large part a product of the brokenness, frailty and failings of their parents. An obvious enough point. Sin is a generationally perpetuating thing, after all. But sin is also something to be owned individually. And let’s face it: brokenness is often just a softer way of saying sin. Even as I empathize with the young people in Place, Spectacular, and Short Term 12, and understand how rough their paths have been made by their parents, I know that they are ultimately accountable for what they do with what they’ve been given, just as I am. We can only blame our parents so much. All of us have problems. All of us are problems. But in spite of ourselves and in spite of our families, new life is possible. Thanks be to God.

Loving the Secular for its Secularity

Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013) died yesterday. He wrote a splendid book on food called The Supper of the Lamb, which has been significant for me. Here is a passage from the book that I quote in the food section of Gray Matters:

“The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is in order to be wine: Things are precious before they are contributory. … To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but, for all that, the world is still good in itself. Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it; only delight. Just think what that means. We were not made in God’s image for nothing. The child’s preference for sweets over spinach, mankind’s universal love of the toothsome rather than the nutritious is the mark of our greatness, the proof that we love the secular as He does—for its secularity. We have eyes which see what He sees, lips which praise what He praises, and mouths which relish things, because He first pronounced them tov. The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient, it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love.”

And here’s another lovely passage from Supper:

“For all its greatness (trust me—I am the last man on earth to sell it short), the created order cries out for futher greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.

You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is anoutlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetittes, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.”