The history of film is replete with conventional heroes—preternaturally strong, quick-witted, and courageous—as well as unlikely heroes, vain and hapless before their transformation into something nobler. Traditionally, in the vast majority of films, the hero has saved the day, if not the girl, the town, or the planet.
But increasingly, contemporary film heroes are less confident, less attuned to their moral compass, and possessed of less lofty goals. The journeys of their characters offer less ambitious, subtler gifts to the audience. These heroes may lift a beacon at the darkness, pointing the way—but they may not undertake the trip. They may begin to define a problem, but not see it through to resolution. They may offer new insights on a complex issue or circumstance, which might be the most courageous step they can take in their unforgiving universe.
Two recent, Academy Award-nominated films, Doubt and In Bruges, test the limits of how far a hero can stray from the usual qualities that define one.
Doubt (writer/director John Patrick Shanley, 2008) opens with a conundrum. Gentle, avuncular Father Flynn appears ready to bring a fresh way of thinking to the claustrophobic atmosphere of a 1964-era Catholic school. Sister Beauvier, a harsh, bitter, scheming nun, is determined to force him out. When the Sister accuses Flynn of preying on the school’s first African American student, her charges seem manufactured from her personal and philosophical distaste for him. When he asserts that she has no proof, she insists that she has "her certainty." Enter the underdog hero, we believe. Surprisingly, by bluffing that she has investigated the parishes he worked in previously, she wins his abrupt departure.
Flynn’s silent compliance suggests at least a note of truth in the Sister’s accusations; predator or not, something has been drawing him to work in schools, yet he leaves one for another all too frequently. But Sister Beauvier is just as suddenly struck with remorse over the lies she told to win; she can’t be sure she knew the truth. Because she—and we—can’t be sure that she saved anyone, neither she nor Flynn can emerge the hero. The story as a whole, however, offers, if not the harsh glare of truth, then the welcome enlightenment of perspective. It yields an unsettling glimpse at the masks of propriety, popularity, charm, and conviction. Doubt finally speaks to the many ways in which attitudes shape what we see as truth, and to the fact that truth can be obscured as easily behind charm as behind blinding conviction.
In the diabolical comedy In Bruges (writer/director Martin McDonagh, 2008), two hit men, Ray and Ken, lie low in a medieval Belgian town after Ray’s first hit in London goes horribly wrong, and a young boy is killed. For most of the film, the narrative yields no hero at all. Ray, a jumpy, unformed, 20-something, can’t fathom the attraction of the centuries old sites, and can’t shake the image of the child he inadvertently shot. Ken, almost surreal in his blithe calm, rides the canals like a veteran, genuinely admires the sights, and enjoys a quiet read in his room. In their short time together before the call from their boss, Harry, Ken comforts Ray and offers fatherly advice—to give himself a break about the death, and perhaps save another child to make up for this one.
Ray’s the man who needs most to wake up, but he jolts from one misadventure to the next, exploding at restaurant patrons and hooking up with a lovely fellow criminal, Chloe. But, it’s Ken whose play-acting at normal human activities seems to have switched a light back on. Ordered by Harry to kill Ray, Ken soldiers forth, only to interrupt Ray’s attempt at suicide just seconds before Ken planned to kill him. In that instant, Ken gains a heroic glow simply by straying from his usual path as a career hit man. As events speed toward a climax, Ken warns Ray of Harry’s murderous advances, and Ray manages to avoid another innocent death by diverting the shoot-out from their hotel and the pregnant woman who runs it. Ray—who has laid waste to a trail of mostly innocent victims—winds up, at least figuratively, the last man standing.
The unexpected heroism in this film—Ken’s sacrifice to save Ray—solves no problem and offers no illuminating lesson. In fact, it makes sure that a volatile personality remains on the loose. In the world of the story, however, it is nothing less than an optimist’s investment in the greater potential of humanity—Ken’s faith that Ray is worth saving, worth a second chance.
Two recent smaller films, the independent features 35 Shots of Rum and Don’t Let Me Drown, which both played the SF International Film Festival in 2009, portray recognizable heroes that are distinctly human-sized. They don’t pretend to intentions to save the world; but within the realms of their immediate worlds, their heroism echoes.
35 Shots of Rum (writer/director Claire Denis, 2009) tells an almost wordless story of a single French father, Lionel, and his nearly grown daughter, Josephine, who have shared for long years a universe of the two of them. Built of the tiniest routines of life—work and school, clothing changes and cooking—the story traces the faint beginnings of the daughter’s romantic stirrings for a neighbor and friend, even as she insists she wants nothing to change. The father’s ex-girlfriend hovers, inhabiting an apartment in the same complex and hoping to fill the impending void. Little happens in this story, except that everything happens, in that Josephine’s journey into a life of her own is inevitable. The hero’s journey in this piece, steady yet pitched in a minor key, is marked by Lionel’s quiet determination to simply observe Josephine’s small steps to the door, and resolutely stay out of the way. He’s heroic simply because, despite all he stands to lose, he does nothing to stop her.
Don’t Let Me Drown (writer/director Cruz Angeles, writer Maria Topete, 2009), set in New York City immediately after 9/11, portrays high school aged, working class lovers from families that are literally stuck in the rubble of the catastrophe. Lalo, a Hispanic boy, worries that his father works daily at the epicenter, clearing debris and bringing home a persistent cough. Stefanie, a Dominican girl, has kept her guard up since her beloved older sister disappeared on the day of the tragedy. Her father vents his unbearable loss on the family, swinging at his wife and extending an iron grip on Stefanie’s whereabouts. With little to offer beyond a shabby bicycle, a confident grin, and his determined heart, Lalo perseveres in wooing Stefanie, despite her early reluctance and a thorough thrashing at the hands of her father. In the end, this small romance serves up two heroes—not because their love is all encompassing or their time together, won against all odds. Lalo and Stefanie are heroic because of the simplest message their romance serves up to the world: that in the face of death, one can only laugh and love and go on. For these two minor but definitive heroes, there is no other choice.
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