Nobody knows how much screen time they’re going to get in this life. There’s a temptation to assume that we’re building up to a satisfying climax: two thirds of the way through our life we’ll learn the lessons we need in order to overcome the enemies, demons and difficulties in our story to secure that happy ending. We bank on walking off into the sunset – because we are the hero in our own story. Aren’t we?
The Coen brother’s No Country for Old Men (or How the West was Lost) smashes this ideal by having Josh Brolin’s hero killed off-screen before the final act. We had expected the hero to win; to vanquish the reaper of death personified by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. The film portrays a dystopian future (it starts, not ends, with a sunset), but it’s not our future: it’s that of the classic Western, where the moral lines were clearly drawn and the good guys wearing white hats always won.
By contrast, we feel safe when we watch Shane or something from the John Wayne canon, because there’s a reassuring moral structure. But the hero in No Country is death itself – a fearless gunslinger who defeats all-comers. And the message for the viewer is that everyone will have to face this hero eventually. No matter how you lived, no matter what you risked, and regardless of whether you’re ready to ‘call it’, Death wins the gunfight every single time. As Woody Harrelson’s character says of Chigurh’s figurative black-hatted hunter, ‘You can’t make a deal with him’.
There’s a strong suggestion throughout No Country.. that human life is purely about self-preservation and survival, and that morality is simply a vehicle for prolonging that. No moral code can save you, though – it’s Brolin’s character’s two most moral choices that see him hunted and then killed. So is everything therefore meaningless? The Coen brothers certainly believe Ecclesiastes when the opening slide quotes that Old Testament book saying ‘all is vanity and a chasing after the wind’; indeed, the film has no score other than the sound of the wind blowing whither it wishes. Being good won’t save you. Having a moral code won’t save you. And that sounds a lot more like Paul’s New Testament writings. There’s a nice anti-moralism in No Country when Chigurh asks one of his victims, ‘If the rule you followed brought you to this [death, like everyone else], of what use was the rule?’
Against this bleak landscape, the Christian story is one that shines a bright light on the tragic scene. It’s the story of love personified coming to meet Death – a foe that has easily dispatched every hero who faced it face-to-face in battle – and beating it. The notion of Christian Hope is notable by its absence in No Country.., but – surprisingly – firmly foundational to James Cameron’s 1984 movie, The Terminator.
The message that you can’t make a deal with Death is also found in this cyborg masterpiece. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) tells a sceptical Sarah Connor, who is struggling (quite understandably) with the idea that a robot from the future is trying to murder her: ‘It cannot be bargained with. It cannot be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop – ever – until you are dead.’
If atheism is true and there is no God, then The Terminator is a true story using fictional characters. How would it be, then, if someone stepped between you and the inevitable stalking villain of Death, looked you in the eye and said, ‘Come with me if you want to live.’
If Die Hard is a Christmas movie, The Terminator is an Easter film.
The cross is the thing that killed Jesus, but it’s the stop sign for everything that would seek to kill you. Post-resurrection, Death no longer has the stalking power it thought it had. It is not the main character in the story; it is lying off-screen, beaten, and not before time. So then, Death, where is your sting? You’re terminated.
It’s true that it rains on the righteous and unrighteous, and you don’t know when production is going to shut down on the screening of your life – you don’t get to ‘call it’. But meaning isn’t linked to longevity. Life isn’t found in self-preservation – it’s found in self-sacrifice. It’s about the fullness we get from knowing the ultimate white hat – the guy who laid down his life front and centre so that we don’t have to worry about losing it all on a coin toss.
This brings us onto our third film, Drive: the film that single-handedly reinvigorated the leather driving glove market, and the Grand Theft Auto film that Rockstar Games will never make.
Drive is an unbelievable film that merges elements of romance, crime and thriller genres to make something rightly described as Art. It’s essentially a neo Western – the story of a mysterious and nameless high plains drifter who appears to save the local population from bandits, and then drives off into the sunset, blood-soaked and vindicated. How the West was Won Back, perhaps?
Many people find the violence in Nicholas Winding Refn’s film excessive and stomach-churning. How can you possibly anything good or redemptive here?? Two things. Firstly, while the violence is indeed difficult to watch, I would argue that it’s never gratuitous. The shocking moment where a man’s head is crushed by Ryan Gosling’s boot happens within the same scene and setting as the passionately intimate kiss he plants on Irene (Cary Mulligan). The juxtaposition of the two elements acts as a wonderful elevator pitch for Refn’s skill as a director, showing how two seemingly conflicting themes can intermingle. Just as when Isaac Watts pictured the crucifixion in 1707, in “When I survey the Wondrous Cross”, and penned the lyrics ‘ sorrow and love flow mingled down.’
What’s key here, though, is the lengths the Driver will go to in order to protect Irene’s life. The end of the 2nd Act sees the Driver’s proposition of a life together receive a literal slap in the face. Irene has rejected him, which is what makes the lift kiss so poignant – it’s a goodbye from a man who knows he’s not welcome. Nevertheless, the Driver spends the 3rd Act taking on the forces that would seek to steal Irene’s life and that of her son. He would lay down his life for someone he loves, but who has rejected’ him – someone who doesn’t even know his name.
The Bible further describes the crucifixion like this: ‘Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ (Colossians 2:15) The final showdown of Drive is indeed a public spectacle where Albert Brooks, the major antagonistic power, is left dead in a carpark for all to see. The final moments of the film show a seemingly lifeless driver suddenly revive (or resurrect) and drive off, bleeding profusely, but knowing that his actions have given Irene and her son freedom. ‘By his wounds, they are healed’ as Isaiah would have it.
The big difference of course is that Jesus’ sacrifice didn’t require anybody’s else’s blood to be spilled. The Driver is a complex being, a sacrificial monster, but in the Gospels we read of someone both truly divine and truly human, who was fully innocent and yet willingly died for people who, not knowing his identity, he knew would reject him.
A real human being, and a real hero.
So, Love, Death and Robots. The interesting thing about Love is that it’s always noticeable by its absence as much as its presence. In No Country for Old Men, Death wins because Love is absent, it’s missed its cue. In The Terminator, Love wins by redemptive violence. In Drive, Love beats Death by surrendering its life and bleeding out…only to be refilled with Hope. All three of these movies stage cage matches between the two greatest powers in the universe, with varying outcomes. The real world also has that battle raging before us. When the curtain falls and the screen fades to black, I know which ending I want to have watched.
We all want Love to win. Nobody wants Death to have the final say. The good news is that there is a real story out there where the script has been finalised and the scene is set. Not only the three films mentioned, but perhaps all films, all stories, and the yearnings of every human heart, are trailers for that grand narrative.