Many films work hard in their opening scenes to establish sympathy with their central character. Not The American – we witness Jack (George Clooney) shoot dead his lover when she witnesses him dispatch a would-be assassin. What sort of man are we dealing with here? We see very little sign of moral anguish in Jack – although late in the film, he has a flashback to the scene, perhaps a sign that he has changed.
Jack constructs weapons, but he wants out. He accepts one last job, and moves to a small Italian town to build the weapon to the right specifications. He is befriended by a prostitute and a priest, both of whom want to help him, and both of whom think the first step is for him to confess his secret. Jack is constantly looking over his shoulder – who is going to try to kill him, the unexplained Swedes, the priest, the prostitute or the woman assassin he is building the weapon for?
It is never made clear who Jack is working for. Mainstream films will tend to justify the violence of a hero. The justness of their cause is established; good and evil are clearly defined. But the absolute absence of motives or reasons makes the violence seem meaningless. It’s like the black spy versus the white spy in Mad Magazine – who’s the goodie? There isn’t one! The rejection of the myth of redemptive-violence makes it a film closer to an Anabaptist’s understanding of the nature of violence and its effect on humans.
The other interesting angle for Christians is the redemption offered to Jack by the priest and the prostitute. Both want to draw him out of his solitude, to bring him to a point where he can trust another human. The priest tells Jack that Jack knows hell is real – he isliving in it, because he is living in his unconfessed sin.
The prostitute genuinely cares for him, and pursues him as a lover rather than a client. But he illustrates so clearly that if you are not trustworthy, you cannot trust others. She has a small gun in her handbag to protect herself against clients; he assumes she is trying to kill him. There is small redemption at the end of the film, where he decides to make a new life with her, even though it proves to be too late.
Philip Noyce’s 1989 Dead Calm is a classic thriller set-up superbly executed, without achieving anything beyond its genre confines. In the initial scenes, a young mother, Rae (Nicole Kidman), crashes her car, killing her toddler. Her husband John (Sam Neill), an experienced naval officer, takes her on a yacht off the Great Barrier Reef to recover.
Into their idyllic holiday comes the lone survivor from a sinking ship, Hughie (Billy Zane). Hughie is a manic, charming and strong man. Suspicious of his story that the rest of the crew died of food poisoning, John rows over to the foundering ship, leaving the sleeping Hughie with Rae. John discovers the rest of the crew murdered and frantically tries to return to Rae, but Hughie has already taken control of the yacht. For the rest of the film, Rae negotiates with Hughie while John pursues them in the sinking ship.
The question raised for me from a Christian perspective is one of hospitality and neighbourliness. Bearing in mind the film is not meant to be typical of life, it still reinforces an anxiety that lurks in the collective mind: the stranger in need of help may actually be a dangerous psychopath. Even in a Christian family regularly telling Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan, I was brought up with this fear. ‘Be careful who you help’; ‘there’s certain people you just can’t risk stopping to help’.
It would have been good if Jesus had prepared us more thoroughly for this anxiety – or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. Was one of the men hurrying past the injured traveller actually scared he might attack him if he helped? Would Jesus stop to help anyone he saw in need of help? He probably would have, even today. Yet again, the question brings home to me the cost of discipleship, the call to a life I fall short of.
But perhaps John in the film actually has the right response – he offers Hughie hospitality, but he’s not stupid; he checks out the story. He even takes precautions, locking Hughie in the cabin. It’s just not enough when you are facing a murderous psychopath. On the other hand, perhaps John’s response to Hughie in the final scene, when he shoots him through the head with a flare gun, falls short of Jesus’s call to nonviolence.