Oscar nominees: Forgive us our sins

  • February 1, 2008

{mosimage}It’s always a mistake to imagine we know exactly what original sin is. Narrowing it down to illicit sex, lies, greed, violence etc. narrows down our humanity and tempts us to imagine that by some heroic effort or stroke of genius or act of contrition we might make it all right, take back that original sin, undo the fall.

We can’t. Original sin is a mystery. A good story plays with the mystery so we can  glimpse the meaning of that fundamental brokenness of our world. A good story might also let us see the possibility of redemption.

This year’s five Academy Award nominees for best picture are all good stories, though some better than others.

At first it might seem far too much to burden a comedy such as Juno with a lot of ponderous and pompous talk of mystery and original sin. The charming, witty Juno doesn’t have to be anything more than a simple story about one terrific character.

Juno is 16. She discovers the power she has over a boy, seduces him and immediately comes up pregnant. She is simply too intelligent and too human to be satisfied with a quick solution at the Woman Now abortion clinic.

She locates a couple hoping to adopt and proceeds to go through Grade 11 with an expanding belly. At first she is out of tune with the uptight, controlling, anxious and very adult woman who will adopt her baby. She is much more sympathetic with the overgrown teenager who is the husband in this couple. She falls in love with him, then discovers he plans to divorce his wife even as the baby is on the way.

Pregnant as a beach ball and vulnerable as a child, Juno crashes hard against the brokenness of everything. It’s not just one marriage breaking down because the husband is foolish and selfish. It’s how everything breaks down — marriages, friendships, truths we once held with certainty. Juno at 16 has to figure out how to live in this world full of divorce, cowardice and disaster.

Isaiah could have written the rest of the script. The hope of the world is that a young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and that son is God-with-us. Juno bears her son and gives him to the abandoned wife who isn’t really so much uptight as she is just as anxious and unsure as Juno is herself.

There Will Be Blood is not about subtlety. The allegory of this fable of the American nightmare is writ large, perhaps too large. Capitalism is the original sin, and oil is the apple dangling from the tree.

Throughout Daniel Day Lewis’s performance as a psychopath who is in the world but not of it, we are meant to see how America sold its soul to capitalism. Lewis’s Daniel Plainview hates other people, and his hatred gives him just enough distance from humanity to be able to use people, shake them down for their money, their patrimony and ultimately their hope. It makes him the perfect capitalist.

Plainview consistently wins at the game of capitalism. But they are joyless, hollow victories that eventually estrange him from his adopted son. Having committed all the sins of capitalism, murder is not far behind.

There’s not much in the way of redemption on offer here. Plainview’s trajectory through the movie leads ultimately to his alienation from everything that’s human.

Capitalism is also central to the Coen brothers’ brilliant No Country for Old Men. But here the joyless capitalism of grim determination and determinism isn’t so much the substitute for original sin as it is the context for it. If original sin can be defined at all, the Coen brothers propose it might be the way we have turned our backs on everything but money. Set in the mythic west, it evokes the horizons of the American dream and then poisons the dream with violence. This violence is ugly, but not at all senseless. It has all the purpose and logic of capitalism.

The hero is a lawman, upstanding and righteous, in a land which no longer has a reason behind its laws. Tommy Lee Jones is likable and convincing as Ed Tom Bell, a man who has lost the thread. His fear and despair are balanced by faithfulness to truth and courage. But does anyone want his courage? Does anyone care about the truth?

Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, is the perfect monster of modern capitalism. He doesn’t hate the people he kills, doesn’t dream of any future. He stands alone in the landscape with no connection to anybody. All he wants is his money.

Most monster movies let us off the hook by letting us imagine the monster is completely unlike us, dressed up in chain saws and hockey masks. No Country for Old Men makes sure we understand that this monster’s grim, remorseless world is our world. Ed Tom Bell can’t create law and order in a world where the world doesn’t see the sin which has captured its soul. So he retires like an old Sir Galahad to his wife’s ranch.

Law and order plays its part also in Michael Clayton, a story which links capitalism to the pathology of addiction. Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney, is a reformed gambling addict whose younger brother is a drug addict in and out of rehab. His older brother is a cop. Clayton’s working life represents a fall from past ideals. He began his career as a crime-fighting assistant district attorney, but now spends his days fixing problems for a corporate law firm where the goal is management of billable hours rather than justice.

One of the firm’s partners wakes up to the injustice of his daily defence of a corporate client. The client has cavalierly infected farmers, their livestock and their land with cancer and the lawyer now wants the plaintiffs to win their billion-dollar suit. The only way Clayton’s firm can see the situation is as a regrettable outbreak of madness. Clayton is sent in to control the outbreak.

He does so with compassion. But the real madness is not what is driving the manic-depressive lawyer to switch sides. The real madness is embodied in a strain of capitalism so virulent it resorts to hit men to protect share value.

Tilda Swinton is marvellous as the frightened woman who orders the hit on her firm’s crazy lawyer, and then on Clayton who may suspect the first crime. She is not an evil genius, but someone driven by forces much larger than herself — or anyone.

The surprise in Michael Clayton is the movie’s final turn toward redemption, or at least its option for justice. Just as he walks away from his gambling addiction, he also turns the tables against the endless, cynical, joyless pursuit of money which his law firm facilitates.

Atonement is certainly one of the most beautiful movies ever made. The movie screen is filled with achingly grand and perfect images that move and illuminate our minds like J.M.W. Turner’s paintings.

The original sin here is not a lie, and not England’s class system, and not the fear that keeps the lie alive. It is nothing that can be nailed down so easily.

A good son of England, who had seemed to escape a destiny inscribed in his class, is convicted of a rape he did not commit because it was easy to do so, and because a girl born to the manor bore false witness against him. The Second World War frees him from prison, but releases him into hell on Dunkirk’s beach.

Much of the imagery echoes baroque Catholicism. Robbie Turner, played by James McAvoy, sustains a wound which cannot help but remind us of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. His upper class love, Cecilia Tallis, ends her run in story in an extraordinary, floating crucifixion.

This story gives us a romantic Good Friday with no Easter. The little girl whose lie set the tragedy in motion spends 50 years writing fiction about good lives lived to good purpose. She bears her guilt through her whole life, and certainly suffers for it. This suffering may be atonement for her sin, but this atonement does not bring young lovers back to life, and we can’t accept the idea she has given them back their lives in her novels.

Redemption has to be real.

Those who tell us our culture has lost its sense of sin are quite wrong, or at least they haven’t been to the movies lately. All five best picture nominees show us stories that hinge on a deep sense of how sin has brought us to our fallen state. The question is whether we really do believe in anything which could redeem us.

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