Woody Allen's collateral damage

  • February 2, 2006

{mosimage}The opening voiceover of Match Point, with its image of a tennis ball tipped at the net and hovering, about to fall on one side or the other, might lead some to quickly pigeonhole Woody Allen’s forthright blunder back into film making respectability. This movie is a story about luck, the role chance plays in determining our lives, it says.

But pictures of the main character, former tennis pro turned tennis instructor to the upper crust Chris Wilton (played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), reading Dostoyevsky should clue some of us in that there’s more at stake than just a throw of the dice.

The film treats its audience like that tennis ball. We are left hovering, trying to decide whether to come down for or against the characters. Allen keeps his audience interested in Chris by hinting equally that he may be a bloody minded, calculating, social climber who will use anybody to further his career, or that he is an innocent feeling his way in the entirely foreign culture of incredible wealth surrounding him. While the audience decides, Chris falls in with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode), starts dating Tom’s sweet, naive sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) and lands a good job with their father (Brian Cox). In all of this Chris seems as much the seducer as the seduced, as much the hunter as the hunted.

At the same time as Chris and Chloe progress logically to marriage and Chris moves up the corporate ladder, Chris also falls in love with Tom’s girlfriend — the sexy, neurotic, self-made American actress Nola Rice (Scarlett Johanssen). Allen again leaves his audience to decide whether Chris is really in love with Nola or selfishly indulging his lust. This time, however, Chris is unquestionably the hunter and Nola the hunted.

After his marriage with Chloe, Chris starts an affair with Nola — either fleeing from his wife’s desperation to start a family or honestly bewitched by a beautiful woman who understands him because she grew up poor, just like him.

As the affair progresses toward a crisis Chris has to decide between more than his comfortable life and Nola’s bed. He hovers, like the tennis ball above the net, but finally his decision is not chance, but a calculated, deliberate act of will. Chance may play a large role in everything that follows, but it doesn’t begin by chance. As in any of Dostoyevsky’s novels, Chris must choose between good and evil.

His choice is prefigured by a bit of flip dialogue with Chris’s sophisticated, rich, new friends early in the movie. Tom laughingly suggests that “despair is the path of least resistance" to Nola, who has just failed another audition and is disconsolate. Chris answers much more seriously that he believes “Faith is the path of least resistance."

Of course Dostoyevsky would have agreed with Chris. For the great Russian author, Christian faith begins as an act of surrender. The mystery is why we struggle so hard against God. Chris rejects God and trusts in his incredible luck. He will not be seduced by any path of least resistance.

Chris adds up what he’s got to gain and what he’s got to lose, and chooses evil. In the context of his wealth and privilege, it is the logical choice. He makes this clear — we won’t go into too many details here so as not to give away the plot — to the ghost of one of his victims, who asks what she did to deserve death.

“The innocent are sometimes slain to make way for grander schemes. You were collateral damage," Chris coldly tells the ghost.

It’s an answer which raises Job’s old question, “Why do the wicked live on, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?" (Job 21:7) Job knew he was collateral damage, and demanded to know why.

Allen isn’t going to answer the question for us. Like all important artists, he depicts what he sees — a world in which the wicked prosper and the innocent provide an endless stream of victims. Is it because Chris is right, and God really is absent?

Though Chris gets what he wants — or at least what he has chosen — in the final frame he stares out the window of his fabulous apartment on the Thames and away from his newborn son as bewildered and depressed as Job who lost everything to mysterious forces beyond his perception or control. Unlike Job, Chris gains the whole world because he perceives and controls everything around him, but what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?

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