See this movie!

Last night on a whim I went to the movies with a friend, and I saw something that left me jaw-dropped and disturbed.  I’ve spent all day turning it back and forth in my head, and I’m stunned how rich and complex the ironies were, and how devastating the ending – like very few movies I’ve seen.  And all this in a film directed by Ben Affleck.

It’s that ending I want to talk about – without giving away anything concrete about the film, the movie ends with a dilemma so shattering that it causes you to reexamine your moral beliefs.  Not bad for a 2 hour crime thriller, but it works.  Maybe even too well. 

The key is this notion of dilemma, and I want to discuss that concept in a little more depth before I talk about the movie:

The word dilemma literally means “double proposition”, and refers to a choice where both alternatives are equally bad. 

The ancient Greeks understood dilemma: their greatest works center on situations where the protagonists are trapped between equally bad decisions.  Will Achilles live a long and worthless life, or will he die young for a glory he won’t be around to enjoy?  Will Orestes allow his father’s life to go permanently unavenged, or will him damn himself by committing a crime against natural law?  Will Creon risk the city’s post-war stability by bowing to the demands of a traitor, or will he lose the respect (and lives) of his wife and son?

In each of these cases, the characters may have very human flaws that contribute to the specifics of their downfalls, but they never have real choices: life has dealt them impossible hands.  This recognition of painful reality – and what’s more, its privileging as the central device of art – is one of the main reasons ancient Greek culture still dwarfs much of the West has produced since. 

By contrast, twenty-first century America is solution-oriented: there is no challenge we cannot dissect, flow-chart, disambiguate, and otherwise try to solve.  It’s a sign of our optimism – but also of our naiveté – that we no longer recognize on the same intuitive level the potential unresolvability of the universe. 

Consider what we do on the blogs: we look for solutions to what we perceive are the problems.  We comb over the news, we analyze the law, we draw upon philosophy and ethics and history and culture to justify a worldview, and we try to connect that worldview to a practical implementation.  Even the rant-oriented blogger is driven by a sense of righteousness at the wrongess of the world – underneath it is an implication that there was a “right” thing that should have been done.

Our art is even more simplistic.  We tend to expect good to be rewarded and evil to be punished – or if we’re in an ironic mood, the reverse.  Granted, there is plenty of value in the art we produce, but what’s often lacking is a sense that the world can simply be unfair, and that this fact has a way of crushing people who otherwise mean well.  By unfair, I don’t mean in a tangibly “wrong” sense: the distribution of wealth is unfair, for example, but not quite what I’m talking about.  I mean that life can put us in situations that, no matter how much we analyze and philosophize, we lose in the end.

Which brings me to the movie: Gone Baby Gone.  For the first time in a couple years, here is a film that brings the audience smack into the worst kind of dilemma: the kind that leaves you sick in your stomach when you realize just how much you’d hate yourself if you were in the position of the protagonists.

Why hate?  Because the protagonists have to make a decision that is morally unacceptable no matter what, and the film challenges us to do the same: would you or wouldn’t you?  And no matter which you choose, will you be able to look at yourself in the morning?

See, here’s the sick joke: you have to make a choice.  You’re in a car with no brakes, and you’re at a fork in the road – go left, you go off a cliff, go right, you slam into a cliff.  That’s life.  Roll end credits.

It sounds pessimistic, if not nihilistic, but it’s a valuable experience to go through.  It teaches us humility when we think we have the answers.  It reminds us not only that we can be wrong – but that we will be wrong.  As the Greeks might have said, the best you can hope for is to come out with some dignity intact.

The film is brilliant in how it sets this up.  It opens with a monologue that subtly outlines its most important value: choice.  There are things we choose, and there are things that we do not.  Two hours later, when the protagonists are faced with their impossible choice in the movie’s final minutes, we can see – painfully, tragically – how their experiences up until then have shaped their choices. 

Because I’ve already told you there’s a dilemma, this isn’t really a spoiler: it ends badly.  In a real dilemma, there’s no way around that – the question is simply which badly the characters will choose. 

Life is bad enough… why do we want to watch art this depressing?  The Greeks believed that allowing yourself to be sucked into this experience was cleansingcatharsis.  The intensity of our reaction is a release, and ultimately a relief.  We go through the emotional rollercoaster, but we don’t have to experience it in our real lives.  Think of it like doing your moral laundry. 

Here’s the trailer:

Go see this film if you haven’t already.  Let the final 20 minutes sink deep into your head, and allow yourself the luxury of accepting that there is no “good” solution. 

But you still have to choose.  We make decisions, and we are forced to live with those decisions.  Could you live with yours?


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    • pico on November 9, 2007 at 08:35

    as Mystic River, but good.  I wasn’t a big fan of MR, which tried way too hard for a lot less of a payoff (and a plot too ridiculous to take seriously). 

    Hey, never said I didn’t have strong opinions.  🙂

    • pfiore8 on November 9, 2007 at 16:56

    i promoted to FP, but then put back in diary list because armando’s piece buried this and i hope it gets read because it’s a great piece…

    • Turkana on November 9, 2007 at 16:58

    is misused even more often than is the word “deconstruct.”

  1. what a metaphor this film appears to be. I am going tonight.

  2. it but am reading Shock Doctrine and it’s real life dilemmas, and horrifying consequences are leaving me weak in the knees. However in some ways art is easier to assimilate, as you are both in and out of it. Sounds like a great movie I’ll screw up my courage and go. Dark out nowadays. 

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