The Thing I Like About … [mild spoiler]

Minority Report: the part where he confronts the guy who killed his child.

In Minority Report, John Anderton is a man whose job at the Pre-Crime Division allows him to see when people are about to commit a crime; he then goes to arrest them before anything bad can actually happen. He’s a tortured man, suffering from the intense grief of losing his son, and when the events of the film lead him and his friend Agatha to the man who admits to killing the little boy, Anderton understandably contemplates removing this child-killer from the gene-pool.

If he kills the man, then the pre-crime system he has supported for so long will be vindicated. If he kills the man, then his son’s death will be avenged. If he kills the man, then some measure of justice will be done.

If he kills the man, then he will be a killer.

He points his gun at the man … and places him under arrest.

Are we glad that he’s going to allow the child-killer to live? Is anyone ever glad that child-killers are alive? Do we think Anderton would have been justified to blow the guy away … or even torment him in endless creative ways? – probably.

But we’ve watched the struggle too. We’ve seen Anderton’s self-destructive grief and the loss of his marriage. We’ve seen the pitfalls of the Pre-Crime Division, and all the ways that Anderton’s response to this man can affect it. We can see how important it is for Anderton to feel that he has a choice; we agree with Agatha that he has more choices than just to be at the whim of his sadness and anger. We see all the layers and ramifications and interconnectedness of Anderton’s current decision. And in that moment we’re capable of being better people … and of wanting that for Anderton as well.

At the end of the day, it’s not really about the child-killer. It’s about Anderton, about what kind of man he is and what kind of man he can be, about decision and free will and making difficult choices, about letting go of his crippling pain and finding the happy memories on the other side of it. It’s not about the evil he faces; it’s about his choice to face that evil with goodness.

At the end of the day, it’s not about anything that’s ever hurt us (or our loved ones).

It’s about us.

The Thing I Like About…

The Untouchables:  the part where Oscar tells Eliot Ness that he thinks they can bust Al Capone on tax evasion charges.  Eliot looks at him as though he’s insane, and asks him, “Try a murderer for not paying his taxes?” Oscar tells him, “Well, it’s better than nothing.”

When people do something wrong, we want to punish them – especially if the something wrong they did was to us or to someone we love.  We want revenge.  We want to know that the wrongdoers will suffer something similar to the pain they caused, and we’re willing to spend a lot of time, money and energy to see that it happens.

But this can take a toll on us.  We may spend all of our emotional energy trying to punish someone, inadvertently  allowing that wrongdoer to hurt us again, every single day that he or she pre-occupies our thoughts.  We as a society struggle with this, trying to define “justice” and strike a balance between forgiveness and revenge.

Eliot Ness was charged with stopping Al Capone from hurting people.  In the end, Capone was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to prison where he died of illness – for all intents and purposes he was stopped from hurting people.  But the conversation between Oscar and Eliot highlights an important question:  Is that enough?  Is it enough that Capone was put away? Is that “justice”?  Does it matter whether Capone was convicted of murder, since nothing can bring the murdered back to life anyway?  Does it matter what reason existed on paper to put Capone in a little box for the rest of his life?

Oscar tells Eliot that “it’s better than nothing,” and he’s right.  If they hadn’t prosecuted him for tax evasion, Capone would not have gone to prison at all.  He would never have paid any price for the suffering he caused, and that doesn’t sound like justice by any definition.

I think Oscar is trying to show Eliot a different way to look at his mission: to focus on the outcomes.  The outcome of Capone’s actions was that people got killed; the outcome of Eliot’s actions was that Capone went to jail.  It isn’t just that “it’s better than nothing.”  It’s that it is in fact justice – the kind that doesn’t muck itself up with revenge or forgiveness or questions.  The bad guy did bad things, and the good guys put him in jail.

And that’s good enough.

The Thing I Like About …

Last House on the Left (2009):  the parents.

After an escaped felon and his “family” kidnap and viciously attack seventeen-year-old Mari, they wander, coincidentally enough, to Mari’s house.  Mari’s parents graciously allow the bad guys into their house and out of the storm, unaware of the horrific things these “people” have done to their daughter.  Then they learn the truth.

They ask each other where the keys to the boat are (Mari had taken the car); they look at each other without speaking because they don’t want the bad guys to overhear them.  But they never exchange “meaningful glances”, or discuss the ethical conflict involved in exacting revenge.  It’s not some weighty consideration that one or the other of them has trouble with; it’s not something that one of them has to wonder what the other one is thinking.  Without a moment’s pause, they shift into a dark space where only swift and total retribution is allowed.

And then they kill all the bad guys … with kitchen tools and fire extinguishers.

And a microwave oven.

Am I saying it’s good for people to turn effortlessly into killers?  Well, not when you say it like that, no.  But it’s good for them to know their priorities, and to be able to act to protect those in their care.  It’s good to have a relationship where the trust is absolute.  And it’s good to be brave in the face of evil, to do what needs to be done.

It’s not that the average parent is going to be faced with such a dire and unlikely situation.  It’s that it’s a nice alternative to the world we seem to live in, where being a good parent includes television/Netflix/video games/telephone/texting/twitter/facebook/girls’ night/guys’ night/getting nails done/etc., etc., etc.  There’s nothing wrong with any of those things – on the surface.  But when those things become the things we have to get done, and when we feel like every moment is a moment “for ourselves”, then suddenly we just simply aren’t good parents anymore – we’re babysitters, talking to our boyfriends and raiding the fridge and saying, “Go away, kid, ya bother me!”

It would be wonderful to live in a world where all parents understood their responsibility and were willing to make tough choices – like axing bad guys – for their children’s safety.  But sometimes I wonder if “modern” parenting is even aware of what should be obvious:  the kids aren’t there for us; we’re there for them.  And if you’re bad guys who try to hurt our children, well … it sucks to be you.