Movie Review: Evil at the Oscars

PUBLISHED ON

April 1, 1997

Establishment Hollywood was shocked and appalled by the nominations for this year’s Academy Awards (still a month away at this writing). That’s because for the first time ever, studio system films were virtually shut out of the important categories, which were dominated by independently produced films. This shows what serious moviegoers have known for years now: Hollywood, drunk on big-budget stars, special effects, and high concept, has by and large forgotten how to tell a good story.

Filmmakers working independently of the studies have stepped in to fill the creative vacuum, giving us terrific Oscar-nominated movies like Shine, Secrets and Lies, Fargo, The English Patient, Breaking the Waves, and Sling Blade.

Chances are Oscar night will pass without trophies going to the latter two films, which only charted in the acting categories. The nomination itself will almost certainly have to be the reward for Sling Blade and Breaking the Waves. Pity, that, because in the history of cinema these two films are among the most potent and challenging explorations of religion, morality, and the mysterious workings of grace.

Both films center around bizarre heroes. Sling Blade concerns the fate of Karl Childers, a mentally retarded man who has spent his life in a psychiatric institution for murdering his mother and her lover when he was a mistreated child. The movie begins with his release, after twenty-five years of confinement, back into his rural Arkansas community.

Breaking the Waves tells of Bess McNeil, a deeply pious but emotionally unstable young woman who tests the outer limits of faith and sacrificial love within her new marriage. Though Karl and Bess are psychotic freaks by conventional measure, they are not comic, and it is impossible to explain away their actions as lunacy.

Saturated in the Southern Gothic sensibility, Sling Blade was written by an Arkansas native named Billy Bob Thornton. He also directed and starred in the film; his performance won him a Best Actor nomination (his screenplay also was recognized with a nomination). Sling Blade takes place in the rural South, which Thornton, though a Los Angeleno for sixteen years, clearly remembers well. Most Southerners will feel a shock at how accurately Thornton captures the lassitude of small-town life, and how sensitive his ear is to the arcane idioms of regional speech.

The film introduces Karl as a heinous murderer. He looks like a backwoods crazy: Thornton tucks his upper lip under his lower, juts his jaw, and speaks in a monotone. Karl gives an interview to a newspaper reporter in which he explains how he committed the killings. He was raised in a poor, white-trash household. His mother and father made the retarded boy live in a shed in the backyard, where they fed him biscuits and mustard and treated him like an animal. When he was twelve, he happened upon his mother having sex with the town bully in the kitchen. Defending his mother, Karl grabbed a sling blade and lopped the supposed rapist’s head off; when he realized that his mother was not being raped, he killed her too.

After this terrifying monologue, the reporter asks if he will kill again. He mutters plainly, “I don’t reckon I’ll have no reason to kill nobody.” The film suggests otherwise; that Karl will find a reason eventually. Though Karl is a gentle giant, Thornton wisely avoids investing him with Gumpish sentimentality. No matter how sweet Karl can be, you know that he’s chopped his momma to bits. The tension between what Karl seems to be and what we know he’s capable of casts a shadow of dread over the picture.

Sling Blade is about the abuse of children and the sanctity of childhood innocence. As the story unfolds, Karl comes to understand how terribly mistreated he was at the hands of his parents. We’re given to understand that they told him made-up stories from the Bible to imbue the retarded child with a sense of his worthlessness. And they used the guileless boy to carry out a murderous act of shattering import.

A growing moral awareness causes Karl to confront his father (Robert Duvall), living in the dilapidated shell of the Childers house. After examining the shed where he lived in a hole, Karl enters the house and finds his father keeping vigil over the ruins of his life. The old man refuses to recognize his son, and refuses to own up to his own sins. In this astonishing scene, the intransigence of evil is laid bare. Childers’s cruelty has ruined his mentally crippled son’s life, and has brought his own to a pathetic denouement. This scene is a heartshaking tableau of the deforming nature of sin and its enduring grip on the darkened soul who won’t seek the light.

Sling Blade will strike some as a tale of vengeance, but there is much moral complexity concealed within this deceptively simple parable of love and sacrifice. The film leaves us with haunting, profound questions of justice and redemption. For Christians, there is nothing tidy about its ending; we should not be comfortable with homicide as a response to raging wickedness. Yet Sling Blade argues with the quiet power of a mighty river that we have grown too comfortable with meanness and violence used against the defenseless, and that, in this fallen world, true love must at times take a savage, if mournful, stand for justice.

When critics call a movie “unforgettable,” they usually mean it’s the kind of film that won’t evaporate from your mind as soon you leave the theater. Breaking the Waves is unforgettable in the true sense of the word: It’s impossible to shake this movie off. So be warned. Danish writer-director Lars Von Trier, a recent convert to Catholicism, takes his audience on an excruciating, emotionally overpowering journey to the nether world where the lines between faith, reason, love, and madness blur.

Oscar-nominated English stage actress Emily Watson makes a staggering film debut as Bess McNeil, an airy, childish young woman who lives within the punishing ascetic bounds of a strict Calvinist sect so dour they make the Amish seem like snake-handling enthusiasts. The time is the early 1970s, and the place is a bleak seaside village in Scotland. The film opens with Bess’s marriage to Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a Scandinavian oil field worker. He’s an outsider, a robust roughneck who does not share Bess’s faith. Nevertheless, she’s drawn to him and desires him so intensely she asks Jan to take her virginity in the bathroom at their wedding party.

Jan has to return to the oil rig eventually, and Bess becomes hysterical with grief. It’s a fearful thing, love this passionate and consuming, capable of ripping a religious woman free from the anchor of her faith. Bess’s soul has been starving for the lightness Jan brings, his music, and the love of God’s creation, and she cannot bear life without him.

Jan returns on a stretcher. There has been an accident on the rig; he is left paralyzed from the neck down and may not survive. This grieves Bess, but she prepares to spend the rest of her life caring for him. Here we see, though, a chasm of understanding separating these two lovers. Bess is so grateful to have him alive that she will accept any burden. But Jan, the faithless one, thinks his life is worthless as a cripple. He is tormented by the loss of his sexuality, and is guilt-ridden over the fact that his young wife, who was just discovering the exaltations of physical love, will never know it again.

Jan suggests that she take lovers. Presumably he thinks he’s sacrificing her fidelity to him for her own benefit. Bess is scandalized, and shrieks, “Is that what you think I want? You cripple!” She’s not talking about his body, but his soul. Nevertheless, Jan persists, noting that she “blossomed” when she discovered sex, and states that he has to “set her free.” Perhaps driven by the delirium of the painkillers or perhaps by his own twisted sense of what a meaningful life contains (we don’t know, so we are challenged to be careful about judging Jan), the quadriplegic husband convinces simple Bess that if she were to take lovers and tell him about them, she would help him cling to life.

That does it. Bess loves Jan so unreservedly that she cannot refuse his request. She begins to live as a whore, sobbing during sordid sexual encounters, sacrificing her body and her conscience presumably to save her beloved’s life. Perhaps highlighting the danger of private revelation, “God” encourages her to prove her faith and love for Jan by doing this. Bess brings disgrace upon herself, yet is so in the grip of her love for Jan that she cannot be reached by her devoted friends.

Somehow, Watson manages to make us feel Bess’s luminous innocence, no matter how deeply she plunges into degradation. When she is bruised and battered, desperately seeking shelter, the village children, once her friends but who now follow her throwing stones, seem the befouled ones. There is no shelter for poor Bess at her mother’s house, neither in the church: They all love the law more than this fallen, desperate girl, and shun her. When Bess goes to a trawler anchored in the harbor to service the vicious sailors there, we don’t see a cheap whore going about her business: We see the face of the suffering Christ, who allowed himself to bear the grossest indignities so that those whom he loved, who condemned him, would live.

Breaking the Waves is a crushing testimony to the power of love and faith that leads to an ill-advised kind of martyrdom. We see that Bess might have been spared her fate had she married a Christian, or if the Christians in her family and community had loved her more than they loved their suffocating rules.

The Catholic in me has to wonder if the body-hating Calvinist culture that raised Bess had been more accepting of sacramental theology and its implications, would she have been driven so mad by physical ardor? And if her community’s understanding of the Law had been more informed by the person of Jesus Christ, would they not have found mercy for this poor fanatical creature, determined to march sorrowfully to her concupiscent Calvary.

Though it is often a pitiless examination of the abuses and misuses of innocence, Breaking the Waves ends triumphantly, with a ringing, exhilarating assertion of the sovereignty of God, and how he, in his mysterious mercy, redeems the imperfect sacrifice of his lambs. Bess McNeil and Karl Childers, holy fools, are broken vessels of grace, reminding us of how far we live from loving innocence, and the innocence of love. The divine mysteries at the heart of these tales cannot be explained, only accepted and wept over.

Author

  • Rod Dreher

    Rod Dreher (born 1967) is an American writer and editor. He was a conservative editorial writer and a columnist for The Dallas Morning News, but departed that newspaper in late 2009 to affiliate with the John Templeton Foundation. He has also contributed in the past to The American Conservative and National Review. He wrote a blog previously called "Crunchy Con" at beliefnet.com, then simply called "Rod Dreher" with an emphasis on cultural rather than political topics.

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