Spoilers ahead, folks.
I need to see Gravity again before I can really go after my co-critic for his dismissal of a film that actually manages to dramatize the Christian notion of being “born again” without preaching (or even mentioning) Jesus. I mean, yeah, it’s not exactly subtle: Hey, look, George Clooney lays down his life so that Sandra Bullock can live. And right after she gets into the airlock, she sheds her suit and goes fetal. But why does everything have to be subtle? There’s a difference between manifest and pedantic.
It’s a fine visual: astronaut Bullock, delivered from the endless dark and cold of space (as fine an image of death as ever there was), frees herself of the airless, wrinkly bulk that limits her movements (as fine an image of Saint Paul’s “put off the old man, which is corrupt” as you could ask for), and curls her smooth and weightless self into the posture of one who is just beginning to live.
The journey back to new life (Earth) still stretches out before her, perilous and uncertain. There are a hundred ways that things can still go awry. But she has been delivered from certain death and has a chance to work out her salvation in fear and trembling. If the great virtue of film is its power to convey meaning through images, well... But as I say, I need to see this one again before we really lock horns on it.
But you know what film I did see again? The Counselor. If anything, I liked it better the second time. Odd bits whose point I couldn’t work out the first time became clear. Why does the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) encounter and wander through a protest/memorial upon leaving the Mexican café at night? Because the protesters, who have lost innocent loved ones to drug violence, are doing the only thing they can: standing together and bearing witness to injustice. But although Fassbender has lost an innocent loved one, he cannot stand with them because he has shared in the injustice. It’s a lovely illustration of the way sin isolates a person from the human community.
My experience with Cormac McCarthy as a writer is limited to the movies: No Country for Old Men (for which he wrote the source novel) and The Counselor (for which he wrote the screenplay). I don’t know if he believes in God and redemption, but I think he believes in sin and damnation — if that makes sense. And he seems to subscribe to a vision of the universe in which there ought to be a God, whether or not there actually is. I think it shows in his treatment of religion.
Consider middleman Brad Pitt’s statement that he could leave the drug business anytime he wants. “I could go to a monastery: scrub the stairs, wash the toilets,” he assures us. Why doesn’t he? “Women.” (His weakness. Naturally, it proves his undoing.) Interesting that he chooses a monastery as his place away from the criminal life, instead of, say, a beach on some tropical island with a drink in his hand. Also interesting that he mentions cleaning toilets — this is after he’s told Fassbender, “I’ve seen it all. It’s all shit.” (A major theme in the film.) If it’s all shit, why would you even consider cleaning toilets in a monastery? Because, just maybe, there’s something there that isn’t shit. Something that transcends all the shit we make and do and eventually become.
Or consider Fassbender’s constant appeal to Jesus when he realizes that everything has gone horribly wrong. “Jesus,” he says to Pitt. “Jesus.” Of course, in the context of the film, he’s just cursing. But it also reads as a prayer. Because no one else can save him at that point.
Most interesting of all: Cameron Diaz’s confessional scene. She wants to mess with the priest, pour the poison of her sexual debauchery in his ear without asking for or receiving forgiveness — because she thinks it would be fun and maybe a little bit hot. But the priest will have nothing to do with her. “There would be no point,” he says flatly. When she persists, cooing, “You just have to listen,” he stands up and leaves the confessional. This Catholic priest is the only person she interacts with who escapes unscathed. (Even her accountant at the end hears more than he wants to hear.) Only the man who sees beyond the shit of this world can hope to escape its corrupting power.