Pass the Popcorn: Sympathy for, Well, Not Exactly the Devil, But…

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I went to see The Northman and I came out thinking: “Yes, that was definitely a Robert Eggers movie.”

I liked it! But I didn’t think I had very much to say about it – a Robert Eggers movie in general doesn’t take place at the level of consciousness and is intentionally difficult to surface at that level – so I didn’t blog about it. I was tempted just to post: “This is a great Robert Eggers movie, but it is a Robert Eggers movie. So if you go and you don’t like it, you have no complaint coming.”

But I just walked out of Alex Garland’s Men, and now I think I have something to blog about both these movies.

One aspect of The Northman – only one aspect, this is a Robert Eggers movie after all – is its attempt, bold almost to the point of foolhardiness, to bring the viewer inside the mentality of genuinely pagan religious belief. I say “genuinely” pagan because it’s quite rare to see pagan religion depicted in anything like an authentic manner. Half the problem is that since the rise of the advanced religions, which have permanently changed our way of understanding truth and goodness, it’s almost impossible to subjectively realize a pagan worldview – and the various attempts to revive paganism, which range from the sinister to the ridiculous, almost never make the effort, because the attempts are (consciously or unconsciously) motivated by political passions. The politics are always in the driver’s seat.

One thing I really appreciated about The Northman is that I think – as far as any of us can really know – Eggers has really given us a glimpse (no more than that) of a genuinely pagan perspective. That’s quite an artistic achievement.

The difficulty with it is that the world of real paganism is constituted by things that are, well, pathetically silly to anyone who has the advantage of having lived in the world of advanced religion (even if you yourself don’t believe) and have therefore learned to do things like differentiate truth from myth or associate justice and beauty.

So not everyone is going to be prepared to follow where Eggers wants to take you.

And I do think Eggers, with masterful skill, has given us a few hints – in ways that are subtle enough not to become a distraction that takes us out of the world of the story – that he knows perfectly well that these things really are silly – or horrible – for those of us who have been better taught.

But I also think one point of The Northman is to show us that, for people who had no better options available, to kill your enemies and go on killing them until they kill you in order to win glory in Valhalla, while it involved a sacrifice of human decency that was painful to oneself as well as to others, was not necessarily worse than the cold, calculating pursuit of mercenary self-interest that human life bereft of all religion inevitably becomes.

Men has moved me to blog about this aspect of The Northman, because Men is a movie about the intractability of evil – but one that slowly, by a very shocking series of twists and turns, brings us to the point where we can have sympathy even for people who do terrible things, without accepting or excusing their evil. Precisely because evil is intractable, because evil is a web all of us are born already caught in, as we inherit our wounded souls from the wounded souls of those who came before, and inflict wounds on others because we are wounded.

In other words, while Men is not actually about religion and does not even broach the question of whether there is a way out of the web of evil or what that might be, it is a movie about evil that is clearly biblical in formation. (For crying out loud, the trailer shows the main character eating a frigging apple that gets called “forbidden fruit.” How much more obvious do they have to make it?)

Exactly as the Bible says, sex is not the cause of evil, but dysfunctional sexuality is the most obvious and most monstrous (in the original sense of the term) effect of evil. Men fear they are not loved, and feel how ruinous it is to be unloved. So, wrongly and inexcusably but in a psychological sense inevitably, they approach women in a variety of ways in postures of demand. The hurting of women that results ranges from the trivial to the catastrophic. Women know this all too well. So, wrongly and inexcusably but in a psychological sense inevitably, they approach men in a variety of ways in postures of preemptive blame. This prompts men to fear they are unloved, and so on forever, each generation passing on its wounded souls to the next.

At least, among those who have found no way out of the web.

The emphasis, in Men, is on the culpability of men – unsurprisingly, not only in light of the title but in light of Garland’s previous work. The entire cycle is portrayed, though. And in the end, as our heroine is dramatically confronted with the intractable nature of evil, with the fact that even her tormentor was born within a web of woundedness, she comes to – not to forgive, no, and certainly not to excuse. But, I think, at least to pity, before she does what is necessary and then turns away.

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