Watching this movie, for me, was something like watching an exquisitely produced and gorgeously rendered slow-motion series of train wrecks. It was so beautiful, and yet so traumatic to watch. The acting, direction, and cinematography were all absolutely superb, and the characters had such great – or at least understandable – intentions and desires, but they went about them all the wrong way. And you, the audience, know the travesty is coming and are powerless to stop it.
My husband and I got two very different readings of the movie. Or perhaps, more accurately, we came away from it with two very different messages. Honestly, what he got from it was probably much closer to the filmmaker’s intent. It’s as the film wanted to say “See? This is how it’s supposed to be! Happiness is freedom from the corruption of others.”
I wanted to shout “No! You’ve got it all wrong!” Because if that is indeed what the movie intended, then I disagree with it’s basic view of human nature and the purpose and effects of human society, and I can draw evidence from it’s own characters and plot to show why I disagree.
I realize at this point I’m not doing a very good job of selling this movie. But if you like independent films, films with multiple possible interpretations, or movies that make you think about where you stand in this world, then this is the movie for you. (Highly recommended for burners, artists, philosophers, and political and literary theorists. Burners especially will relate to the difficulty of moving between an ideal world and the ‘default world’.) I don’t want to spoil any of the movie for anyone, so I won’t say exactly what happens in it. Beyond its premise, I’ll only say what it made me think about.
Daniel Day-Lewis does an outstanding job of portraying an environmentally-conscious father, Jack, who raises his daughter, Rose, on a remote island where they are almost entirely self-sufficient. They live in near total peace and happy harmony until he becomes terminally ill and realizes he must work out some other arrangement to care for his daughter when he passes away. So he tries to introduce other people to their little happy commune and trouble ensues from there. Catherine Keener, Paul Dano, Jason Lee, and Beau Bridges also star in this film.
It’s rather difficult to discuss without getting into specifics, but what I thought when I saw the movie was that it shows just how powerful socialization is in shaping us. Our parents and all the people around us have a very important role to play in shaping our beliefs, in how we interact with the world, and what we know to be right and wrong. And what I really thought when I saw it was that what is really important is to have a variety of people around us, to teach us right from wrong as well as how to interact well with others. Perhaps it’s the Buddhist in me speaking, but what I saw was a need for balance: that going too far for one ideal means sacrificing others (and in this movie, it puts you in the awkward position of facing the question: is incest wrong because society says it’s wrong, or is there something inherently wrong with incestuous relationships?). Growing up with only her father, Rose acquired all his ideals, but she also suffered tremendously because of his failings. Because he didn’t know how to communicate, she didn’t either – and her attempts at communication devolved into increasingly hurtful and dangerous actions designed to protect her self interest. I’m not saying she is wrong; only that she didn’t know better. She had only ever been allowed to be with her father, could only know what it was to love him, which led to a sexual mess when it came to any positive feelings towards men.
We may not always like what people different from us do and say, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are indecent people. As different as people may be, we do share commonalities, and more importantly, there is often something we can learn from others. Ideology is important, having a set of values is what defines us as a people and as individuals, but sometimes ideological coherence is not itself ideal. Ideals taken to the extreme can lead to suffering, and ultimately undermine their own purpose.