Something Wicked This Way Comes
(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved
Fargo ranks up there with my very favorite movies, with Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi all giving great performances. The key to the film is in the scene when Chief of Police Marge Gunderson, driving back with the murderer she has captured, says, "So, that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money? There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don'tcha know that? And here ya are, and it's a beautiful day. Well. I just don't understand it."
Everyone is capable of doing wrong, but relatively few people commit really evil actions, and the film contrasts many simple acts of kindness by good, if fallible, people with the self-absorbed's indifference to the grave harm they inflict. The snaggle-toothed, "funny-looking" gunman and his sleepwalking-except-when-murdering accomplice kill without remorse and seemingly without thought. For them, killing is a mere reflex.
Marge Gunderson "just doesn't understand it," and most good people really find it difficult to comprehend evil--not ordinary, everyday badness, but real evil. This incomprehension of evil is a major theme in Fargo, in Broadchurch, and certainly in Longford, which depicts the infamous "moors murderers," Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, during their prolonged imprisonments as they manipulate the kindly Lord Longford, who seeks to rehabilitate Myra Hindley. Does Longford ever really comprehend Myra Hindley's depravity? Is Longford correct or self-deluded in detecting her capacity for redemption?
Evildoers seem different in kind, not merely in degree. How would we respond to someone we had once known but then discovered was guilty of a really terrible crime? I was shocked to read in the newspaper about a man I had known who was later convicted of sexual abuse and procurement of child prostitutes, a disgusting crime. He didn't seem sorry, really, just sorry he was caught. What draws the line between ordinary badness and true evil? Perhaps the criteria include callousness, lack of remorse, unshakable self-absorption?
Shaken by the evil we sometimes encounter, we can retreat into corrosive and pervasive cynicism. Certainly, we must never forget the evil that human beings are capable of doing to one another. The appalling Armenian genocide, for instance, happened 100 years ago. But note that kind enemies saved the lives of some Armenians. Goodness always flowers in the sidewalk cracks. Goodness is as real as evil, only less powerful only too often.
Some characterizations of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird sneer at it as just a children's book. However, the genius of the story actually stems from its depiction of the central tragedy from the children's perspective. There is so much menace depicted--crazy neighbors, a rabid dog, cynically perjured testimony, the threat of lynching of an untried and innocent accused, attempted vindictive murder of children--yet the setting is a seemingly idyllic childhood in a small country town during the Great Depression, when neighbors look out for each other and children roam at will, even at night. Underneath all of the real innocence and pretended innocence lies all of this evil, yet while the good does not triumph exactly, it makes itself felt.
Gregory Peck's indelible performance in the film as Atticus Finch portrays the great moral courage needed to stand up against an unjust majority view. Atticus fails to secure the acquittal of Tom Robinson, and he is shaken by Bob Ewell's attempted murder of Atticus's children, yet he still stands fast as a symbol of what we would like to be and know we should be. His children learn to understand that, and so do we. The story would be far less effective if it were not a children's story.
However, the would-be lynchers and the jurors who disregard the impeccable logic of Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson, although not evil like Bob Ewell, are good people doing bad things, and they are part of the reason that evil can prevail as a norm of a society. Ordinary people become complicit in extreme societal evil when they forsake their moral obligation for the safety of not being different, of not challenging monstrous actions. Disturbed by the realization of the suffering inflicted by evil, we deceive ourselves by denying what we realize. We are capable of better, but we often do not do better.
Many decades ago, W.E.B. DuBois depicted the moral struggle of a good man choosing not to remain complicit in a great evil: "The world is full of people born hating and despising their fellows. To these I love to say: See this man. He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln .… personally I revere him the more because up out of his contradictions and inconsistencies he fought his way to the pinnacles of earth and his fight was within as well as without …. I glory in that crucified humanity that can push itself up out of the mud of a miserable, dirty ancestry; who despite the clinging smirch of low tastes and shifty political methods, rose to be a great and good man and the noblest friend of the slave."
first published in The Woodstock Independent
first published in The Woodstock Independent