Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Dialectical Film Perspective: In God We Kill

Menreet Kaur

Photo credits: and

Insanity or saintly? This is the question that was begging to be answered when watching Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints (1999) and David Fincher’s Se7en (1995).

In The Boondock Saints, the McManus brothers, played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedusy, are two devout Catholics who are keeping the streets of Boston safe by killing off the Mafia after a preceding scene where God commissioned them on a mission to “destroy all that is evil so good may flourish”. With the police department failing to stamp down crime, this kind of justification for violence allows the duo to take the law into their own hands and remain unstoppable.

Before every death, the victim is brought to their knees to seek salvation before they are shot dead and a prayer from the bible is recited:

“And shepherds we shall be, for Thee, my Lord, for Thee. Power hath descended forth from Thy hand, that our feet may swiftly carry out Thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to Thee, and teeming with souls shall it ever be. In nomine Patri. Et Fili. Spiritus Sancti.”

Along the same thread, in Se7en, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is another staunch Catholic, who is trying to highlight the moral depreciation in modern day society by purging those that are guilty of the seven deadly sins: “Gluttony”, “Greed”, “Sloth”, “Pride”, “Lust”, “Envy” and “Wrath” through grotesquely creative means.

The common theme running through these films is obvious. The perpetrators of violence do so in the name of God and in effect, religion has been used as a legitimization for violence. The frightening difference is that in The Boondock Saints, the direction of the film leaves audiences considering the brothers as angels while in Se7en, John Doe is unquestionably labelled as a serial killer who suffers from psychosis. This difference in reception is very disturbing as fundamentally, they are both killing human beings using God’s name as their safety net.

Contextualizing Stone’s (1999) article, religion has been used as “supportive of righteous or redemptive violence” with the McManus brothers being portrayed as “crusaders” in The Boondock Saints whereas in Se7en religion has been used to support “immoral and corrupt violence” with John Doe being portrayed as a “fanatic”. (para. 16, 22) However, Stone emphasizes that such use of violence in either case is “left to the subjectivity of the viewer” to decide if it is a grant or abuse of religion. (para. 23)

Johnston (2000) argues that in understanding a film, we must take into consideration the worldview that it offers. He states that there is a “frame of reference embedded in the film” that “invites our interpretation” and sometimes moviemakers purposely blur the lines of reality for the viewer to struggle to define it for themselves. (p.119)

Therefore, one of the reasons why viewers are more likely to celebrate the acts of the McManus brothers as compared to John Doe, would be to understand the plot of both stories in accordance to today’s worldview. The seven deadly sins are likely to be considered as an irrelevant worldview because of its rootedness with ancient biblical times and therefore, killings in sight of this would be considered as literalistic and unacceptable. The audience also will probably find the graphic and extreme nature of John Doe's murders too harsh a punishment for the innocent victims. The McManus brothers, however, provide a more current worldview by getting rid of what is considered as today’s ‘filth of society’ such as the killers, rapists and thieves.

A true contradiction to The Boondock Saints and their commitment to getting rid of all evil in society is their blatant double standards when it comes to sparing their good friend, Rocco, who was also in the mafia and using him as a source of information. I question the depth of their commitment here as there should have been concrete boundaries and limitations set for those whom they chose to kill and those that were spared.

Grace (2009) defines this genre of film as the “hagiopic” where it illustrates its hero’s relationship to the divine. (p.1) One typical narrative element to this genre of film is the presence of cynical characters that act as a stand-in for the modern viewer making it easier to accept ideas such as one’s conversation with God or miracles. (p.13)

The sceptics and non-believers employed in Se7en and The Boondock Saints were the detectives and Rocco respectively. Both questioned the killers about their faith allowing them to justify and manipulate the audiences into accepting that they were on God's mission.

Stone (1999) proposes that the linkage of religious faith and violence in popular film habituates us to view it as both “natural” and “right”. The recurring images and popular film conventions employed by the industry produces a cumulative effect to portray that relationship. (para. 4)

It is with much difficulty that I attempt to remove myself from Stone’s habituation theory as even after going through the literature and critiquing these two films, I still find myself inclined to believe, even as a non-Christian, that the McManus brothers did in fact do the saintly thing through their killings.

In the words of the brothers, “Do not kill, do not rape, do not steal, these are principles which every man of every faith can embrace.”

Grace, P. (2009) The Religious Film. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing
Johnston, R. (2000) Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue. Michigan: Baker Publishing
Stone, B. (1999) Religion and Violence in Popular Film. Journal of Religion and Film. 3.1, retrieved on August 21, 2009 from

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