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                                    The Harrowing Effect Of Violence
            In "Death Sentence," a happy, benign family man (Kevin Bacon) watches his teenage son cruelly executed during an armed robbery at a gas station, which turned out to be some kind of reprehensible gang initiation.  This harrowing experience completely changes him.  He's now bent on revenge, and it doesn't matter what mollifying words that his loving wife (Kelly Preston), or the conscientious detective (Aisha Tyler), or his distraught other son (suffering from both grief and survivor guilt) use to try to dissuade him.  And in the end, if it wasn't obvious already, he becomes so like the violent, lawless, predatory killers that even they mention it to him.  (Just before he summarily disposes of them.)  Personal violence is pushed to the extreme in this urban tale of atavism, about what happens to decent, ordinary people when they are pushed to the extreme.
            The themes are similar in "In The Valley Of Elah," except that the young men involved are soldiers returning from Iraq.  They've seen so much senseless violence, participated in so much random chaos, and witnessed so much death, that they've developed a kind of machismo indifference to being civilized; a dangerously dissembling attitude which they carry home with them when their tour of duty is over.  And so, even when a fight breaks out among themselves, because of the tremendous rage residing in them all, sudden violence can happen as quickly as, well, an itching finger pulling a trigger.
            Tommy Lee Jones plays the grieving father whose son apparently made it back from Iraq, only to have been brutally murdered the first weekend he returned.  As a former Army man himself, he feels he must go visit the base to see where it happened, and of course he is stonewalled by both the military and the local authorities.  But he persists because he wants to know what, exactly, happened to his son, even if the full knowledge about his son's activities is not pleasant.  (Thus several scenes shot in strip clubs.  Intimations of drug use.  Drinking whisky from a bottle during the day.  Other signs of depression, dissolution, and even self-destruction.)  Susan Sarandon's role as the bereft Mom is high-impact, even with little screen time (Matthew 2:18).  The relationship between husband and wife is obviously long-standing, but there doesn't seem to be much affection left.  Certainly no one is very happy in this film.  But the emotional impact is very high, not just because of dealing with a parent's ultimate nightmare, the death of a child, but also the dynamic of realizing, with horror, that the circumstances were something less than noble, but you've just gotta find out the truth.  Oh, and not coincidentally, it's an indictment of a messy, confusing war that will convert fresh-faced, wet-behind-the-ears young men and women into ruthless killing machines, somehow blindly believing that this experience will have no emotional effect on them?
            Jesus said, in the Garden of Gethsemane, The one who lives by the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52).  Surely that is literally true in the sense that a person of violence is likely to meet a violent end.  But perhaps there is another kind of truth here, that those who engage in violence against others, no matter what the cause or circumstances, are never the same themselves after that.  And, not recognizing themselves any longer, they are quickly susceptible to losing their way.
            Neither of these movies is any "fun" to watch.  But both leave strong and lasting impressions.
Questions For Discussion:
1) In "The Valley Of Elah," the Goliath story (which took place in "The Valley of Elah") is told to a child at bedtime, seriously, adroitly, and with great conviction, and then the discussion ensues between adults about the historical veracity of the biblical narrative (I Samuel 17).  What is your point of view?
2)  How have you seen how the experience of violence changes people?
3)  Have you lost a friend or a loved one to personal violence?  How has that changed your perspective?
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas  

     This re-make of the 1957 black-and-white Western is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's story that is anything but black and white.  Usually, in Westerns, it's easy to tell the good guys (white hats) from the bad guys (black hats), but here the lines get a little blurred.
     Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a small-time rancher with a beautiful family and a shallow bank account.  His villainous landlord sets fire to his barn to induce a late payment on the mortgaged land suffering from an extended drought.  While trying to round up his scattered livestock, Evans happens upon a stagecoach robbery, masterfully conducted by the notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe).  But Wade is later captured because he tarries too long in his delightful dalliance with the barmaid at the local saloon.  Evans, strapped for cash, volunteers to be part of Pinkerton's posse to deliver Wade to a town several days' ride away, and put him on the prisoners' train, the "3:10 To Yuma."  Evan's 14-year-old son, forbidden by his father to "tag along," decides to follow the desultory procession, anyway, and predictably, gets caught up in the extended contest of will and wit.
     Along the way, they are attacked by renegade Apaches, ambushed by a rival sheriff (who wants Wade because of a personal vendetta), and relentlessly chased by the rest of Wade's outlaw band.  Evans and Wade develop a grudging respect for each other, which they're going to need if they're going to have any chance of surviving the journey together.
     Crowe plays a deliciously malevolent, smooth-talking, scripture-quoting, cold-blooded bandit, while exuding good-ol'-boy charm.  Bale is more the grim-faced, tight-lipped, Puritan on a righteous mission, but we are drawn to him because he is willing to stand up for his principles, he is perilously unafraid, and he seeks to not only provide for his family, but to be for his sons the kind of father they could look up to.  Even if it kills him.
     In this story, as in all of Elmore Leonard's westerns (and most of his tales of more modern desperados, as well), life is cheap, violence is abrupt, and any romance is fleeting and dangerous.  Children have to grow up fast, and intelligent adults have to really work at overcoming their inherent cynicism if they're going to have any joy or satisfaction at all.  But, great storyteller that he is, you never quite know when an unexpected twist of character development is going to cause the plot line to exhibit a quick reversal of fortune.
     Crowe brings his considerable screen power to a role hardly sympathetic or heroic, but we can't keep our eyes off him, anyway.  Bale is the straight man, the petulant foil to Crowe's rascally charm, but he can handle plenty of camera time, as well.  Together, they create a kind of dynamic tension that carries the viewer through the entire film.
     "3:10 to Yuma" is in the old-fashioned tradition of shoot-'em-up Westerns, and it's not for the squeamish, but it is an outstanding remaking of an old Hollywood genre.

Questions For Discussion:
1) The villain quotes from Proverbs: "All deeds are right in the sight of the doer, but the Lord weighs the heart" (Proverbs 21:2). On what occasion would you quote this verse?
2) The villain says that his mother told him to read the Bible from cover to cover when he was 8 (right before she abandoned him), and that's where he learned so much scripture.  What would be the ideal age for a child to read the Bible in its entirety?
3) Do you think that it is possible for career criminals to repent, convert, and transform?  Do you think that it's possible for that transformation to be permanent?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas