Timmy: Well, like for example, say I punched you in the face? If I said I was sorry, would you forgive me?
Trish: Well, of course he would, but why would you do such a thing?
Timmy: It’s not the point, Mom.
Harvey: No, I understand. Yes. I would forgive you. Well, uh, I think I would ask for an explanation.
Timmy: So that you’d believe I was really sorry?
Harvey: Well, uh, look, like I told you, I’m sure I would forgive you, but, well, I’m not sure I would forget.
Timmy: But let’s say for example, a terrorist blows up your office building? Do you still forgive?
Trish: God forbid…
Timmy: What if that terrorist had a good reason?
Trish: Terrorists, by definition, do not have good reasons.
Timmy: But what if your family were killed and tortured? Wouldn’t you wanna do something about it, to protect others?
Harvey: Timmy, these terrorists are evil.
Trish: And cowards.
Harvey: They’re not like you and me.
Trish: They don’t believe in freedom and democracy.
Harvey: Yeah, your mother’s right.
Trish: Timmy… Are you saying you would forgive the 9/11 terrorists?
Timmy: Well of course you can’t forgive those terrorists, they’re dead.
Mark: It’s possible to forgive and forget, or to forgive and not forget… When would you forget, and not forgive?
Timmy: I think it’s possible when someone does something really terrible to you. Like really horrible. Something that was so bad, so painful. Maybe then, it’s better to forget, and live without all that pain, instead of forgiving, and remembering?

Life During Wartime

At the script stage, Todd Solondz’s sequel to Happiness was called Forgiveness, and for the most part, that’s what it’s about – whether redemption is ever possible when someone has done something unforgiveable, and what that word means. Solondz loves to explore themes in his movies: Storytelling was an essay film about truth vs fiction and the responsibilities of storytellers, ideas which are even explicitly spelled out in the movie’s theme song by Belle & Sebastian. The theme of Life During Wartime is particularly interesting to me, because movies & TV shows usually deal with unforgivable acts by advocating gruesome vengeance within a specific moral framework (think I Spit on Your Grave, Kill Bill, Ms .45, Hard Candy, Julia Stiles’ arc on on Dexter, etc) whereas in the real world, the influences of religion and secular psychology mean there’s a huge emphasis on forgiveness of any and all transgressions for the sake of the victim’s peace of mind or immortal soul. Capital punishment is an interesting real-world exception, in which retribution is administered by the state on behalf of society (including the victim), and even among those who don’t condone the death penalty, very few people seemed upset by America’s killing of Osama bin Laden. But for the most part, revenge in practice is frowned upon.

A fantastic film that explores grey areas of forgiveness is Secret Sunshine, Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 melodrama which won prestigious awards but wasn’t widely seen. The film tells the story of Shin-ae, a widow drawn into a small-town Christian community by desperate grief after her son is kidnapped and murdered. When she becomes active in the church, her wellbeing improves so dramatically that the movie feels like a creepy Jesus propaganda film, until, after a lot of soul-searching, she visits her son’s killer in prison to offer her forgiveness. He smiles and tells her he too has found God and been granted divine forgiveness already – rendering her heartfelt gesture meaningless. It’s at this point she finally has her meltdown, confronting her real devastation and torment in a much more authentic way than through prayer and song (hint: sabotage & promiscuity!). The takeaway is that repressing hatred and forgiving others sometimes doesn’t help anyone.

There’s a great speech on Breaking Bad where Jesse rails against the notion put forward by his therapy group that people should always accept and forgive themselves, telling a story of killing a “dog” (actually a veiled retelling of a murder he committed and is struggling with): “So I should stop judging and accept? So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill I just – what – do an inventory and accept? I mean you backed your truck over your own kid and you, like, accept? What a load of crap.” In his mind there are things you can never be redeemed for having done. The chilling conclusion to Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours also comes to mind – after hiring someone to kill his mistress and feeling terrible guilt, the protagonist wakes up one morning, suddenly completely remorseless and happy. It’s a deeply unsettling idea that perpetrators of violence and betrayal might get away with it and be doing great, but in these stories redemption is a contradiction – both impossible and inevitable.

There are two incredible documentaries that illustrate the profound injustice of evil-doers who go unpunished – The Redemption of General Butt Naked and Deliver Us From Evil. General Butt Naked is a former Liberian warlord who led a bloodthirsty army of child soldiers in the 1990s and is thought to be responsible for the deaths of 20,000 people. He converted to Christianity after the civil war and now preaches to a congregation who seem to believe he is a changed man. But in the film he claims responsibility for a vast number of deaths (whilst blaming his behaviour on Satanic forces) with such bravado that it feels like an inflated brag, and seeing him meet with and apologise to the families of his victims, it becomes clear he still wields much of his former power, and the forgiveness they seem to easily grant him may be motivated by fear. Throughout the film the General is constantly upbeat and smiling, never appearing troubled by his past, so complete is his absolution – or (more likely) his dishonesty. Even worse is Deliver Us From Evil‘s subject, Catholic priest Oliver O’Grady, who molested and raped 25 children in California in the 70s, 80s and 90s. He treats the camera as a confessional, describing his crimes (which include the rape of a baby girl) in nauseating detail. At the conclusion of the film O’Grady sends letters to all his victims from his home in Ireland (where he lived at the time of filming, free to interact with children) suggesting that all they get together and talk about what happened. His cheery and infuriating assertion that he would like to undo the damage with a picnic reunion reveals the shallowness of his supposed remorse.

All these films talk about instances where killers and rapists enjoy the joy and freedom their victims can’t. Even in revenge-horror movies where violent retribution is an acceptable conclusion, the avenging characters usually sacrifice their future happiness for vigilante justice. But when we are confronted by thriving, successful perpetrators, it’s far more horrifying. Life During Wartime‘s characters obsess over how Dr Mapplewood, having served time for his crimes in Happiness, should get to live out the rest of his life, and it’s brave for Solondz to revisit the shocking characters from his comedies and look at the aftermath of their actions. We live in a world where half the entertainment industry will publicly support a child rapist’s flee from justice just because he’s talented, so I love movies like these for exploring the more complicated idea that some things are unforgivable and no punishment is severe enough.

Life During Wartime

Secret Sunshine (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Redemption of General Butt Naked

Deliver Us from Evil

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