Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Magnificent Seven

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see The Magnificent Seven. IMDB summarized the entire movie quite succinctly in one simple sentence: "Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves." I had not seen the original, so for better or worse I had no basis for comparison. I generally like westerns; I was impressed by the all-star lineup; I was intrigued by the previews. I went to see it without reading any reviews so I could experience it unfiltered.

The spectacular cast, the beautiful cinematography, and a story line featuring a small town of peaceful, church-going citizens who are badly in need of rescuing from a profoundly evil robber baron all work together quite effectively. In some ways Magnificent Seven is a classic good vs. evil scenario.  There is some sense of satisfaction as justice rolls down and wash away the violent men who have ravaged the land. The victims are truly victims who deserve our sympathy; the villains have committed genuinely deplorable acts that cry out for our anger. That's important to me in a movie: I want my emotions to match the reality of the situation. A good movie will get us to weep with those who rightly weep and celebrate with those who justly celebrate.

And yet...

Magnificent Seven is more complicated than that. In the middle of this timeless battle for good many smaller skirmishes take place, particularly among the Seven who ride into town as heroes. They are certainly fighting heroically, but... heroes? Maybe not so much.

  • Chisholm (Denzel Washington) is a lawman of sorts, but his deepest motivation is revenge.  
  • Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) is a gun for hire who never strays too far from his whiskey and is quick to settle any dispute with his gun. 
  • Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) is a Civil War hero haunted by the ghosts of his past.
  • Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) is a killing machine with a dark history.
  • Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), a mountain of a man, has 300 scalps to his name when we meet him. 
  • Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) is an outlaw recruited by Chisolm instead of arrested (his payment for helping: "I won't come after you any more," says Chisolm).
  • Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) is an outcast,  a man without a tribe. The reasons are murky. 

When we first meet the Seven, at least five of them are far from magnificent. With the exception of Chisholm and Robicheaux, they are racists, alcoholics, criminals, thieves, and who know what else. There are a lot of bullet-ridden skeletons in those closets. They all seem very comfortable with killing. We know the evil that has descended on the town must be stopped; this movie forces us to wrestle with how much evil we are willing to justify in the service of a greater good. The body count is high. Really high. There were times I got the impression the moral compass inside these men had lost track of due north a long time ago. I think the director, Antoine Fuqua, may have wanted his audience to feel uncomfortable with a group of men who have become very proficient at devaluing life.

And yet...

We see something good slowly begin to happen in the ten days they have to prepare the town for war. Maybe it's Chisolm's leadership; maybe it's meeting the good people of the town. Maybe it's the slowly dawning realization that they might actually be putting their lives on the line for a cause that finally matters. Whatever the reasons, they begin to change. Anger turns to laughter, hostility to camaraderie. Disdain of the helpless, naive townsfolk turns to something akin to compassion. We find out that the Seven are more  deeply haunted by their violent pasts than we realized. Eventually, men who only lived for themselves decide to die for others. I got the impression they had forgotten what goodness and nobility looked like; in the time they spend with the village, they seem remember what goodness looks like.

There's a great scene toward the end that strikes me as the heart of this movie. One of the Seven tells Chisholm he's leaving. He is simply too haunted by the ghosts of his past murders to kill again. As he rides out of the town the night before the battle, he says, "Remember me as I was, not as I am." In his case, the plea makes sense: "Remember that I was strong once, and noble, and brave. Remember that I was once a good man."

Yet the rest of the Seven desire the opposite. They have found their souls in this dusty town, and they see a chance at redemption. They don't want to be remembered for who they were; they want to be remembered for who they have become. Perhaps, in this magnificent end, they can reclaim a birthright of honor they sold for whatever momentary pleasure they deemed more worthy than their integrity.

There's no such clean break between past and present, of course. Our history is not our destiny, but it is our legacy. We can write new and better chapters that give a magnificent end to a life story that is full of corruption and ruin, but our lives are not episodic. There is a unity to our identity as well as our history.

And yet...

The Magnificent Seven reminds us that there is always hope. Even men who are known for doing bad can turn and do good. Even those who are afraid can regain courage. Even those who think they are destined to be trampled upon and used can find champions who will rise up. Even those who desire revenge can channel a moral failure into a righteous cause - and maybe, in the end, they will be saved from from the evil that lurks with them by those who will in turn fight for them in ways far more profound than a mere gunfight.

That's a good story. Maybe even a magnificent one.

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