One of my greatest pleasures during the last seven decades has been movie-going. Since I first joined the other rapt boys and girls at the local Paramount's Saturday morning specials in the 1940s, I've loved the cool darkness of big movie theaters and their screens flashing with adventure. Long before I knew what an atheist was, I knew what Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Superman, Batman, Laurel and Hardy, and the Three Stooges were: -- more fun and excitement than just about anything in my Vermont boyhood.
Now that I not only know what an atheist is but am one, my pleasure in movie-going continues. Though choosier now than I was then, I still like watching good movies, especially if they have atheistic undertones undetected by most viewers. I found three recent, widely-known films especially enjoyable in this respect. Unforgiven starred and was directed by Clint Eastwood. No Country for Old Men was made by the Coen brothers. Terrence Malik's The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain, is currently showing nationwide. While hardly atheist manifestos, all three films are certainly atheist-friendly.
The title of Eastwood's Unforgiven announces the film's central, non-Christian theme. Nobody in it forgives or turns the cheek to anyone. The lead character, played by Eastwood, wants to fulfill a pledge he's made to his dead wife to renounce his earlier career of drunken mayhem and raise their children respectably. He does this, amorally enough, by killing two cowboys for a revenge bounty raised by a brothel of whores. When his former outlaw friend, played by Morgan Freeman, whom he's recruited to help kill the two cowboys, is caught, tortured, and killed by the local sheriff, himself a former outlaw played by Gene Hackman, the Eastwood character avenges his murdered friend by getting drunk enough to kill the sheriff, all the sheriff's deputies, and the brothel owner in a spectacularly bloody shootout.
Although Unforgiven treats the Eastwood and Freeman characters and a mutilated whore somewhat sympathetically, it portrays them and everyone else as amoralists in a bleak, merciless world. The Christian rhetoric like hell or angel they sometimes use counts for nothing. The film's key lines, spoken by Eastwood, deny personal immortality. "It's a hell of a thing killing a man," he says. "You're taking from him all he has and all he's ever going to have."
Everyone's moral decisions are random, expedient, brutal. A cowboy slashes a whore's face because she laughs. The other whores punish him with a draconian bounty. The sheriff counters by sadistically beating a bounty hunter named English Bob (Richard Harris) and Eastwood and then by torturing the Freeman character to death, all because of his own careless judgment in the slashing case. Eastwood kills eight men and threatens many more because his friend gets killed for helping him kill for bounty money.
The Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men transfers Unforgiven's grim, 19th century western frontier to an even grimmer 21st century drug war on the Texas-Mexican border. No Country is bleaker and more ironic than Unforgiven. None of its criminals evokes even the muted sympathy we feel for the Eastwood and Freeman characters. Although an aging sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones and a retired sheriff he visits are hints of decency in the moral chaos of the drug wars, they see the wars as inhuman and opt out of them.
Borrowed from the first line of the Yeats sonnet "Sailing to Byzantium," ("That is no country for old men"), the title ironically underscores the fact that few of the film's male characters survive the action. A further irony is that the Yeats poem identifies "that country" as the natural order, in contrast to a heaven of immutable beauty that awaits the poem's old men. No such heaven ever existed or will exist in the godless, inhuman universe of No Country.
What does exist is one of the most sinister characters in cinematic history, played by Javier Bardem. He's introduced strangling a jail guard and escaping with a pneumatic hammer for slaughtering cattle, which he then uses to slaughter human beings. Ironically, he precipitates the movie's main action in reaction to its only compassionate gesture. A trailer-park cowboy hunting in the west Texas desert discovers a drug deal gone bad. Bullet-riddled bodies of men and dogs are strewn among several trucks, one of which contains a mortally wounded Latino who begs the cowboy for water, which he refuses. The cowboy then discovers a dead Latino a mile away under a tree with a satchel of hundred-dollar bills at his feet.
After stealing the money and hiding it that night under his house-trailer without telling his wife, on an idiotic whim he brings water back to the dying Latino but finds him dead. Suddenly the Bardem character, originator-enforcer of the blown drug deal, arrives to investigate and discovers the cowboy's truck. The rest of the movie narrates his implacable hunt for the money and the cowboy.
So murderous is this hunt that Bardem emerges as the embodiment of death itself. He kills everyone involved without seeming to himself be killable or even findable. He badgers a bewildered gas station owner into calling a coin toss for unexplained stakes that are obviously life or death. This traditional image of Death the Gambler deepens the film's atheistic gloom. Bardem explains that he kills as "a matter of principle," like the Grim Reaper himself tirelessly harvesting his crop. Atheists can also appreciate the dark humor of the Coens' suggestion that death ends life with the finality and randomness of a coin toss.
Unforgiven and No Country utilize some of the harsher aspects of atheism primarily for dramatic effect, which I found interesting and entertaining. But Terrence Malik's The Tree of Life evokes atheism's softer and gentler side and makes it central to the story. While Eastwood and the Coen brothers portray a world void of love and ruled by greed, vengeance, and inhumanity, Malik portrays a suburban family in mid-twentieth-century Texas that for most of the movie suffers nothing worse than a modest income, having to move because the father loses his job, and normal family problems. The house move in fact turns out well for them. Ten years later, when catastrophe does strike, the mother and father own a much more lavish home.
The catastrophe is the accidental death, apparently from a hiking or climbing fall somewhere in the red sandstone of the Colorado basin, of the family's nineteen-year-old second son. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is shown wandering bereft through the new house and nearby woods after hearing the news, while the father, Brad Pitt, follows speechlessly. The entire film consists of the thoughts, memories, and imaginings of the now middle-aged eldest son, played by Sean Penn, who's looking back on his drab boyhood from colossal modern buildings he now designs. He too has grown far from his Texas roots.
Yet his feelings about those roots are still so intense that he often sits or walks by himself pondering them inside his gleaming buildings. The movie's mysterious images of primal light, the voiceovers, the cosmic panoramas, the tremendous floods of fire on the sun and of falling or curling water, the fantasies of prehistoric reptiles and of him rejoining his still-young brothers and parents, and other people, next to symbolic deserts or oceans, his mother impossibly floating upwards or being caressed by young women -- all these and everything else in the film are his own middle-aged daydreams and meditations on the meaning of his life.
I think the key to what Malik is saying is revealed in an early voiceover by the mother. In it, she recommends "the way of grace" over "the way of nature" as the dutiful catholic mother Malik portrays her as being would. This is the only thing she says or does in the movie that her adoring firstborn has come in middle age to see as wrong. He -- and Malik -- have concluded that "the way of nature," contrary to Chruch teaching, is in fact "the way of grace." That is, the titular Tree of Life is Malik's metaphor for the natural evolution of inorganic matter into organisms capable of this family's love, a love affirmed in Sean Penn's moving voiceover as the family reunites, he in middle age and they still young, and in his vision of their and all humanity's return through death to calm and beautiful oceans and deserts of insentient nature. I found this affirmative atheism convincing and consoling.
The Tree of Life depicts love as entirely human, natural, and evanescent, showing the boys' gradual awakening to the reality of existential loss and disappointment. After they see another boy drown, one of them blames God in stunned voiceover. All three stare speechlessly at a deformed man and at a struggling convict being hauled off to jail. The oldest brother intentionally shoots his trusting, soon-to-die brother with a BB gun, steals, vandalizes, and opposes his unpredticable father who, disappointed by not being the musician he wanted to be, by not getting patents for twenty-seven inventions, and by lack of wealth, often tyrannizes his sons and at one point his wife.
Malik constantly links the family's interactions to primordial scenes of nature recalled or imagined by Sean Penn. Some of these scenes are violent -- volcanoes, floods of water, solar conflagration --, while others are merely threatening -- swarms of sharks, giant jellyfish, and sting rays. Though beautiful, all suggest the vulnerability and impermanence of sentient life, as do two striking vignettes of prehistoric reptiles. In one, a wounded, dinosaur-like creature groans in pain on a seashore; in the other, a large reptile on hind feet spots a smaller, wounded reptile lying in shallow water, walks over, and pins its head as though to kill it. As the terrified animal writhes, the other releases it, pins it again, then walks off indifferently. It isn't hungry.
In other words, Sean Penn has come to understand that "the way of nature" is the only "way" there is and that the Tree of Life and its human fruit is solely the product of unplanned natural processes. His Catholic indoctrination in "the way of grace" falsely taught him that his love for his family, for the bride-like girl he follows through the sandstone desert doorframe (a compensatory love replacing his dead brother?), for humanity dying back into the ocean of nature, and above all, for nature itself, comes from a supernatural being called God. Now he knows better. He knows he can love everyone in his family for what they truly are and despite their transience -- even his father and especially his mother.
The Tree of Life is more systematically atheistic than Unforgiven and No Country for Old Men. It might be called atheist-centered, while they seem merely atheist-influenced. But all three are unquestionably atheist-friendly, to me an encouraging -- and comforting -- sign of intellectual growth in the still overwhelmingly atheist-unfriendly mass culture of America.