Last week I watched Silverado with my son, Fionn. It’s one of the greatest westerns ever made. But something bothers me about the flick, something that recurs in many movies. In short, revenge as a moral good.
Movies tend to turn on rather simplistic morality, which is understandable since the whole drama must be condensed to roughly the same amount of time we spend in the bathroom each week.
As a result, we tend to get whatever morality is quickest to explain. That means when it comes to the general topic of justice and righting wrongs, we’re usually left with revenge — at best a passable stunt double for justice, at worse a validation of anger, bitterness, and mindless retribution. Try that in real life, and things get ugly fast.
One story that transcends revenge is a movie that seems at first almost consumed with it, True Grit. While trying to apprehend the killer of her father, Mattie Ross shoots him. The recoil of the gun knocks her down and she falls into an old mineshaft. Then, surrounded by the skeletal remains of other unfortunates, she’s bitten by a rattlesnake.
Revenge, it turns out, is an empty reward. Its effect overpowers her. And the only payback is more death — or nearly so. Her friend, Marshal Rooster Cogburn, descends Christlike into the pit to retrieve her from the viper and carry her to safety.
Evil, Paul reminds us, is not overcome by evil but by good (Rom 12.21), and to endure wrongs and repay good for evil is, said Theodoret of Cyrus, the stuff of crowns. It’s harder to show in a movie, but it’s better for when you leave the theater.