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Spring 2008 | Volume 31, Number 1 | Features

Hope in the Movies

Slippery Devils

Other films presented us with this question: When evil seems unstoppable, where do we find hope?

In David Fincher’s Zodiac, journalists and cops refuse to make moral compromises as they pursue a serial killer. The San Francisco Chronicle's crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and homicide inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) make meticulous notes, set elaborate traps, and interrogate suspects.

But no matter how closely they study the killer’s cryptic messages, no matter how carefully they stake him out, he slips away like Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Zodiac has the added sting of being a true story: This murder mystery unfolded in 1969 and continues today.

With features such as Se7en, Fight Club, and Panic Room behind him, Fincher has examined the capacity for rational, healthy human beings to become compromisers and killers. In Zodiac, the question is urgent: How do we wrestle with the devil without losing our souls?

As the cops and reporters apply all tools of reason and detection available to them, they learn more about their own limitations than they do about their enemy. And they find that a life lived in fear and obsessive pursuit of the devil can hollow out the heart. In the end, the Zodiac killer continues to claim casualties, including the relationships, the hearts, and the minds of his trackers … and perhaps even the moviegoers left haunted by his elusive nature.


Films about elusive villains may be resonating more powerfully with viewers because of September 11th’s unsolved mysteries. Where is Osama Bin Ladin? Why hasn’t our military response in the Middle East taken care of threats to our nation? We’ve learned that the U.S. government and law enforcement agencies are not enough to solve our problems and fulfill our hopes.

Perhaps this has something to do with why the Coen brothers No Country for Old Men won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of 2007.

In the Coen brothers’ celebrated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a slippery devil, eluding the lawmen who chase him through Texas. This frustrates Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who longs for the days when good guys could chase down the bad guys and settle scores with Lone-Ranger savvy.

As Bell watches bodies pile up, and realizes that he’s outmatched, he begins to despair. “The crime you see now, it's hard to even take its measure,” he says. “It's not that I'm afraid of it. I always knew you had to be willing to die to even do this job. But I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. A man would have to put his soul at hazard. He'd have to say, ‘O.K., I'll be part of this world.’”

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) does just that. He gets his hands dirty. He plays games the world’s way. Finding a suitcase of money, he goes on the run, putting himself and his conscience-driven wife at risk. When his own conscience does flicker, it’s too late; the devil’s coming for him. And by the end of the film, the guilty and the innocent, the well-intentioned and the worst, lie in the murderer’s wake.

And yet, despite all of the reviews calling the film “fatalistic” and “nihilistic,” one key scene in the middle of No Country for Old Men sets it apart. As Bell laments his insufficiency, his uncle, a wise veteran, reminds him, “Whatcha got ain't nothin’ new. ... You can't stop what's coming. It ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity.”

Bellconfesses that he’s always looked for God to step in and make a difference. But he’s concluded that God is right to ignore him, that there’s nothing about him worth saving. But his uncle snorts, “You don’t know what God thinks.”

It’s not much, but it’s a glimmer of hope. In a world spiraling out of control, we may have to accept that evil will not be defeated in our lifetimes. But if we remember that we are not the authors of the full story, we might set our sights on the day when Christ’s victory is complete, and when God’s grace overcomes.

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Department Highlights

from the president
President Philip Eaton reminds us that God's promise to “do something new” creates and sustains our hope.

New Leadership
The School of Theology welcomes Doug Strong, Ph.D., as its new dean.

Detours and Unexpected Destinations
Samuel Lin ’65 was named SPU Alumnus of the Year for a lifetime of service.

Oh, So Close
Falcon women’s soccer had 23 straight wins in 2007–08 season; was in Final Four.

my response
Poetry by Emily Dickinson
SPU Professor Susan VanZanten Gallagher on Emily Dickinson’s Poem #314 and “Hope.”

Response art
The Advent of Breathing
SPU Professor Christen Mattix on “The Advent of Breathing.”