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Two Views of Evil: Collateral and Mystic River

Not feeling well last night (two reasons: exhausting first week of class and my air conditioning was out, making for a very hot house in Northwest Georgia in mid-August, and hopefully not a third reason, an infection), I opted to watch some movies. My son has a collection on Google play, and then I have access to his HBO and Disney streaming services (I hope I don’t get in trouble here). Having read Sid Field’s book on screenwriting this summer, I had learned what a model screenplay Collateral was, and Mystic River sounded interesting.

In general, I liked Mystic River more, but Collateral is technically superior. However, that is not my point here. Both are about evil and men, but are very different in how they portray the origins of evil, the practice of it, and the outcomes of it.

I told my son Collateral is like The Terminator. It’s not of course, but what I meant was that Vincent is a killing machine who even after a car crash where the car rolls several times and being shot in the face and stomach, he keeps trying to kill the last person on his “assignment list” and the person trying to protect her, the dogged Max the cab driver. It goes from a thriller to almost a parody. We can’t kill this guy! And he kills so many people in the night club that it’s like a first person shooter video game. Who are these people he’s killing? Well, they are Chinese; I guess he doesn’t like Chinese, but there weren’t any Chinese people on his “assassination checklist.” There’s a wonderful post on IMDB about “what we learn” from the movie that points out all the logical flaws in the film, like why does a professional assassin need a computer to know which five people to kill?

In short, I liked the first ¾of it. Then it gets ridiculous. But what about evil? Why is Vincent evil? Because his father was hateful and abusive? Why would we even believe him when he tells Max about his childhood? Why does he kill for a living? I guess it’s good money and gives him a sense of power, and he does have a nihilistic world view. What came first, the killing or the world view? This character is much like Tom Cruise’s character in Magnolia, a film I just couldn’t watch because that character’s speeches about and treatment of women so disturbed me. (I don’t like frogs either.) No comment on the connection between playing disturbed individuals for a living and belonging to a cult….

Evil just is. Vincent has it; Max doesn’t. Vincent tries to show Max the way to be evil or at least nihilistic as if he were a motivational speaker in the back seat between kills.

Mystic River is the story of three eleven-year-old boys who face evil and it changes them forever, but each responds differently. One becomes a criminal; he pretends not to be for years, but he is a killer who justifies his crimes. One, the most victimized, grows into a shell of a human, a man trying to live normally but unable to emerge from the person the evil-doers made him into. The third becomes a fighter of evil, in a sense, a police detective who has to confront the other two over a tragic but actually pointless crime and death.

I see the story more of a coming of age that is delayed: the experience at eleven reaches its full fruit 25 years later. “When was the last time you saw David Boyle?” the detective asks the criminal who has, in mistaken revenge, killed David, the victimized boy. “Twenty-five years ago,” is the answer, when the criminal actually saw him the night before and murdered him. But that is one of the themes: the child molesters who imprisoned David Boyle took away his identity, something David is very aware of.

There are some flaws here. It’s open-ended. The killer isn’t arrested, even though the detective knows what he has done. The women are kind of dumb; David’s wife tells the criminal (Jimmy Markum, by the way) that David killed Jimmy’s daughter, which leads to the revenge killing. Jimmy’s wife goes full Lady MacBeth at the end, out of absolutely nowhere. (They could have made it more believable; she did marry a known criminal and had no trouble with it, but she’s a background character in most of the movie, which is too bad because Laura Linney is a great actress.) And I didn’t quite understand the way the daughter is killed, or why.

All that said, I was engrossed by Mystic River; it’s very human and real, and yet Shakespearean in the themes. Evil happens to us, and we respond differently. Evil is not a genetic flaw; it is from outside but the outside from which it comes is other people’s choices—a pedophile kidnapping a young boy, fulfilling the desire for revenge because someone has to die for a crime.

I’ll think more about Mystic River. Collateral is a textbook example of Hollywood screenplays.

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