The Gospel in Vigilante Film
Harry Brown (2009) is a remarkable film. It powerfully captures the sad conjunction of individual and societal sin that creates the dark reality of life in many urban centers around the globe. What’s missing from the movie are the twin themes central to Christian belief–grace and redemption.
Harry Brown is an aging pensioner who lives in a central London housing estate. At the start of the film, his aging and infirm wife dies. She is buried next to their daughter who predeceased them. Every day Harry walks to the hospital to visit his wife. Every day he chooses, for his own safety, to avoid a pedestrian passageway that leads beneath a major London road. The reason: it is a hanging out place for part of London’s drug-dealing underclass.
The film is well-made with long shots and minimal dialogue, both of which highlight a major point of commentary in the plot. The England described in Harry Brown is one marked by the breakdown of social relationships. Harry Brown, a former Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland, lives an isolated and lonely existence shared with two people–his unconscious wife and he best mate Len.
Similarly, the “hoodies” are not only marginalized from mainstream British society but are alienated from one another by their wickedness. As Augustine noted, evil is individualistic and precludes any real relationship–to the evil man all life, save his own, is expendable. Authentic relationships are based on mutuality–mutual self-giving–something of which evil is incapable.
After Harry’s wife’s funeral Len confides that the delinquent youth of the estate have been bullying him. At the breaking point, he has started to carry a bayonet with him for self-defense and possibly for a last-ditch attempt to vindicate himself by doing violence. The police, claims Len, have ignored his complaints and left him vulnerable.
To make a long story short, Len is brutally assaulted and murdered. Harry’s life has been made devoid of its last meaningful relationship. This unleashes a Harry Brown unknown since the streets of Ulster at the heights of The Troubles. This Harry attempts to avenge his friend by rescuing the estate from the influence of the “yobbos” by tracking down and cold-bloodedly murdering them.
Where, you ask, is the Gospel in a vigilante movie? Vigilante movies communicate the Gospel in at least three ways:
- They bring us into a world we otherwise might not experience. For many success in life is defined in physical and economic distance from housing estates. It is, however, often that we see ourselves and our situations most clearly when we see ourselves in a foreign context. A movie like Harry Brown reminds us of our common humanity with all manner of people.
- They honestly portray the ugliness of sin. Sin in the suburbs is often “respectable sin” or “white collar sin.” In the eyes of a righteous God, sin is sin. Contemporary Christianity has lost much of a sense of the ways in which the holiness of God is offended by the ugliness of sin, yet the heart of the Gospel requires that we confront our own weakness and wickedness in order to see the beauty and the glorify of the new way of life offered to us in the Gospel of the KIngdom.
- They show the futility of the Law. Eye for eye and tooth for tooth (lex talionis-the law of retaliation) stands at the heart of the vigilante genre. Every wrong exacts a price–the life of the wrongdoer. There is no forgiveness. There is no grace. Mercy never makes an appearance. As we watch, we realize that there’s much appealing about such a system–when we’re not a part of it. In reality come to know once again how deeply and frequently we need the forgiving love of God in Christ and the forgiving love of others.
So while other vigilante heroes (think Charles Bronson in Death Wish and Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino) aren’t types of Christ, ironically they do help us see the Gospel more clearly for the miracle it is.