The Common Good
January 2013

Assassins and Psychopaths

by Gareth Higgins | January 2013

Three of the best films of the year: Samsara, Looper, and Seven Psychopaths.

THREE OF THE best films of the year arrived in early fall and will hopefully still be around to experience by the time you read this. Each deserves to be seen on a big screen—I've long believed that the experience of watching films in a cinema compares with home viewing the same way that visiting the pyramids compares with seeing a mummy in a museum. But whether or not you see these in a cinema, please do see them.

Seven Psychopaths

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Samsara, Looper, and Seven Psychopaths open up worlds of possibility where the varieties of human experience are respected, the myth of the cool assassin is revised, and the morality of violent fiction is stared in the face, interrogated, and not let go without an attempt at a convincing answer.

Samsara, the sequel to 1992's Baraka, travels the world seeking examples of our diversity and unity: dancers and warriors and builders and menders, broken things and healed things, innocent and wounded. It contains some of the most extraordinary imagery you've ever seen, in tune with vast musical cultures, reimagining our view of what we, a little lower than the angels, are and can be, and, when we're not conscious of our power, the damage we can do.

The protagonist of Looper embodies just such a consciousness—a hipster assassin in a dystopian world, where hired guns kill people sent back from the future, knowing that eventually that their target will be their own self. The willingness to kill others is, at least arguably, intimately related to a low view of humanity—for some, taking someone else's life is already on a continuum with a kind of suicide. To kill others means to wipe your own slate clean of distinctive, glorious, interdependent humanity. Hence Dietrich Bonhoeffer's assertion that killing Hitler would still be a sin, though sometimes such sins may be necessary. Looper manages to be brilliant, imaginative entertainment, and philosophically rich. It takes to its logical conclusion the worn story of a man paid to kill, and asks: What do you do when you realize your own complicity in the suffering of others?

The idea of well-worn fictional tropes is at the heart of Seven Psychopaths, which may turn out to be my favorite film of 2012. A screenwriter seeks to create the coolest psychopath movie ever made, but instead learns to take responsibility for the impact of his superficial hipster and selfish business sensibilities. The gift of storytelling is far more powerful than our post-industrial culture often recognizes. But it's not policymakers that change the world—rather, our vision of the possible is shaped and circumscribed by the stories we live by. Seven Psychopaths is a rare film, and I'm grateful for it because it's intelligent enough to recognize the power of the medium that gave it life.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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