–By Sam Hendrian–
Reading the news is rarely an uplifting act, especially when it is saturated with stories of seemingly good people falling from grace. The Joker’s haunting words in The Dark Knight are proven time and time again to be true: “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” From Bill Cosby to former cardinal Theodore McCarrick to a plethora of others, we have seen too many times how depravity often wins the upper hand in the human soul.
But if noble people can become unexpectedly evil, then surely evil people can become unexpectedly noble. Stories of positive transformations may not be as frequently published, but they still serve as bright dots on the history of humanity. Fortunately, cinema has kept such stories alive even when they are not at the forefront of the news. Here are ten cinematic tales of redemption that can potentially help lift our spirits in these discouraging times.
1. Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983)
If anyone seems bound to stay evil forever, it would be Darth Vader. A fascist galactic dictator responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people, he is a paragon of human depravity. Yet somehow his nobly-minded son Luke Skywalker believes wholeheartedly that there is still an ounce of good left in his darkened soul, and he succeeds in uncovering it by the end of the film. When Luke takes off his father’s mask and knows that he is near death, he says worriedly, “I have to save you!” His father beautifully replies, “You already have, Luke.” Even the wickedest of souls is not beyond redemption; such is the relevant message of this Star Wars film.
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
Narcissist. Opportunist. Womanizer. Such are three accurate descriptors of Oskar Schindler at the beginning of Schindler’s List. While not a sinister man by any means, he seems to not really care about anybody other than himself, so his sudden decision to use all his precious money to save the lives of 1,200 Jews proves somewhat shocking. What on Earth altered his sense of compassion from lukewarm to hot? We may never know for sure, but it can be speculated that divine grace had something to do with it. Whatever exactly happened within the confines of his soul, it is richly inspiring to watch him risk his life and fortune to save the lives of his fellow human beings. In politics, entertainment, and even religion, it is not uncommon to meet narcissistic, opportunistic, and womanizing people like Oskar Schindler is at the beginning of the film. Let us look to his redemption as a source of hope as we face the discouragement and disillusionment that morally-corrupt leaders cause in our lives.
3. On the Waterfront (1954)
Far too often in human history, good hearts are drowned in cowardice. Such is the initial case of Terry Malloy, the protagonist of Elia Kazan’s Best Picture-winning On the Waterfront. Involved with the dockside Mob because of his sycophantic older brother Charlie, he fearfully does what he is told and unwittingly helps murder an innocent man. After falling in love with the murdered man’s sister and being advised by a tough-nosed waterfront priest, Terry summons the courage to defy his cowardice and stick up to the Mob, as does his older brother. Timeless and inspiring, On the Waterfront encourages all of us to reject any sycophantic tendencies we may have and stick up for what is right in all situations.
4. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
This superhero classic has one of the most human and sympathetic villains in the history of the genre. Doctor Otto Octavius is a loving husband and an intelligent, warm-hearted scientist, but when a science experiment involving artificial intelligence backfires, he becomes compelled to do evil by sinister voices in his head. At the end of the film, a pep talk from Spider-Man and the prodding of his own good heart convince him to reject his evil impulses and undo the damage he has done to New York City, which is a job that costs him his life. Like all of us, Otto has a demon and an angel on his shoulders, but he ultimately chooses to listen to the angel; we have the power to do the same.
5. Gran Torino (2008)
A verbal racist and a stubborn curmudgeon, the elderly widower Walt Kowalski is not the sort of man you would want for a grandfather. He spits vitriol about his Asian neighbors and is generally unpleasant to be around. But like many human beings, Walt is far more complex than his hardened exterior suggests. After befriending a teenaged boy named Thao, his secretly gentle heart is revealed, and while he still spews profanities and racial epithets, his actions prove that he is a more compassionate man than meets the ear. Haunted by the guilt of having killed a young man in cold blood during the Korean War, he seeks redemption and ultimately lays down his life for his Asian neighbors by sticking up to the Gang who has been terrorizing them. As Bishop Robert Barron commentated in a video essay, Walt Kowalski becomes an unexpected Christ figure whom we all can be inspired by.
6. Groundhog Day (1993)
How many days does it take for a selfish jerk to turn into a man of virtue? Such is the question humorously and poignantly explored in director Harold Ramis’ comedy classic Groundhog Day. The self-centered, sardonic-tongued weatherman Phil Connors wants to be anywhere else in the world other than Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Groundhog Day, but that is where he finds himself again. And again. And again and again and again. Stuck in a seemingly never-ending time loop, he initially uses it as an excuse to live a hedonistic lifestyle but ends up feeling empty inside. Determined to earn the affections of one of his female co-workers, he commits to becoming a better man and is finally freed from the time loop. The story of Phil’s inner transformation can be a light of hope for each of us as we struggle with seemingly endless patterns of sin in our own lives.
7. Despicable Me (2010)
While largely a slapstick comedy for kids, this 2010 animation hit still has some laudable moments of inspiration and sincere pathos. The villainous protagonist Gru is more of a goofy cartoon bad guy cliché than a considerable force of evil, but he still harnesses a significant amount of selfishness that we can all relate to as fallen human beings. It is this selfishness that compels him to adopt three orphaned girls so that he can use their innocent charms for one of his schemes, but when he unexpectedly grows close to them and finds himself longing to be a good father, he realizes that selflessness is far more fulfilling than selfishness. A simple but effective story, Despicable Me is similar to Return of the Jedi in its insistence that there is goodness to be found even in super villains.
8. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Perhaps one of the most famous redemption stories of all time, Disney’s animated version of the classic tale Beauty and the Beast will always be a heartwarming artistic testament to the transformative power genuine love has over even the beastliest of souls. Enough said.
9. Red River (1948)
One of the greatest Westerns in film history, the John Wayne-starring classic Red River is a rousing adventure story about a tyrannical cattle driver named Thomas Dunson and his adopted son Matthew Garth. Dunson has a caring heart somewhere deep (very deep) within the confines of his stubbornly macho chest, but he rarely shows it as he leads tons of cattle and men on a drive from Texas to Missouri. Threatening to lynch and/or kill anyone who rebels against his overbearing leadership, he is ultimately rebelled against by his own adopted son. We all probably have relentlessly prideful/stubborn family members in our own lives, so watching Dunson finally overcome his pride for the sake of fatherly love is refreshing.
10. Iron Man (2008)
While it may be another conventional narcissist-turned-hero story, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man has a special level of poignancy in that it somewhat parallels star Robert Downey Jr.’s own redemption story after a mid-career struggle with drug addiction. Billionaire Tony Stark is numb to the true, fulfilling joys of life until a violent incident in the Middle East involving his own company’s weapons brings him into the care of a wise prisoner/doctor named Yinsen. When he informs Yinsen that he does not have a family back home, Yinsen hauntingly replies, “So you’re a man who has everything… and nothing.” While Tony still remains somewhat of a narcissist when he returns to the United States, he never forgets Yinsen’s wisdom and harnesses a newfound perspective on the value of life in his ultimately noble heart.
Well, there you have it, folks. These only scratch the surface of cinematic redemption stories, and the troubling question still remains: Can they really help heal our disillusionment in a world of scandal? After all, nine out of ten of them are not even based on true stories. This is a fair question, and there may be no definitive answer to it. In one particular way or another, all ten of these films inspire hope in the human condition, but is hope really as powerful as we would like it to be? Perhaps it will never be a bandage for disillusionment, but it can act as a lullaby, lulling us to a rejuvenating sleep with the melodious truth that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
About the Author
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing a double emphasis in Screenwriting and Directing.