Conflicted Catharsis: On ISIS and Revenge Films
Image: Lionsgate
Emily Blunt in 'Sicario'
Benecio del Toro in 'Sicario'
Image: Lionsgate

Benecio del Toro in 'Sicario'

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a one of 2015’s best films. Artfully made and intense from start to finish, the drug war-themed thriller (starring Emily Blunt and Bencio del Toro) focuses on CIA operatives hunting down a high-ranking cartel chief whose brutal tactics have left a trail of victims via bomb, acid bath, dismemberment and beheading.

Sicario reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the covert hunt for Osama bin Laden. Both films are about retributive justice and the CIA’s efforts to end the reign of bloodshed of a terrorist tyrant. Both films end with a violent climax that is simultaneously cathartic and conflicting: cathartic because an evil villain is dispatched in a fittingly violent manner, but conflicting because we aren’t quite sure we should feel so good about it.

These sorts of “conflicted catharsis” endings are common in films about revenge and justice. Quentin Tarantino includes denouements of this sort in nearly all of his films, often featuring some sort of previously disenfranchised victim exerting bloody vengeance on their abusive and powerful victimizer. Kill Bill and Death Proof show this in terms of women exacting vicious revenge on abusive males. Django Unchained shows this in terms of a black slave (Jamie Foxx) cathartically killing a comically evil slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Inglourious Basterds gives Jews the weapons to inflict disturbingly mortal wounds on Nazis via knife, gun, explosive, and baseball bat.

'Inglorious Basterds'
Image: The Weinstein Company

'Inglorious Basterds'

The climactic scene of Inglourious Basterds is perhaps the ultimate in conflicted catharsis. Inside a Parisian theater filled with Nazis and Adolf Hitler himself, Brad Pitt and his band of Jewish soldiers spray bullets from the balcony on the crowd of Germans below, mowing them down in a bloodbath as they stampede for the locked exits. If not killed by the bullets, they are blown up by planted bombs or engulfed in flames. Everyone dies, including Hitler. It’s a disturbing and brutal scene, yet undeniably cathartic, playing out like an almost eschatological vision of supernatural justice (the melting-face-Nazi ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark is another example). Its revisionist history offers a satisfying slaughter befitting the villains who exterminated millions of Jews.

I was thinking of this particular scene this week, reading articles and watching the news about the Paris terrorist attacks. Disturbingly, the Bataclan theater massacre bears an eerie resemblance to the ending of Inglourious Basterds: Gunmen in a Paris theater firing indiscriminately on an unsuspecting crowd, sometimes from the balcony, turning the victims’ night of entertainment into a horror-show bloodbath of cinematic proportions.

The difference is the Bataclan victims were not Nazis at the height of World War II, but innocent civilians enjoying a rock concert during peacetime.

'Zero Dark Thirty'
Image: Columbia Pictures

'Zero Dark Thirty'

The outrage of these horrific events naturally leads us to desire justice for the perpetrators. I was glad to hear that the terrorists in Paris were killed. I was glad to hear that French fighter jets bombed ISIS strongholds in Raqqa.

But should I be glad? As a Christian, how does this square with Jesus’s command in Matthew 5:44 that I love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me?

Can Christians simultaneously pray for ISIS and feel a celebratory catharsis when they are killed?

Was it not a good and valid emotion for my grandparents to have felt joy and relief at the end of World War II when the Axis Powers were crushed and the concentration camps liberated? Is it not a good thing when a SWAT team puts an end to an active shooter situation by shooting and killing the gunman?

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Conflicted Catharsis: On ISIS and Revenge Films