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20120424-motion-pictures-by-tony-woodliefI like movies because other people do the talking and they don’t expect you to say anything clever in reply. Also, something usually happens.

I’m suspicious of mass culture, but I’ll say this for the masses—they mostly won’t tolerate two hours of some whiner going on about how exquisitely the world has wounded him. They want a car crash, or for people to fall in love, or better still, for people to fall in love while cars crash.

For a while I thought I could be a film reviewer. I decided this would become unpleasant work. I’ll have to watch that movie with a demonic talking rabbit because all the hipsters on the coasts think it’s brilliant. I’ll feel compelled to muscle through a boatload of Ingmar Bergman films to prove I “get” cinema. Somebody will take umbrage when I write that Whit Stillman is film’s John Cheever, or that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are sadists who ought be made to wear those anklets the police use to keep track of molesters.

I’ll get emails calling me a Puritan. I’ll get fussy letters calling me a reprobate. Purists and fanboys will besiege me, and soon I’ll question whether Despicable Me truly is a near-perfect story, and I happen to like Despicable Me very much. I shouldn’t be a film critic.

Not that I go to movies any more. Sometimes I rent a movie for a dollar, and if I really like one I’ll buy it on sale for five dollars at Wal-Mart.

It’s an act of humility, standing at a plastic bin taller than my four year-old, sorting through movies—movies with that horrific Chucky doll, movies where professional wrestlers show their chops in dramatic roles (“If Bill Pullman can do this,” their agents must say, “why not Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?”), movies about cheerleaders who come together before the big competition to beat those bitchy cheer-stealing sluts from across town. Clint Eastwood being repeatedly upstaged by an orangutan, Pauly Shore’s dim pan flash, Charles Bronson’s dreadful Death Wish opus—the Wal-Mart bin is filmography’s purgatory.

Perhaps it’s fitting that I frequently find myself standing there, holding a movie pile. Not to buy, mind you, but to get them out of the way so I can dig deeper. This is inevitably when some grandmother sidles up to the bin. I become aware of how pathetic this must look, a man with four boys in tow, fussing at them not to pick up the movies or look at the pictures or do anything but stand stock-still in the way of most living creatures except human boys, all while I’m clutching an armful of slasher flicks and teen romances.

I want to explain that when you’ve got four boys to cook for and look after at the tail end of a work week, finding a $5 copy of Boondock Saints feels like a win. “I really need this,” I want to tell them.

Maybe this is why I especially like movies about fathers, why I root for movie fathers. I like to see a dad win.

This is why I pump my fist when Donald Sutherland, in Ordinary People, finally tells Mary Tyler Moore she’s a cold-hearted witch. It’s why I itch for Denzel to burn that mutha down in John Q. It’s why I get a pit in my stomach when Steve Martin has to become a balloon-wielding cowboy for his son’s big birthday party in Parenthood. Forget earthquakes and the zombie apocalypse, that particular nightmare could actually happen.

Lately I’ve been pondering a dilemma posed by a couple of my favorite dad-as-hero movies. In the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, the broken-down father Dan Evans refuses a bribe that would allow him to walk away from certain death. He refuses because he wants his son to see that he has principles. Contrast this with an early scene in The Patriot, when the protagonist, Benjamin Martin, is chastised for preferring British aggression to war. “I’m a father,” he says. “I don’t have the luxury of principles.”

The logician in me insists these views conflict, but as a father I find both compelling. Of course I never want my sons to see me counting the cost of principle. And of course no principle is worth risking harm to them.

Maybe the calculation Dan Evans makes is that his sacrifice will benefit his son more, in the long run, than the years of fathering he foregoes. I can understand calculations like that, the hope that things we do now will profit these children of ours, that some action or teaching or prayer will be the boost they need to make it across the finish line, that all the weights we attach to them in our weakness can be outmatched by whatever strengths we impart.

In this I am a reviewer of my own life’s film, narcissistic enough to imagine my life as a film, and neurotic enough to analyze each frame. I wish I could fast-forward, to see if it will go well with these boys of mine, if I will be good enough. All I can do is play my part as faithfully as I can, and trust that there’s a screenwriter who loves comedy more than tragedy.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Tony Woodlief

Tony Woodlief lives in North Carolina. His essays have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The London Times, and his short stories appeared in Image, Ruminate, Saint Katherine Review, and Dappled Things. His website

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