[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on October 12.]
Troubled Water (2008, streaming on Amazon Prime) is really a brilliantly made film. You know the whole thing is going to collapse and fall apart between Thomas and Agnes, but you don’t know when. That tension builds and builds, even when there is nothing tense happening in a given moment. And the way the story is put together brings even seemingly unimportant events to their true significance.
It’s not that the shift in perspective in the middle of the film is unique, but perhaps it surprised me because (not having heard of the movie before) I simply didn’t expect it. Even though it’s over two hours, the two couples are so entwined and paralleled, focused on Thomas and Agnes, that I never felt the length. One has seemingly overcome her grief; one has seemingly overcome his guilt; but both have been deprived (or deprived themselves) of the opportunity to face head-on the event that connects them.
Until that happens, you can feel the troubled waters begin to stir beneath the surface. The central moment is highlighted by the caretaker asking Thomas to play “some real church music” for children on a field trip—led by Agnes—and he plays “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (!).
[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on August 31.]
If Hitchcock remade Fight Club, it would probably look a lot like The Machinist (2004). If you haven’t seen it, but you’ve seen Fight Club, then I probably gave away the major plot twist. But even if you know the major twist, this is a devastating film about the destructive power of buried guilt. I had seen The Machinist before, but I honestly didn’t remember much except that he works in a machine shop and is struggling with something. I probably watched it on a VHS rented from a Blockbuster (RIP) in Washougal, Washington during a summer when I worked the night shift at a Safeway and then in a hot, dusty, stifling concrete plant in Portland. Not much else to do during my first summer not returning home from college.
This is not for anyone for whom everything is great. This is not for those with perfect families, perfect faith, a perfect congregation, or perfect health. This is for the guilty and the desolate.
I think you know the Gospel, but you have never believed it, not really. You thought the Gospel was for those who are nice, those who have things under control. You thought the Gospel was for those whose sin is manageable, who seem to breeze through life without any regrets.
You think that your sin is too great, that God would not want a sinner such as you. You think that your sin disqualifies you from serving in your congregation. You think that people would shun you if they knew who you “really are.” You think that God is visiting the consequences of your sin upon your children. Otherwise, why would they suffer the way that they do? What did they do to deserve what has happened to them?
You were always in the Church, but you were somehow sold a lie about the mercy of God. Somehow you came to believe that God would make everything in your life turn out okay if only you kept “believing.” But your faith wasn’t in Christ; it was in your faith. In other words, your faith was in you, in your ability to go on believing things about God.
You heard the Gospel, but you didn’t really believe it. Because the Gospel is not “everything will be okay in this life.” The Gospel isn’t “God accepts people who don’t do anything bad enough to disqualify them from grace.” The Gospel isn’t “as long as you keep up your end of the Law, then God will bless you and your family.”
The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only: Jesus Christ, crucified to save sinners. All sinners. You. And especially the bad sinners, who can’t figure out why nothing seems to go right for them. Who think, like Job’s friends, that there must be something they’ve done or left undone that has brought about these circumstances. Who are out of control and can’t drag themselves out of the pits they seem inevitably to dig. The Gospel is for those who can’t quite believe that Jesus died also for them. The Gospel is for those who recoil in horror from the awful reality of their own sin. The Gospel is for you.