Counting the Cost: The Theme of Sacrifice in the Films of 2014
If you’ve been following along, you may have seen the 12 or so best of 2014 lists I’ve made so far this year. Lists are fun and often easy ways to think about what popular culture has been consumed and at times can lead to deeper insight about what we enjoyed and why we enjoyed it. Sometimes various themes and trends can be noticed and in thinking about the movies I’ve seen this year one theme has appeared across a fairly wide margin of movies. I wanted to reflect on that theme here, though not necessarily to posit reasons as to why it might show up here and now–only time can tell I suppose–but to look into something that for some reason resonated amongst several films.
(Note: There may be minor spoilers for Selma, American Sniper, Interstellar, Calvary, Whiplash, and Two Days, One Night below)
The idea of sacrifice seems to have resonated this year. Of course the idea of living for something bigger than oneself is one that is oft-talked about. It’s something most people will cling to and is probably the most universally satisfying ethic; able to be translated across cultural, moral, and religious boundaries. The films this year cover this, but reflect on the sacrifice necessary to do what is right. To join in on the larger movement; fully committing oneself. There is a Biblical idea that talks of “counting the cost”–coming to terms with what having a belief and acting upon it may cost you. Cinematically filmmakers showed just what this might look like across all sorts of stories and genres.
Selma and American Sniper, two films whose main characters’ ideologies are somewhat diametrically opposed, show their lead characters struggling with the cost of their commitments to their causes. Dr. King is the wise leader of the civil rights movement, having already made tremendous steps forward, and has the president’s ear when it comes to policy decisions, yet he finds himself conflicted in how much he can give to the movement he is spearheading. Director Ava DuVernay not only shows King in his glorious speeches, but also in back room conversations with his wife, who must suffer the brunt of his work. King’s choices not only may end his life (as they eventually do), but cause his family to struggle. The Kings know the pursuit of justice is never-ending and the cost of that decision haunts them even in the best of their moments.
American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle too weighs his family life with the duty he feels toward his country and his comrades. He chooses to risk his life for what he believes will protect his country. As he goes on tour after tour both his life and mental health are put at risk. When his wife reminds him of his manly duties to be there for his family, Kyle retorts that he is in fact doing them good by participating in something that will not only protect them, but others as well.
Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar features another man abandoning his family in order to save the greater population. The dystopian future doesn’t look good until Cooper discovers that there may be a way to save his family and the rest of humanity. Using skills that he is uniquely qualified for, he leaves his family (and Earth) behind to save the day. Nolan shows the toll this takes on Cooper in one of the year’s best scenes that will absolutely wreck you.
Is the calling to do something great worth the cost that it might entail? Heroism certainly extends beyond great acts of sacrifice, the day in and day out support of friends and family is beautiful and probably necessary. Is it then irresponsible for those who do great things to force their loved ones to take on the cost they have come to terms with? Should they avoid this altogether?
Whiplash‘s Andrew certainly believes this to be true as we see him getting into fights with his family about what true greatness means and even breaking up with a girl because he knows she’ll hold him back. He’s seen the lives his musical heroes have lead and knows that to achieve greatness you have to give up on certain things. While probably the least heroic and most unwise of all the characters mentioned thus far, Andrew recognizes the cost and gives up the parts of life that seem normal, but he knows will not lead him to where he is trying to go. In a way he has done the most responsible thing by not allowing his loved ones to experience the pain he knows he will cause them.
Yet this is altogether unsatisfying. I would more likely take a moment of unconditional love accompanied with a lifetime of pain, than to avoid it altogether. They say it’s better to have love and lost than to never have loved at all.
Father James of Calvary has experienced this. The movie opens up with the threat of death by an unknown parishioner. James’ duty is to love and guide people according to the calling he feels he has from God. Like Jesus though, he is rejected by his group of unfaithful church attendees who delight in making him uncomfortable and rejecting his silent pleas for righteousness. His own inner turmoil leads him to have to make a decision to continue pursuing these people, even at the cost of losing it all for nothing.
Finally, the Dardennes’ latest, Two Days, One Night lowers the personal stakes for protagonist Sandra, instead flipping this idea of cost onto her coworkers who must decide whether they want to keep her on the company payroll or to give up their bonus–1,000 Euros. As Sandra goes to each one, they must–in a moment–decide what to do. For some the cost is extraneous things, for others the cost would be insurmountable, causing themselves to go under. They must consider whether they consider her to be a friend and if she is, what then are they willing to give to her. They must consider their religious and ethical beliefs and if these override the desire or even need to hold onto money that is rightfully theirs. Eventually the tables are turned and Sandra too must make a decision about what is important to her and what she is willing to sacrifice.
Our jobs, goals, desires, relationships, and needs are a mishmash of priorities–usually all consisting of good things. When there is a call to something else, something greater, we must decide what it is that’s worth keeping and what is worth giving up. It’s a haunting question, one that puts to shame so many of our daily activities, but when the time comes it demands an answer.