Friday, January 2, 2015

Shane, Bullying, and the Problem of Revenge



Has there ever been a more hateful movie bad guy than Jack Palance in Shane? Palance plays Wilson, a gunman hired by a wealthy rancher, Ryker, to help drive the small family farmers from a valley which sits below the Grand Tetons. In the scene shown above, Wilson taunts a hapless sodbuster into pulling his gun, and then blows him away with that sadistic shit-eating grin plastered on his face. What we have here is the ultimate bully. Basically he kills the sodbuster for nothing more than personal entertainment. By this point we can't wait until the itinerant gunman Shane, who is working as a farm hand for the hardworking Starrett family, finally breaks his pledge to leave violence behind and exacts revenge on the black-hatted Wilson and the rapacious Ryker.

There's no better film story than a revenge story, and soon enough Shane, played by Alan Ladd, does indeed take down Wilson and the Ryker gang. This is immensely satisfying. What makes Shane so resonant, though, is that in reverting to violence, Shane knows that he is undeserving of the affection shown to him by Joe Starrett's wife, who has fallen a bit in love with him, and their little boy, Joey, who idolizes him. Shane is what Joe Starrett will never be, and if it appears at first that the difference between the men tips in Shane's favor -- he's no common sodbuster -- the film's (and Shane's) final verdict suggests otherwise.

The film ends with Shane exiling himself from the Starretts and the community of farmers that needed him. He rides off toward the mountains, slumped in the saddle, having been wounded in the gunfight with the Ryker gang, as little Joey yells "Shane, Shane! Come back!" This is moving as hell, because Shane actually was deserving of Joey's hero worship after all, but, good as he was as a man, there would be no place for his type in the civilized, domesticated world of families and farms, which, after all, is our world. In this sense, director George Stevens is also suggesting that seeking justice through violence only has a place in the movies.

And what a movie Shane is. Woody Allen has indicated that it is on his short list of greatest films. AMC places it in its top 100 of all time. Check out this in-depth synopsis at filmsite.org to get a sense for the craft and complexity of the film's plot and dialogue, especially as it captures the emotional dynamics between Shane and the Starrett family. My brief thoughts here don't do it justice.

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