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Crystal Downing

The Sheep, the Goats, and Leo DiCaprio

If you have a daughter who's passed through adolescence in recent memory, you've probably seen a bedroom shrine dedicated to Leonardo DiCaprio, he of the delicate features, full lips, and smoldering eyes. Just another Hollywood pretty boy, you say? Take a look at What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1994), in which the heartthrob convincingly portrays a mentally challenged child. And if you never saw William Shakespeare's Romeo +Juliet (1996), you missed the aplomb with which the adolescent icon could handle iambic pentameter. It was Titanic (1997) that nearly sank Leo DiCaprio's career.

But isn't Titanic one of the biggest box-office hits ever? Yes—but DiCaprio's character, Jack Dawson, is so simplistically conceived, so shallow, that it's easy to confuse the actor with the role. Jack can do no wrong; not only does he deftly dance with peasants in steerage, he can also hobnob with the wealthy on their upper decks; he is artistic enough to draw the semi-clothed Rose but tough enough to hold his own in violent confrontations; and, of course, he allows himself to be left behind in freezing waters in order that Rose might live. In contrast, Rose's supercilious fiance seems petty or malevolent in all his actions. Jack, of course, is blond and almost always dressed in white or light-colored clothing, while his swarthy antagonist is always in black. Hi ho, Silver!

But this is what mass-market audiences love: clear signals as to whom to love, whom to hate. And although Jesus blurred such distinctions with stories about blackened Samaritans and whited sepulchres, Christians all too often buy into the binary. What else could explain the outrageous popularity of the Left Behind series, which is filled with cliched phrasing and simplistic characterizations (not to mention dubious eschatology)?

Significantly, repeated several times in Left Behind is the assertion that prophecy appears "in black and white in the Bible." The black and white marks on the Bible page are turned into black and white demarcations between the saved and the unsaved, as when authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye employ the sheep-and-goats metaphor of Matthew 25 to distinguish those who accept or reject the Mark of the Beast.

Ironically, of course, Matthew 25 muddies the waters about the conditions of salvation. Prophesying about the end times, Jesus states that the Son of Man will return to separate the sheep from the goats, placing the former at his right hand and the latter at his left. Those to his left will ask, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?" He will answer, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me," and send them "away into eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:31-45, RSV).

But simplistic divisions between good and evil are not limited to any party or persuasion. The discourse of political correctness spread like wildfire because it so easily and clearly divided the good people—those who employ sensitive and inclusive terminology—from those benighted individuals who fail to consider how traditional language conventions marginalize others.

The defiance of convention also marks the "political correctness" of movie heroes. This easy binary between the good individualist (Jack Dawson) and the evil establishment (on the Titanic's upper decks) even applies to films that seem to be morally ambiguous, like American Beauty (1999), where the character played by Kevin Spacey becomes a hero, practically a martyr, in his defiance of upper-middle-class suburban convention. When I saw this unpleasant film, the audience cheered as Spacey threw a dinner dish against the wall. The binary was quite clear.

The American mythology of individualism, according to Alexis de Tocqueville, "disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself." This myth is addressed by another Leonardo DiCaprio film, The Beach (2000). Directed by Danny Boyle, the film sank at the box office, I would argue, because it swamped the easy distinction between good and evil.

The Beach not only allowed DiCaprio to leave behind the two-dimensional Jack Dawson and reinvigorate his subtle acting abilities but also enabled its viewers to reach conclusions consonant with Christian perspectives on human behavior. Perhaps this is why it was so thoroughly reviled by critics; indeed, one fueled his condemnation by saying the film's themes came straight from the Bible, while another despaired that "all of DiCaprio's natural appeal is submerged here." We might aver that human nature is not always naturally appealing.

The Beach is about the natural appeal of clear waters, about human desires for Eden. It begins with DiCaprio doing a voiceover as his character, Richard, wanders through the streets of Bangkok. The lurid lighting, along with scenes from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) on a television in the background, add disturbing piquancy to Richard's words: "Never resist the unfamiliar. … just keep your mind open and suck in the experience." When I heard this I groaned, thinking I was going to have to sit through another film about the "authentic" individual defying bourgeois conformism. But the film presents Richard's adolescent desires in order to expose their dark naivete. Like Apocalypse Now, The Beach is inspired by Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but while Coppola explores human attraction to and immersion in evil, Boyle addresses the human need to define and sustain "the Good."

The Good here is located along a beach filmed in brilliant sun-infused colors that contrast dramatically with the garish squalor of the Bangkok scenes. Richard, having been given a map to this fabled site of pellucid waters and sparkling sands, recruits a French couple, Francoise and Etienne, to swim with him to an island off the coast of Thailand, where they discover a commune that, for six years, has operated beside the still waters of the secret beach. Their community is kept pure by the near-inaccessibility of their locale, as well as through the strong leadership of Sal, a woman committed to protecting the good life they have created.

Richard and his French companions are welcomed into a paradigmatic postmodern paradise: different ethnicities and sexualities live, work, and play together in peace. For Richard, the beach becomes even more Edenic when Francoise leaves Etienne to couple with him, something that does not surprise us. After all, it's very similar to the scenario in Titanic, when Rose leaves her fiance for the more gutsy, handsome, and winsome Jack Dawson. But Francoise's decision to leave Etienne for Richard is endorsed by the commune, which operates by a utilitarian "Happiness Principle": the greatest good for the greatest number. Jeremy Bentham would be proud.

Ripples disturb the clear waters of this utopia when two commune members are attacked by sharks. After the victims are pulled to higher ground, we are given a dramatic high-angle shot of the beach's preternaturally clean sands, now marked by a trail of blood cutting across the white like a wound to the beach itself. This slash, which fills the screen from top to bottom, is symbolic of more than death entering the community.One victim does, indeed, die and is respectfully buried, but the other, suffering from a partially devoured leg, screams in pain from his bed all night long, driving the other residents to distraction. They remove his body from the communal hut, taking it into the woods. After all, he's bound to die soon anyway.

The only one who protests the abandonment of the shark victim is Etienne, who stands by the blood-covered body and screams out to Richard, "This is wrong! It is wrong!" Richard looks over his shoulder at Etienne and gives a dismissive shrug as he follows the others back to the now scream-free hut. And thus our handsome hero, who at the beginning of the film contemptuously asserts that "the only downer is that everyone's got the same idea," has ended up a conformist, colluding in evil in order to protect a self-serving, pleasurable definition of the good: not what audiences want to see in their name-brand stars.

The denouement of The Beach—you'll have to rent the movie—is a tribute both to DiCaprio's gifts as an actor and to the moral complexity of Boyle's vision. We may see more of that DiCaprio in Martin Scorcese's Gangs of New York, set in the late nineteenth century, a December release with Leo in the lead role. For those who prefer Leo lite, there's always another viewing of Titanic.

Crystal Downing is associate professor of English at Messiah College.

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