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Jeffrey Overstreet

Hulking Rage

An epidemic of anger at the cineplex

You'd better watch that temper of yours," mutters David Banner to his genetically altered son Bruce in Ang Lee's big-screen adaptation of The Hulk. Good advice. But what precisely should Banner do with all that pent-up anger?

The problem of anger preoccupies an increasing number of artists in an era that overdoses us with rage-oriented news. Turn on CNN: Riots. Protests. Lawsuits. Road rage. Hate crimes. Terrorism. Switch over to the talk shows, where tempers are baited and tantrums exploited for pure spectacle. Wrath reigns on the airwaves: Radiohead rants about government oppression and media manipulation, Metallica's new album is called St. Anger, and bile is the bread and butter of many rap artists. Even Bruce Cockburn is angry again, bringing fury back to folk-rock. Bookshelves are barking as well. Try something by Chuck Palahniuk—Fight Club or Choke. In Salman Rushdie's novel Fury, a Middle Eastern man strolls Manhattan streets, fuming with a foreigner's frustrations over America's opulence and self-absorption. (The book reached stores on September 4, 2001, like a prophet's last-minute warning.)

Rather than offering a diagnosis of these violent symptoms, most entertainers exploit our dissatisfaction, serving up a steady diet of wish-fulfillment fantasies. We cheer angry heroes for striking back at adversaries in ways most of us know better than to imitate. In the last several months viewers witnessed Vin Diesel's vengeance in A Man Apart, laughed at so-called Anger Management, and marveled at comic-book spinoffs in which Wolverine rampages (X2), Bruce Banner Hulks, and Jekyll "Hydes" (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Trampy girlfriends and a disintegrating mother drove 8Mile's Eminem to wrestle his rage into rhyming rants. J-Lo punished her husband when she'd had Enough domestic abuse. Anti-death-penalty activists in The Life of David Gale went to ugly extremes, taking a cue from John Q, who held an entire hospital hostage when his son was denied medical coverage.

Retaliation, revenge, and righteous anger are nothing new to cinema. Where would Westerns be without them? When Michael Douglas (Falling Down) shot up a fast-food joint because he wanted it "his way," the carnage made a sick sort of sense. Some popular tales of violent vendettas glow with the glory of a holy crusade. Bravehearts and Gladiators quest in God's name to inflict justice upon the wicked, the end justifying their bloody means. Repercussions of their backlash are eclipsed by the glory of a martyr's courage. Sometimes rifle-bearing saviors offer convenient excuses for collateral damage. The messiah of The Matrix employs "Guns … lots of guns!" and gets away with it because he is firing on a false reality. "There is no bullet." What a lovely sentiment.

Sometimes, Hollywood hiccups on its conflicted answers. An actor from John Q inadvertently summed up the problem: "What John does is heroic, but we don't condone it."

Danny Boyle's new horror film, 28 Days Later, boldly portrays this rampant anger as an illness. A plague called Rage turns London in a hive of zombies, the infected overcome by savage and demonic urges. Our heroes take refuge in a military complex that walls out the irrational monsters with practical defenses. But once safely sealed inside, they are powerless to protect themselves from evils that thrive within a rational system.

Clearly, the epidemic of rage demands an antidote. But the search for a cure always begins with a search for the cause.

Provocations to movie tantrums come in all colors. Characters lash out in response to parental abuse or neglect (American Beauty), poverty (Gangs of New York), bureaucracy (Office Space), media manipulation (Fight Club, Adaptation), unstable adolescent bodies (Donnie Darko), even genetic experimentation (X2). Clearly the culture is conditioned to expect stability and satisfaction, not lies and human failings. We are constantly reminded of our inadequacy and continuously let down by promises of fulfillment. If you just buy this shampoo, read this self-help book, upgrade to this new software, try this diet, take this pill, vote for this candidate, you can be satisfied! One by one, the media's lies leave consumers with a lingering sense of emptiness, betrayal, and an inability to control their destinies.

Powerlessness. It is the hardest fact of the human condition to accept. Denied control and influence, people turn to violence in order to gain respect. In Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, a mugger points a pistol at Kevin Kline and voices the credo of many inner-city miscreants: "No gun, no respect! That's why I always got the gun."

Fortunately, a few films venture to suggest other ways to respond to this sense of powerlessness. The more popular of these films spend an hour or so entertaining us with the angry exploits of sympathetic cynics, then tack on a question or a crisis of conscience at the conclusion. Fight Club, Donnie Darko, and American Beauty conclude that "love is the answer," but not until they have served up the vicarious satisfactions of violent confrontation, sarcastic vitriol, and the humiliation of the hero's enemies.

You have to look for quieter films like In the Bedroom to find a focused study of anger that does not also appease our appetite for violent spectacle. Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek play the parents of a murdered boy who watch the killer go free in a failure of the court system. Instead of grieving together, they harden their hearts to carry out vigilante justice, like the vengeful cowboy William Munny in Unforgiven. But the rush and glory of victory eludes them. They are left in smoking ruin, the void in their hearts deepened by their surrender to violence.

More profound alternatives are available in the two ministers played by Mel Gibson (Signs) and Robert Duvall (The Apostle). Gibson plays a pastor broken by the loss of his wife and fearful of an alien invasion. Powerless to stop these things, he finds he can no longer turn his back on God. He re-establishes his dialogue with the Divine, raising his ire against the Almighty. And God responds with a lesson about sovereignty that, like Bruce Almighty, strikes some resonant chords in spite of its narrative contrivances. Duvall's minister responds violently to the loss of his wife to infidelity and his church to distrust and betrayal. "I love you, Lord," he rants, "but I'm mad at you!" Again, God absorbs the anger and responds with reassurance and grace. Like Job, the minister begins anew, rejoicing in spite of the cost of his own sin, joyful for reasons other than revenge.

Perhaps the most intriguing recent examination of anger comes in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-drunk Love. Anderson's previous film, Magnolia, was rich in symbolic warnings of judgment and the need for familial love. Here again, failures of the family drive the hero to angry outbursts. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a toilet-plunger salesman—ironic, considering the way his heart is clogged with rage and emotional debris. Barry's seven insensitive sisters manipulate and bully him. Even alone, he flinches as if surrounded by porcupines. No one seems worthy of trust. No one really listens.

Desperate and weak, Barry calls a phone-sex line. It is intimacy, not arousal, he intends to purchase. Instead, he finds betrayal and gains a ruthless enemy. Things look bad for Barry: he ticks like a bomb we suspect will explode when he finally faces his foe.

In the nick of time, Lena (Emily Watson) arrives like an angel carrying God's grace. Anderson gives us hints that Lena can sympathize with Barry's loneliness and powerlessness. By offering him unconditional love, she gives him the opportunity to safely vent his frustration. They engage in love talk playfully peppered with violent language, a tongue-in-cheek expression of common ground that establishes between them an intimate understanding. Increasingly confident, Barry begins to unpack his emotional baggage.

His anger is purged first in awkward outbursts, like the ugly blasts from a basement faucet when it is turned on after a many months of neglect. But because he has tapped into a cleansing reservoir, love reaches his heart, head, and hands. In the climactic confrontation with his oppressor, he musters the self-control to communicate anger with eloquent restraint rather than violence. That, in itself, gives him victory, regardless of his enemy's response.

Admittedly, Punch-drunk has one foot planted in the realm of fairy tale. Some will thus fail to take it seriously. But fairy tale is the realm where mysteries come to represent profundities that cannot be reduced to paraphrase. Viewers who flinch at didactic prescriptions of God's love may respond better to subtle and symbolic suggestions of the elusive cure they crave. Perhaps artists can take a lesson on anger from Anderson. Looking beyond the wrongs we suffer, they could offer glimpses of glory—and suggest an antidote to the inner Hulk. Like a warning light, anger serves a purpose, alerting us that something is wrong, but indulging it merely escalates the damage. It would be a brave and timely film that would show how love can equip us to respond appropriately, leaving judgment in the hands of a more qualified judge.

Jeffrey Overstreet lives in Seattle and writes the weekly Film Forum column for ChristianityToday.com, posted on Thursdays. His film and music reviews regularly appear at promontoryartists.org/lookingcloser.

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