*This post contains spoilers for the following films: The Great Gatsby, The Wrestler, Lion King, The Shawshank Redemption, and Gladiator.*
In high school I had an art teacher named, Mr. Willard. He was a kind man who seemed to be an endless fountain of wisdom. One day he was telling us about the book, The Shack. He made the argument to the class that what makes a man cry – unlike our lady counterparts who have been typecast as emotional beings who cry at occurrences of love and heartbreak – were stories of redemption. I sat there thinking about instances where I found myself teary-eyed and I will be damned if it was not almost always a redeeming story. These are stories of people determined to make right any wrong they may have done in their life. This past week I watched The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrman’s grand 2012 vision of the F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece, and The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama of, Randy “the Ram,” a washed up wrestler twenty-years removed from his heyday; and realized that redemption is a tear-jerking theme in more than just one way.
Successful redemption stories like Lion King, Shawshank Redemption, and Gladiator; are narratives where the main character fulfills their goals. Simba takes over his rightful position as king of the pride, Andy escapes prison and thus his wrongful-imprisonment, and Maximus gets his revenge for his wife and son by killing Commodus. In these stories the protagonist may die but we know that they died content and fulfilled. The flip side of this tear-duct draining theme are the failed redemption stories like The Great Gatsby and The Wrestler. These stories consist of flawed, possibly destructive, characters who live lives that will always end in tragedy. It was when I watched The Great Gatsby that I realized what draws me to these stories and characters.
Each time I start these stories, even though I know the ending that will come, I still have hope and maybe to some extent believe that it will end different. I still think somehow that this time Gatsby ends up with Daisy or Randy makes it to dinner with his daughter and each time I am heartbroken because it does not happen. Perhaps it’s a testament to great writing. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been in similar situations. Maybe it’s both. But the one true parallel to the “real world” is that no matter how much you want to you cannot change what has happened. You cannot change the past. I think we all have had that tragic realization at least once in our lives.
Our lives are made of many moments and arguably not all moments are equal. Some moments come and go seemingly without consequence. Other moments come and change the course of our lives in incredible ways. Gatsby’s tragic moment was his outbreak in which he threatens Tom Buchanan and Randy’s was sleeping through his dinner date with his daughter. They are moments that you would give anything to take back. They can come seemingly out of nowhere, in a blink of an eye, and they can come while you are not even awake and aware. But when they come they are like a brick in the water sending irreversible waves of sadness that you are unable to stop. Perhaps these are the truest show of character you can have. That they are the manifestation of your true feelings and not the ones that you want to be true.
And so these two stories end in the only tragic way that they can. It’s a sad way but it’s a way that I oddly find comfort. Gatsby gets shot and dies but he dies with the belief that Daisy does actually love him, he dies rich and at the top, and he dies with a good name. The reality that awaited him in life, I believe, would not have been one that would have brought him any happiness.
Randy dies of a heart attack. But he dies doing the one thing he was always good at. He has no family, he has no money, his body is failing him, and he is estranged from the contemporary times. The world that awaited him after that match was not a world fit for him anymore.
In the larger picture what makes these stories most tragic is that they are just a small look into a wasted life. Gatsby dedicated his entire life for one goal. To get Daisy back. He amassed incredible wealth, traveled all over the world, and never had to know a lonely night. The most devastating line in the entire film, to me, is when Gatsby states to Tom, “my life has to keep going up.” It is then that we realize that Gatsby’s flaw is that he may never find satisfaction. Even if he ended up getting Daisy’s love I am left wondering if it would not just be another achievement in his quest to “keep going up.” Would he truly love her or would he find another obsession to take him away from her. In my heart I believe, or I want to believe, that she truly was the last missing piece of his life but these are things we will never know. He died with his greatest goal unfulfilled but he died surrounded by what he had built and he died with hope.
Randy’s life is even more tragic. He lived a life of excess and carelessness. He cared only about wrestling and himself. It is only when his body begins to fail him that he realizes how alone he truly is and seeks redemption with his daughter. Redemption he knows he doesn’t deserve but surprisingly is given. In a fit he resorts to his old ways and just like in his old ways he forgets his daughter and she walks out of his life forever. The best thing that could have happened to Randy is if he had died when he had his heart attack or, better yet, he died in some way as his career began to go downhill. It would have saved him from years of wrestling in town halls while working part-time in a grocery store, from living in trailer parks that he couldn’t even afford, and the increasing reality that he was getting old and was more and more becoming alienated from the world in which he lived. His one last shot at redemption was his daughter and he failed. Outside of the ring he had nothing so he gave his everything inside of it. He died surrounded by what he had built but, unlike Gatsby, he died without any hope of a fulfilled life. To this day I often stop the movie after he realizes he has missed his date with his daughter.
So, to Mr. Willard, speaking as a man, I agree with you that redemption is a tear-inducing theme. But I have found that not all stories of redemption are happy. There is a converse and it is just as powerfully tear-jerking as its counterpart because they are reminders that life does not always have happy endings and that some people live lives that have made themselves unredeemable.