Creasy: “Do you think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?”
This exchange happens near the beginning of director Tony Scott’s moving Man on Fire, a heavy but incredible film I had been putting off seeing (glad some friends got me to slow down and finally watch it). We’re introduced to Denzel Washington’s character Creasy, and at this point know very little about him except the haggard appearance, drinking problem, and an emptiness of soul Denzel conveys with haunted eyes and a nearly expressionless face. While someone very young might not identify, anyone old enough to have experienced real anguish – anguish of soul – can pour themselves into the frame of John Creasy easier than the shots of Jack Daniels that slide down his gullet. While at this point we might wonder at the weight, shape, and number of his sins, there is something familiar in his sense of loss: he’s lost himself.
Creasy: “I am the sheep that got lost, Madre.”
When he takes a job as bodyguard for the young girl Pita, the small exchange of Bible verses at her school with the Mother Superior is short instead of cinematic, real instead of melodramatic. Creasy believes he’s a man without chance for redemption. Those he has worked for over the years, his chosen profession, things he has done… his ongoing course in life has left him without any hope for himself. This leads to a pivotal scene in the first act where he does something desperate, drunk, yet internally consistent with the assumptions he’s made. Putting a gun to his head, Creasy pulls the trigger… and for a split second we think this could be a very short film.
“My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains. From mountain to hill they have gone. They have forgotten their fold.” - Jeremiah 50:6
I sat down to watch this film to honor the deceased director Tony Scott, not realizing this dark moment marked the film. With his cinematic style and music by Trent Reznor, Scott captures this low and desperate point in the life of a fictional character and I found myself tearing up to consider the director would later make a similar life decision without the plot benefit of a bullet primer that doesn’t work. The film becomes more difficult to view now that, years later, the director made such a choice with finality. There is even director’s commentary where he speaks about what it means to be in such a difficult place emotionally. I pray future viewings of this make viewers more mindful, more thoughtful, not just viewing a fictional story but thinking about the heaviness that may pervade all our hearts and souls at various points in life, thinking things have gotten to a place beyond reconciliation where – in Creasy’s case – he believes God has no forgiveness for him, no future save torment.
Rayburn: “Well, you know what they say. A bullet always tells the truth.”
A one-in-a-thousand chance saves Creasy’s life and leaves him standing in the rain, wondering why, seeing the little girl Pita looking down on him from her bedroom window. Slowly but surely, new life begins to be injected into his lethargic veins, a vitality creeping back into his form that even includes a smile. He becomes friend and secondary father figure to Pita, and the movie might end here as a sweet, redemptive family drama… until the brutal kidnapping of Pita, Creasy’s near-death, and the bungled ransom negotiations that make it embrace yet another tone. Hope seems promised but then ripped away with crushing finality. The narrative pivots to provide the viewer with a cold, merciless revenge film as the darkest side of Creasy resurfaces to carry out his own sense of justice.
Sister Anna: “Do you ever see the Hand of God in what you do?”
Creasy: “No, not for a long time.”
As the film spirals into something colder than Death Wish,with Creasy taking down the kidnapping ring piece by piece (literally leaving some men in pieces) how do we feel? When Pita’s mother holds her daughter’s teddy bear, kisses Creasy on the cheek, and tells him to “kill them all” is there a sense of justice in what happens over the next hour? What’s fascinating is that Creasy is no Punisher, he’s not The Bride from Kill Bill: there is no relish, no pleasure in what he does, a flat expressionless visage that looks like his early days of driving Pita to and from school. The movie doesn’t glamorize or glorify his violence – quite the opposite, in fact – yet what persists in the uncomfortable undercurrent is the ominous sense that this vengeance is direly needed. Does it echo an ache in our own hearts crying out for injustice, yet seeing the flaws when we try to be the instruments of that vengeance, the hollow victory?
Rayburn: “He’ll deliver more justice in a weekend than ten years of your courts and tribunals.”
While some of us have not experienced the depths of anguish Pita’s mother faces, we resonate with varied levels of loss, pain at the hands of wicked people and sorrow that we didn’t do more to help others with the time we have. Our desire for the type of justice Creasy brings isn’t evil, but most days we miss the mark when it comes to who that savior should be: who we should be looking to and handing our vengeance over to, trusting the real savior to get it done in the end. Surprisingly, the film keeps putting the Bible into center screen… suggesting it might be the only thing that may truly provide any comfort or counsel.
“’Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord…’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” - Romans 12:19-21
While we can’t condone the brutal acts that follow, the film has one more turn to take that explains everything: the misfiring bullet, why Creasy wound up in this situation, and what greater purpose it was all meant to serve. The vengeance arc of the story becomes something greater, the film transforming into Creasy’s true redemption. In the third act he keeps immersing himself in water, his unhealing wounds turning the water red… it’s a baptismal image unmistakeable to the thinking viewer as he goes under the water to wash the blood off again and again. We find out the bullet did have a truth to tell: his saved life was providence, not for vengeance… but for the ability to save another, his life spared miraculously earlier in the narrative so that he might ultimately offer to lay it down for someone else.
“…for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” - Romans 8:28
The God revealed in Creasy’s Bible has been known to use sinners, to take the horrible things they do and redirect the ends of those means, so that it ultimately works out for his glory and the good of his people. In this way, even Creasy’s acts of brutality wind up serving a greater purpose, trailing the wicked men until it isn’t simply vengeance that gets satisfied, but the salvation of a life thought lost. In the end, all of Creasy’s talents and actions aren’t what saves him or this other person, but his willingness to let all those things go and give himself up. Pita gave him a necklace that represented hope for “lost causes” and we see – for both his soul and his ability to be used of God – he is not lost, and in the end he finds himself. Creasy’s God did not prove absent, or unforgiving, and the self-described “lost sheep” is found.
The examples of providence, vengeance, justice, grace and sacrifice in Man on Fire make it a must-see, provided you’re braced for one of the most emotional films you may ever experience. If possible, watch it with someone whose shoulder you can cry on. Debrief with others by pondering these questions:
Do you suffer moments (or a lifetime) of regret like Creasy, his emptiness of soul?
Do you feel the anguish of a broken world and its abuses like Pita’s mother?
Are there desires for vengeance and justice in your heart that may not be wicked?
What do you turn to for renewed life? Is this something or someone like Pita that – if taken away – would leave you empty again?
Is there forgiveness and grace for the things you have done? If so, where does it come from?
Is there healing and hope for the abuses you have suffered? If so, who offers it?
[Jesus] told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents…” - Luke 15:3-7