THE CROW: The Awfulness of Goodness

Every year my wife and I watch Alex Proyas’ film adaptation of The Crow on October 30th, “Devil’s Night”, which also happens to be our anniversary. This year, however, the tragic supernatural revenge flick had something more profound to say to my heart.

Anguish and loss

It’s not as if the film lacked resonance up to this point. Eric Draven’s story packs an emotional punch – underscored by Proyas’ exquisite dark direction, supported by great music by The Cure and other artists – as Eric is resurrected and commissioned by forces unseen to exact vengeance on the ones who raped and killed his wife Shelly. Knowing that actor Brandon Lee actually died during filming adds a somber note to the proceedings as well. Additionally, some may not know that the original graphic novel, by James O’Barr, was written as a means of dealing with the death of Barr’s girlfriend at the hand of a drunk driver.

While not all of us have dealt with the tragedy of losing a loved one in such a fierce and sudden way, The Crow serves as a form of catharthis for viewers who know the pain of lost loved ones, or violence at the hands of others. Our anger and lament is wrapped up like Eric Draven in electrical tape, whether he’s playing his guitar on rooftops or mocking his wife’s unrepentant tormentors. Unlike revenge films like Death Wish or The Punisher, this one also has a surreal sense of purity. Why is this?

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written “vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord.” – Romans 12:19

Biblical scripture is clear that vengeance belongs to God and not to man. While most revenge films showcase characters bypassing this godly mandate, Eric Draven’s lethal quest seems to have been sanctioned: after all, he didn’t resurrect himself, and admits he doesn’t know what he is or how he got back. He is the instrument of vengeance, but clearly not the architect. There is a nobility to his path that many similar stories lack, in that the protagonist has been obviously commissioned by the powers-that-be.

“They’re already dead. They just don’t know it yet.”

As the movie tagline suggests we should “Believe in Angels” Eric is indeed an emmissary, a dark heavenly messenger sent back from the grave, entrusted with delivering mail to men whose bills of sin have come due. We like seeing this happen to others, but could it be that’s what we all – somewhere deep down – truly fear?

“Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.”  – Deuteronomy 32:35

A poetic line appears twice in the film, once when the murderers break into Shelly and Eric’s apartment to commit their crimes, and again when their ringleader T-Bird faces his fate at the hands of the white-faced avenger. The first time the words are spoken in ignorance and mockery, but the second time with a feverish, final understanding:

“Abashed the devil stood and felt how awful goodness is..

The quote is actually from Milton’s Paradise Lost, and continues with “…and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely: and pined his loss”. The idea conveyed in its fullness is that someone fallen from grace gazes upon someone pure, recognizes their relatively dirty, depraved condition, and despairs. In the film, T-Bird stares into the face of the returned, angelic Eric Draven, face painted white, and realizes how this goodness not only instills despair, but stark terror.

A friend recently illuminated a little-known concept that surfaces in Melville’s classic Moby Dick. Many assume the white whale symbolizes chaos and uncontrollability,, regarding it as a symbol of evil. Yet, being of the color white this untamed animal takes on a god-like quality – pure, untamed, and powerful beyond measure. Ahab is not trying to conquer darkness, but light. It isn’t just that Ahab’s obsession represents revenge, or conquering nature, but “killing god”. It’s a metaphor for man’s need to prove himself greater than our pure and untameable Master, to show ourselves to be superior, to eradicate that which is white because it comparatively reveals the stains on our own soul.

Eric Draven, similarly painted white on his journey of justice, evokes the same terror not only in his foes, but even those he isn’t directly targeting: when T-Bird’s boss Top Dollar interacts with Eric, it provokes a craving to put this justified angel to death, to prove himself superior and perhaps even gain the Crow’s power. He feels threatened because he is no longer king of the city, no longer the most powerful thing in the world. A good question is: might this reflect something of our fears and desires for control?

“This is the really real world. There ain’t no coming back!”

The Crow may be fantasy, even a narrative therapy, but is there something about it that strikes a timeless chord related to one who IS coming back, in our really-real world? I believe so, as these three elements make Proyas’ gothic vision a timeless classic:

  • We resonate with the sense of loss and tragedy.
  • We long for the divine commission of a just, pure vengeance.
  • We fear that self-same face of purity because it reveals our sinful stains.  

“So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.” – Revelation 14

Thank God that His ultimate story is not simply just recompense for wrongdoing, or I’d find myself duct-taped to a car seat with a grenade between my legs. I may have not have the obvious sins of T-Bird and his crew on my conscience, but I’m not stainless. As we see Draven’s his friendship with Officer Albrecht, his tenderness with Sarah, and his harsh but needed reclamation of Darla, there is a merciful and transforming aspect to this angel.

One would hope this bearing would mark the true face of this world’s savior and emissary, and the only promise I’ve seen that satisfies both extremes is the grace and justice found in Christ. In his incarnation 2,000 years ago, mankind collectively couldn’t stand Jesus’ purity and perfection, and ((like Ahab, like Top Dollar) we sinfully sought his destruction. Oddly enough, Jesus’ radical grace is offered even to his murderers. That’s one reason why I believe, in this “really-real” world, He both has and will come back.

  1. Mike

    great thoughts, i’ve always liked this movie, and you’ve probably helped me put a finger on why i do. well done, very enjoyable read.

  2. solomani

    Excellent piece. One of my favorite movies.

  3. Bradley

    This was great until the silly bit about Christ at the end. This is the really real world, there ain’t no coming back.

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