When is homicide justified? What are the moral consequences of homicide? How does a man deal with the consequences of taking another’s life?
These are the deep waters explored in Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’s 2014 drama To Kill A Man (Matar a un Hombre). It is a joint French-Chilean production.
It is, surely, one of the most ancient and intractable of moral questions. Greek drama visited the theme frequently, and never came to a firm resolution of the issue. Dostoyevsky painstakingly chronicled the movement of the soul’s decline after a murder in Crime and Punishment. Director Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 drama Straw Dogs also explored the issue, but left little room for philosophic reflection by making self-defense the key determining event of the homicide.
The story here is told with stark simplicity. There is no action film luster here. This is a nightmare, told with a sequence of fixed-camera shots that leave nothing to the imagination. The viewer is left to ponder the implications for himself.
A mild-mannered, somewhat drab man named Jorge and his family are being taunted by a group of neighborhood toughs led by a thug nicknamed Kalule. In the opening scene, we see Jorge walking home at night and being mugged by Kalule and his friends near a soccer field. Jorge does not resist.
Things just get worse and worse from there. When Jorge’s diabetes medications are taken in the mugging, his son tries to confront Kalule. This earns him a shooting from Kalule, who is so depraved that he even shoots himself to make it look like Jorge’s son assaulted him first.
The case winds up in court, and Kalule gets a year and a half of prison time. Jorge’s son spends three months in a hospital bed.
Jorge’s wife is not happy at all, of course; we get the sense that she blames Jorge for his perceived spinelessness. There is tension in this relationship, real tension, that is simmering just below the surface.
One Kalule’s prison time is up, things go south very, very quickly. He reactivates his local gang, and this time they seem determined to drive Jorge and his family to the breaking point. He throws rocks at their windows. He ignores the restraining orders that a local judge puts in place. He forcibly assaults Jorge’s daughter, stopping just short of a forcible rape but severely traumatizing her.
These scenes will generate real emotion for anyone who has ever been bullied or picked on. Which, I suppose, is nearly everyone. We feel violent hatred for the bully, and this is the director’s intention.
And this assault on the daughter seems to be the straw that pushes him over the edge. It is made very clear in the film that Jorge and his family have exhausted all of their legal remedies. They try to have Kalule and his gang prosecuted, but the reaction from the local authorities is lukewarm at best. There is just no sense of urgency on their end.
I won’t be revealing anything by telling at this point that Jorge abducts and kills his nemesis. How precisely he does this I will not say; but it is clear that it is a premeditated plan, executed with a methodical intensity. The sequence is brilliantly filmed, and we are unable to take our eyes off the screen. There is no glamorization of the violence.
And this is where the film really begins its exploration of the moral consequences of this act. He does not confide in his wife. Indeed, it is almost as if the deed reaps him no benefit at all. After the assault on their daughter, Jorge’s wife basically throws him out of the house, in apparent contempt for his perceived inability to do anything to stop the bullying.
But Jorge is unable to move on. He becomes physically ill. He revisits the scene of the crime. He moves the body several times. The deed begins to eat away at him.
This is where the viewer will naturally begin to ask himself or herself: what would I have done? Would I have been able to live with this? I wonder how I would have dealt with killing someone?
My first feelings were, probably like most people, that the scumbag got what was coming to him. And yet, after seeing the ending, we are not so sure any more. It is too easy to say, “Could I have lived with that? Sure! No problem. I might have had a few rough nights, but I would have eventually gotten over it.”
No one who has not been in this situation can really predict how he would react. I have not been in Jorge’s situation, thankfully, so I have no idea how I would react.
But to me, the key factor seems to be the degree of premeditation. Had the killing been done in the heat of passion or in self-defense, one gets the sense that the deed would have weighed less heavily on him. But we really don’t know. Jorge is not an expressive man, emotionally. He keeps his emotions bottled up from everyone.
The ending works, even if viewers may think it unrealistic. Even if we do not think we are moral animals, our actions often prove otherwise.
Endings like this happen all the time in homicide cases, leading us to conclude that the human mind is a much more complicated–and morally conscious–agent of human activity than most people are prepared to believe.
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