(All media is telling you something. This is the fourth post of a series where I take a look at the thoughts conveyed through Oscar winning movies. This isn’t a typical critique where I say I liked blah about the movie because of blahbity blah. I’ll make an attempt to take a look at themes in general and on Jesus and Christianity. Spoilers are a necessity on this so be warned! I will assume you have already watched this movie. Previous entry in series: Gandhi.)
Best Picture, Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Director (Barry Levinson), Best Writing 1988
Susanna:”You use me. You use Raymond. You use everybody.”
Charlie: “Using Raymond? Hey Raymond, am I using you? Am I using you Raymond?”
Sometimes a performance in a movie is so strong that it takes a film away from its original intent and draws the focus to the character. A modern movie that illustrates this is Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. In these cases, the message of the movie becomes secondary to the character study. This is the story of Rain Man.
The primary intent of Rain Man was to tell us that our family relationships, or lack of them, have powerful effect on us. That was before Dustin Hoffman successfully lobbied a change for Raymond to be an autistic savant instead of mentally retarded. That made the focus of Rain Man to tell us about autism and that we need to pay more attention to it as a society. The evidence of this change is found in that Raymond ultimately does not end up living with his brother (the found family and healed Charlie route) but instead goes back to an institution (a result of another successful lobbying effort from Hoffman).
Even though it begrudgingly took second fiddle , the film still has a lot to say about the effect of family in our life. Rain Man thinks that broken relationships with our family affect most everything we do. Rain Man also thinks that we often purposefully misunderstand our family’s motives to mask our own selfishness. Rain Man thinks that lack of family makes you off kilter in life and that found family has tremendous healing power. Family is antidote for the poison of selfishness.
Direct references to Christianity or morality are sparse in the film. Charlie’s girlfriend Susanna gives half-hearted appeals about how using his brother is “wrong” despite the fact that she clearly aids Charlie in being deceitful in his business dealings. Most of the reference to God is indirectly played out. First it is played out as the power behind the family unit. Second it is played out through a common theme of film and literature: the estranged father.
In this theme, the father is stern. Distant. Always mildly disappointed. He never gives his approval. He surgically points out weaknesses. The son, somewhat reckless – impulsive – is never good enough. He leaves but his father’s disapproval haunts him. It affects his life. This story resonates timelessly because it springs from our deep spiritual subconscious. God, to us, feels like a stern, distant father. We are never good enough. He promises us things but only when we are worthy of them. We are mad at him, but we secretly think he’s right. Our shortcomings haunt us.
Charlie’s story plays this out. He has a disapproving father. At his father’s funeral (subconsciously connecting it to Jesus death for us), his father’s will voices his disapproval and his disappointment with his son not trying to connect with him more. Charlie’s frustration with his father is illustrated with a story he tells of getting all A’s but not getting the thing he wanted – to ride in his father’s special car. Charlie’s used that pain to get into the high end car business where the ethics were fast and loose. Charlie makes a spiritual reference after this story by claiming his father is in hell looking up and laughing at him. That means Charlie’s experience caused him to question his father’s goodness. The parallels that can be drawn to our spiritual lives are vast!
The sad thing is that God is nothing like the caricature we paint him out to be. Like Charlie, we mask our greed by accusing him of being not good. As God says to Job, “Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:8) Our enemy, the accuser, is a master of PR and uses skillful revelation of parts of God while subduing others to paint God as the father described above. He whispers that our desires are good and that God doesn’t give into them because he doesn’t really love us or want the best for us. This was essentially his technique in the garden and he still uses it masterfully. But, God is not like that! He is a father who gives generously when asked (Matt. 7:10), regardless of our righteousness (Romans 5:8). He was willing to die for us. (Romans 5:8) He always listens. (Hebrews 10) He cares. (1 Peter 5:7) His love abounds. (John 3:16)
Connection to God puts us into a family. We, like Charlie, do not know how good that family is until we become a part of it. That family, the church, scrubs away our selfishness, sometimes in ways that frustrate us. But, in the end if we stay with it, we, like Charlie, will feel it’s unbelievable goodness.
Charlie: “I just realized I’m not pissed off anymore. My father cut me out of his will. You probably knew he tried to contact me over the years. I never called him back. I was a prick. If he was my son and didn’t return my calls, I’d have written him out. But it’s not about the money anymore. You know, I just don’t understand. Why didn’t he tell me I had a brother? Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that I had a brother? Because it’d have been nice to know him for more than just the past six days.”