Match Point (2005)

Woody Allen’s Match Point was hailed, on its premiere in 2005, as a return to relevance for the New York actor-writer-director. Suffering under a largely underwhelming output through the 90s and the early part of this decade, Allen relocated to London, a move that paid off in the production of this taut, suspenseful drama about a man who finds himself caught between two women—his wife and his mistress.

Allen’s film begins with bold narration laid in over a close up of a tennis net. The yellow ball travels left, right, then back to the left, over and over again as the film’s main character, Chris, speaks about the importance of luck to all of life. When the ball hits the net, the direction it falls will be determined by chance. Or so he’s come to believe. This narration, coming at the beginning of the film, serves to frame the action that follows, providing insight into how Chris views the events that transpire in his life. In fact, he even vocalizes similar views during a dinner scene later in the film, arguing for the ultimate meaninglessness of life because all things happen due to random chance. There is no power to determine one’s direction in life.

A former professional tennis player himself, one wonders if Chris’ belief in chance resulted in his lack of belief in himself. A tennis-playing friend comments to Chris later about how he always seemed to be within a bounce or two of really competing at the highest level. It seems that in the face of years of hard work, Chris could never get the bounces to go his way, so he quit and floated into another way of making a living.

Early in the film, Chris alternates between reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and a companion to Dostoevsky that offers readers a shortcut to understanding the novel. As the film goes on, it becomes clear that the narrative unfurls like Crime and Punishment in reverse. The novel portrays Raskolnikov as one who believes himself as unique, superior among human beings, and above the law. These beliefs lead him to commit a crime to prove his theory. However this crime occurs extremely early in the novel, leaving the bulk of the pages to portray Raskolnikov’s struggle with the guilt and fear that come with such heinous deeds, and the redemption that follows.

On the other hand, Match Point portrays Chris as someone who sees himself as an outsider, but who tries to fit into civilized society. The crime that Chris commits, almost a mirror image of the crime in Dostoevsky’s novel, comes at the end of the film, rather than at the beginning. Instead of emphasizing the guilt and fear that result from the crime, Allen lays the emphasis on the guilt and fear that cause the crime. Allen’s film presents us a series of events that lead up to the crime—a list of reasons for it, if you will.

This change of focus presents us a world in which rather than mourning our sins and finding redemption, we ponder the reasons for our sins and lose our connection with humanity. The heart the film, therefore, moves away from introspection, and toward victimization, not a surprising shift in light of contemporary fascination with blaming others. And when the time for fear and guilt over his sins finally arrives in the film, it’s given no more than a few of minutes of screen time.

However, either due to the brilliance of the filmmaker or in spite of him, Match Point cannot be categorized as a simple narrative that illustrates the randomness of the universe. Sure, the main character firmly believes that, even in light of the film’s stunning conclusion. But the film shows us other things as well: we see a man consistently making choices to pursue one woman, then another, even when it forces him to be dishonest or, more selfishly, puts his own living situation at great risk; we see a man who creates a plan to eliminate the conflict between the two women, a plan that will require him to commit a heinous and unthinkable crime; and most significantly, we see a man who, in the final frames of the film, stands apart from the only family he knows.

Allen shoots his final scene in an extended tracking shot, as the family all return from the hospital with a new baby. But the continuity of the shot belies the discontinuity between Chris and the rest of the family. Allen’s camera does not allow this sad reality of Chris’ new life (or is it new death?) to escape. As the family gathers for a champagne toast around the new life sitting before them, an ashen Chris walks toward the window overlooking the Thames, his face bathed in an unforgiving sunlight. The light reveals all—a man who on the outside has no troubles, yet on the inside remains troubled by his deeds; a man who lives in material comfort without, but has no spiritual or emotional comfort within.

If everything really were simply left up to chance, if life really were completely random and without any ultimate meaning, would the look on his face be so predictable? Sure, Allen’s film begins with a narration on the luck of life and includes multiple spoken scenes on the randomness of the universe. But it’s that troubled and guilty face we’re left with, a face that shows us maybe things aren’t as random as they sometimes seem.

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

In Crimes and Misdemeanors, we have a story about morality, guilt, and the human condition. It tells the story of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), an accomplished ophthalmologist and community leader. He runs in the same circles with the rich, and sometimes even the famous. He is widely respected, adored by his wife and children, having seemingly anything a man could want. This is, of course, the perfect set-up for his downfall. For, in fact, everything is not well. He has been unfaithful for going on two years now. And having just ended the relationship, his old flame Dolores (Anjelica Huston) now wants to get even. She wants to tell his wife. She wants to blackmail him to leave his wife for her. She is quite emotional, and takes to disrupting his “regular” life more and more often. To what lengths will he go to keep her quiet? What will a man do to protect his reputation and the comfortable life he has been living? If he goes too far, does that old life even exist for him any longer?These are the questions that plague Judah’s experience throughout the film. As the film moves along, and things progress, that final question grows in importance. Finally, when he has Dolores killed, we see the significant consequences this has on his life, his conscience, and what it will have on his family. Surely, now, he will confess. But he doesn’t, and time passes, and feelings dull, and we see the rationalization take place that we all know too well. We know it because we do it. Maybe it’s not for a murder, but it takes place in our lives every day in the smallest of ways. This film is pinpoint accurate in its depiction of the human condition. If left to our impulses, we will make every effort to save ourselves regardless of the claims of justice on our lives. How do we live with ourselves? We forget.

Writer/director Woody Allen is focused in this effort. He does not allow his character (Cliff) to dominate the proceedings with his self-absorbed, self-loathing introspection. But he does this great thing with his character of Cliff at the end of the film. As he sits there, contradicting Judah’s story and arguing for the happy ending that leads to justice, writer and director Allen is telling us just the opposite – that no, injustice takes place all the time. Rationalization takes place all the time. We humans just can’t see straight. Even those of us with the power to help people see clearly can’t see clearly ourselves. It’s significant that the touchstone in this film is the blind rabbi. He does not rely on his earthly sight to get through life. He has something deeper, more significant, and more reliable than that. He has faith – which is just the thing that Judah lacks.

This is such a well-written, well-acted piece that is filled with truth. Go see it now.