Ashley Belohlavek: Forgiveness in Film

In the films Flatliners and Dead Man Walking, forgiveness is portrayed as something that truly has to be earned. We have discussed the idea of unconditional forgiveness, where the wrongdoer may be forgiven even if they do not ask to be, but the person wronged has simply decided to forgive and move on. In both movies, no character is forgiven until they have made amends with the person they wronged (or think they wronged), though each movie picks a different price of forgiveness.

Flatliners, though a rather grim and eerie film, ends on pretty good note. All of the characters who “go under” and have a near death experience are haunted by a person or people who they have or think they have hurt, and in the end, all of them make peace with their pasts. Joe must face the guilt of having broken the trust of several women and the price of his forgiveness is losing his fiancée to the knowledge of the ugly actions of his past. David seeks out and apologizes to the woman who he bullied when he was young, and his genuine apology and effort allows the woman, Winnie, to forgive what he did so long ago. Nelson is even able to be forgiven for his horrible actions as a child, bullying another kid, Billy, so badly that he accidentally dies along with his dog. Nelson is only able to earn forgiveness, however, by risking his life and meeting Billy in the “afterlife” to accept whatever punishment Billy decides he deserves.

What I found most interesting about Flatliners was that it seems that they require the characters to earn their forgiveness depending on how bad their actions where. While David was horrible to have bullied Winnie as a child, a simple, sincere apology was all that was needed for both him and Winnie to make amends and move on with their lives. Joe paid a bigger price–losing the woman he loved–because he had caused so much pain to several women he recorded without their knowledge. And Nelson had to face his own death to be worthy of Billy’s forgiveness. Something I think you could take away from this movie is that forgiveness is always possible, but you must be willing to work for forgiveness to the best of your ability, or else that forgiveness may be worthless. I also found Rachel’s journey to forgiveness to be perhaps the most interesting. Her journey was different from the others’ because she never hurt anyone in the first place, she just thought she did. She kept having visions of her father, who had committed suicide when she was very young, and this whole time she thought she was to blame. After being haunted by the memory of her father, she realizes that he actually had a drug addiction and that caused him to end his own life. So perhaps the only person she had to forgive was herself, and to let the pain of her father’s death go.

Dead Man Walking was more cutthroat in terms of how it portrayed forgiveness. Death row inmate Matthew attempted to prove his innocence in the murder of a young couple along with the woman’s sexual assault, but in the end he admits that he did indeed do what he was accused of. No matter how much Matthew expressed regret or how many tears he shed over what he did, he would not be forgiven for his crime, by the judicial system or the parents of the murdered couple. After watching this movie, I thought that maybe the idea was that perhaps some actions are just unforgiveable. I’m not sure if I believe that or not, but I think the film tried to show that sometimes, all we can do is show our sincere regret, forgive ourselves, and accept whatever punishment we are given.

The messages these films seem to encapsulate stray a bit from our usual conversations. The characters in these movies where all very hesitant to forgive, and many of them, including the parents of the murdered couple in Dead Man Walking would still not forgive Matthew even after he tried to make peace with them before his execution. What I liked most about Flatliners was that rather than focusing on how the main characters felt about their actions, they focused on the victims, allowing them to set the price of their own forgiveness. I liked that a lot, because I think at the end of the day, the person wronged’s feelings are the most important, and no one else can decide when justice has been dealt except for them.

While Matthew would have been executed whether the families of his victims had forgiven him or not, the whole situation reminded me of our class discussions, talking about how in some countries following Islamic moral codes, those wronged are allowed to pick the fate of their attacker. I think this concept applied a lot to both films, especially Flatliners, since the characters of that movie were only saved thanks to the forgiveness of their victims on their own terms, rather than some other entity. Dead Man Walking is only similar to this in that the families refused to let him off the hook no matter what he did or said and he was forced to accept his fate. So my main take away point from these movies was that true forgiveness must be earned. It cannot be bought or conned out of someone. You must put yourself at the mercy of the person you hurt and hope that they grace you with their understanding and forgiveness. Not everyone will agree with this message, but I think these movies did a great job of looking at forgiveness in a very critical and hesitant manner.