Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sin, Virtue and Redemption in a Deeper Game than Baseball

I watched the movie The Natural again last night, and was struck anew by the deep themes within the story. Oh, yes, you can watch at the superficial, baseball-game level, and celebrate the winning homer when Roy Hobb's gone ball hits the scoreboard in a coruscating fall of sparks.

In that sense, the iconic baseball movie can be viewed as a piece of schmaltzy fluff, feel-good nostalgia. Critics of the movie have pointed to its almost cartoonishly-simple villains and heroes as evidence of its simplistic status. 

Many of the figures who inhabit this film are either obviously good or starkly evil. No question that The Judge is a black-hat, for example; he shuns the light of day. A spider at the center of his web, he is the embodiment of the cardinal sin (or deadly passion) of Avarice.

No debate either that Glenn Close plays a good girl, despite her unwed-motherhood. If there were any doubt, it is erased by the way the film garbs her throughout in white and in light. Not only is she Roy Hobb's redemption, she is also his Madonna.

Far more interesting are the ambiguous players, like Max Mercy, The Whammer, and Harriet Bird (the lady in black), and the redeemable characters of Bump Bailey, Memo Paris and Hobbs himself. It is through the development of these smaller sinners and weaker saints that The Natural transcends the cartoon.

Max Mercy (played by Robert Duvall) is a cynic, the embodiment of Doubt. Max is convinced that he is irredeemable—and therefore, so is everyone else. Doubt is a minor, venial sin, but it is just a breath away from the deadly sin of Despair. That Max has nearly reached despair is evident in his counsel to Hobbs, and also from the 
cartoons he draws before the event. He has no doubt that Hobbs will take the easy downward path, because Max himself would.

The Whammer (Joe Don Baker in a cameo), like Max (in whose company Hobbs meets the famed hitter), is a venial sinner. His Hedonism is just this side of the deadly sin of Gluttony—not the relatively innocent lust for good food and wine, sex, and other such bodily pleasures, but the far more grave equation of pleasure with Good. In fact, The Whammer is rescued from stepping over the brink from venial to mortal sin by a small wound to his pride: the loss to young Hobbs in a casual three-pitch contest.

The sins of Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey) seem obvious. The lady in black murdered several other athletes, and attempted to shoot Roy Hobbs. But beyond the murders, Harriet commits the cardinal sin of Envy. She wishes to possess the fame of the athlete by removing him from life. Only Harriet will know that Roy Hobbs might have been "the best that ever was." Her desire is obviously twisted and sick—but all envy is sick and twisted. Harriet Bird slips that knowledge in under our guard.

Bump Bailey, who has accepted the bribes that Roy turns down, is a classic picture of little-g greed on its way to all-consuming avarice. Bailey wants it all: fame, fortune, a lovely woman, the semblance of virtue with the pleasures of vice. Bailey chases his final ball so fervently, he collides with an unyielding wall and dies. How explicit can a parable be?

Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) and Iris Gaines (Glenn Close) are presented as opposites. Memo dresses mostly in black. She is openly manipulative of the baseball players, though she seems to be directed by Gus (Darrin McGavin) in all she does. Her sins of lust are no greater in commission, really, than Iris's, though perhaps less innocent in motivation. Yet her major sin is Sloth. Memo does nothing productive; in fact, she sucks power and purpose away from the players with whom she becomes involved. Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley) knows Memo is the problem, even if he cannot be specific. "Some people are just bad luck," he warns Hobbs.

That leaves Roy Hobbs. Robert Redford plays the central figure of this morality play perfectly, as the symbol of the redeemability of man—although in the past, in his glory as a young pitcher, Hobbs was guilty of sins in their venial measure, and in the present begins to make the same mistakes, in the end (with Iris' help) he is able to atone for past errors and regain glory.

The classic Western virtues are also displayed in the latter half of the film. Hobbs serves justice in delivering Pop Fisher from the false partnership with The Judge; he displays fortitude and courage to return as a middle-aged rookie to the game in which he might have been "the best there ever was." And although his temperance is tested by the lure of Memo Paris and the fast pace of the city, in the end, he chooses the simpler life, the ranch and fatherhood.

These lessons are not preached; they are not even made particularly explicit. Yet audiences have responded—we know good when we see it. Like Roy Hobbs, we do not always choose the good we see, but we do recognize it as good.

The message of The Natural is that, even years later, we can change; we can make the better choice. 


Man is redeemable.