Exploring the 'Search For Identity' Theme in Film

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally presented on December 27, 1993 @ Modern Language Association Convention.

Film is an ideal form to show the myths of time and space with its compositions, freeze frames, tracking shots, montage, and other evocative stylistic techniques. Because of these meaningful techniques, film is especially effective in exploring the theme of search for identity in relation to time and space.

Four films that provocatively do this and have much in common are David Mamet's Homicide, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Michael Mann's Manhunter, and Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise. In these four films, all four directors show their protagonists dominated by the past and trying to break loose from the roles and space that confine them. Two of the protagonists fail futilely, one prevails, and the other two make a bold, personal statement in a cold, cruel world.

Homicide is the story of Bobby Gold (Joe Montegna), who is forced to take over a case involving the murder of an older Jewish woman. Although initially unwilling, Gold gets caught up, and the case awakens his own dormant, Jewish identity. Suddenly Gold becomes obsessed, and his personal life collides with his job. At the end, his personal odyssey has cost his partner's life, his job, and his own minimal identity. His labyrinth has led to total alienation.

In The Shining Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), alone with his wife and son, is spending the winter taking care of the empty, out-of-season Overlook Hotel in snow-bound Colorado. Jack wants to be an artist, but he doesn't have the gift of "shining"; his son Danny does. Jack becomes dominated by the hotel. He kills the cook, who comes back to the hotel, and murderously hunts his wife and son. At the end, chasing his son through the hedge maze outside, he freezes to death. His labyrinth has destroyed him.

In Manhunter Will Graham (William Peterson) reluctantly returns from retirement to hunt for a serial killer. As he seeks the killer, by trying to go into the killer's mind, Will also is struggling for his own psychological equilibrium. He has been badly damaged both physically and psychologically by his last case, where he matched wits with the infamous Dr. Hannibal Lector. Finally he kills the serial killer and gains his identity. His labyrinth, unlike those of Gold and Torrance, has led him to a positive resolution.

Thelma & Louise is about two women whose labyrinth occurs on the road. They bolt from their "secure" roles as housewife and waitress and go on vacation. Louise shoots a man who is trying to rape Thelma, and the pair of women become outlaws. Their peripatetic journey leads them away from society's laws and norms, until they wind up at the Grand Canyon. Unable to go back, they drive off the rim in an act of love and decision. Their labyrinth leads them to death. But where Gold and Torrance weren't able to act effectively, Thelma and Louise choose their fate. They aren't victims.

All of the protagonists in the four films are defined by their roles in society. Bobby Gold is a cop, defined by his pistol. It is the basic symbol of his identity. In the opening of Homicide, the weapons of the SWAT team stand out in the frame; all the men are holding their weapons up. Late in the police station when Wells, who killed his wife and three children, dives over the table trying to get Gold's pistol, he tears Gold's holster strap, and never again is Gold's pistol going to protect him as it once did. In a police car with his partner Sullivan, Gold leaves his pistol in the seat. "Where's my piece," he cries and goes back and recovers it on the seat. Later on the roof of the building adjoining the Jews, Gold climbs a ladder, jumps to another level and again loses his pistol. He recovers it, but his pistol, his manhood, his identity are becoming more and more vulnerable.

Sullivan asks "What is this?" Gold says "The strap I tore off my holster." Sully says, "Get it fixed." But it is not that easy for Gold; his sensibility has been torn.

After Sully is shot and dies in his arms, Gold goes after the killer Randolph. In a tunnel Gold reaches for his holster, but there is no pistol. Instead, Gold grabs a chain. It is an image that may remind us of jack Torrance returning to the primitive with his ax at the end of the The Shining. But for Gold, chains are not only a primitive weapon; they are a symbol of his confinement. They echo in the the final scene in which Wells walks along manacled. Gold watches him through dead eyes.

Gold has tried to trade in one job -- cop -- for another identity -- Jew -- but both demanded his individuality. When the Jews demand that he give them the list of names of Jews from the police files, they demanded he give up his individuality and accountability for a movement. There is little question where David Mamet stands. When he was asked his assessment of politics, he called it "The last refuge of the unimaginative." Mamet called religion, "The second-to-last." (Contemporary Authors. Vol 81-84. pg. 353.)

Jack Torrance, in The Shining also loses his identity to his job. When the Overlook Hotel and its spokesman demand he sacrifice his family to the past, he slowly goes mad. Rendered uncreative and impotent, he hobbles with his ax after his son trying to murder the future. He too could not find an identity to replace his lost profession. He too is without self at the end, a victim of space without identity.

Will Graham in Manhunter is almost a victim of the past. He too was almost caught between job and family. But Graham kills the past when he shoots the Red Dragon keeping his manhood intact and saving would-be victims. He is able to join his wife and son on the beach in a postlapsarian Eden, leaving his job and finding a familial identity.

Thelma and Louise wind up somewhere between the enchanted island of Will Graham and the cold tombs of Bobby Gold and Jack Torrance. They too have livelihoods which label them. They leave their conventional roles with no real destination in mind, except to get away from a stifling space. Ironically, they take on the new labels of outlaws, which have conventions of their won. Then Thelma robs a store, she mimics the exact words of J.D. (juvenile delinquent?) when he told her his style. Thelma and Louise are seeking freedom, but they really can't get away from confining and dehumanizing conventions and norms of behavior. Society demands them. Only by plunging off the Grand Canyon can they free themselves from society's space. But they can't free themselves from gravity.

Bobby Gold tried the role of arsonist and the role of Jew; Jack Torrance tried the role of artist; Thelma and Louise tried the roles of outlaw. None of them worked. Only Graham, who stayed in his role as forensic specialist, was able to use his job to free himself. His job tried to take away his humanity, but it didn't. Since he was one of a kind in his job, he was able to retain his individuality. He was able to use the present and the past as stepping stones to a viable future.

In all four films the American Dream has failed. Mamet has quoted Voltaire in saying that words were invented to hide feelings, and the characters in Homicide speak but don't listen. When Bobby and Sully are talking at each other about two different cases, it is a compelling example of lack of communication. And when Sully is dying in his arms, Gold has no idea what his fatally-wounded partner is saying. Without basic communication, the American society is destitute.

In the opening shots of Manhunter, Graham and Jack, who is asking him to come back into service, are facing different ways, dislocated. When Graham is in his hotel room, he is dominated by the television set, which is on the majority of the frame; Graham leans forward as though into the tv. When he visits Lector at the hospital prison, Graham is dwarfed by the structure; he bolts down three white tiers, in panic. At the end, Graham leaves American material civilization, where power is possession.

At the end of The Shining after Jack freezes like a Lincolnesque ice sculpture, we see a picture on the wall of the Overlook Hotel. It is inscribed "Overlook Hotel; July 4th Ball, 1921." Among the crowd in the picture is the beaming face of Jack Torrance. But it is no longer 1921, when America was a land of hope and opportunity. Now the American Dream is dead, and a happy, partying Jack Torrance has turned into a cold, mad corpse.

Thelma and Louise go on an odyssey after freedom. They each represent America in a different way: Louise is practical and self-reliant; Thelma is naive and dominated by her husband Daryl, who represents oppressive conventional American behavior -- smug and insensitive. When she finally is awakened on her quest for freedom, Thelma takes on the independence of Louise and adds her own personal touches such as when she takes charge of the cop on the desert.

The desert setting gives a timeless sense to the film, but various juxtapositions contrast the old with the new. Modern agriculture techniques are followed by open field and dusty roads, an old saloon is crossed by an airplane, and their car is surrounded by cattle and horses. And ancient onlookers watch Louise in the car. She washes her face with water from a rain barrel and gives an old man on a porch her watch and jewelry. As much as she tries to give away materialism, Louise can't free herself from the past. We are all irrevocably connected to our past. The rape of Louise several years before, the shooting of Harlan, the robbery all effect her present and future. She can't find a new America.

Since the characters in all four films are living in an America that has corrupted its dream, they turn to nature for an escape. Bobby Gold never gets a chance to leave his urban environment with its endless doors, window, and passageways. In the final image of Homicide, Gold sits motionless beside an open door with light coming through a window in the next room. But bobby is facing the other way, immobile, defeated, and unseeing.

Nature leads Jack Torrance through a natural maze that ends with him lost and frozen to death, He has sought to find himself through nature, and instead he has lost himself.

Thomas Harris' Red Dragon, on which Manhunter was based, ironically has the same kind of pessimism as the films Homicide and The Shining. In it, nature does not provide solace. At the end of the novel, Will Graham, having lost his family, alone visits the Civil War battleground of Shiloh. Harris writes about the terror of men and the indifference of nature. "Yes, he had been wrong about Shiloh. Shiloh isn't haunted -- men are haunted.

Shiloh doesn't care." (354)

Director Michael Mann drastically changes Harris' conclusion. His final image is of Will Graham with his wife and children standing peacefully on the beach with the evocative song "Heart Beat" playing on the soundtrack. Nature has redeemed Will Graham in Mann's version.

However, there is an interesting change in the director's cut. In the theatrical release, after Graham has shot the Red Dragon and saved Reba, she asks "Who are you?" He responds, "Graham. I'm Will Graham," as though he now has his identity. In Mann's director's cut, this dialogue is missing. There is an added scene of Graham's visiting the family who were going to be the next victims of the serial killer. In his version, it is as though seeing them gives Graham his identity. At any rate, in the film Graham is intact and nature is kind.

In Thelma & Louise nature also plays a crucial part. When Louise at night is driving through rocky terrain with mesas in the distance, she stops and walks off into the night. Thelma joins her and asks, "What's going on?" She answers, "Nothing." Nature is indifferent to their plight. But at the end, fate and nature offer them a moment of freedom when the decide to drive off the rim of the Grand Canyon.

In each of the four films, photographs capture a time and space of the past. In each film, they capture a moment in history that has passed forever. In Homicide Gold is haunted by the photo of the old dead Jewish woman when she was a young gunrunner. And his life comes to its end when he is caught in a photo blowing up a hobby store by an anti-Semitic group. Photos change his life, and their effect is lasting. Arrested moments that last forever.

In The Shining the photograph on the wall of the Overlook Hotel id the July 4th Ball captures a time that is gone forever; the place is indelibly changed. Time is gone, but we are reminded of what it was.

In Manhunter the serial killer tries to capture his dream through photography. He films himself and his dead victims and places glasses in their eyes, so that his perverse actions are reflected. Graham says to himself about the killer, "'Cause everything with you is seeing, isn't it? Your primary sensory intake is seeing that makes your dream live. Reflections, mirrors, images." The killer's dream starts and ends with photography. He picks out his victims by looking at still photos and them films them after they are dead. He wants to be magnificent so he distorts time. He stops it and changes it, trying to change himself, like a perverse artist.

In Thelma & Louise a Polaroid taken of the two of them when they were different people floats out of the back seat of the car as they drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon. No longer do they need mirrors which reflected what they presented to society. The reflections are often misleading: whether it be the image of Louise, or Thelma, or J.D., or the trucker. When they are fleeing from the police, they drive through a police barricade and knock off a side mirror. By the end of the film and their moment of truth, they don't need any reflection. As Thelma said earlier, "Something's crossed over in me. I can't go back." And so they plummet into space.

Ridley Scott freezes the image as they begin their descent. They have their moment in space, but they have begun to fall. But a photograph abolishes context. As wonderful, as eternal, as the moment is, they will fall. One can freeze time and space, one can abolish context, one can truncate reality, but Thelma and Louise forever live in the imagination.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin