Few things throughout human history (as far as I can tell from my limited vantage point) have been the focal point of as much writing, painting, singing, acting, and philosophizing as the twin subjects of Love and Death—and the perilous relationship that exists between the two. The ancient Greeks, for example, once told the story of a man named Orpheus, so grief-stricken by the tragic and sudden death of his wife Eurydice, that he journeyed into the underworld to confront Hades and rescue his beloved from death. Spoiler alert… It didn’t end too well for him… or her. The lesson that the Greeks were apparently attempting to convey was that, no matter how strong the love between two people may be, death is stronger.
In any case, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice has given birth to many other legends and tales that have re-told this Greek tragedy in various ways across time and in many cultures; at times even lightening the load for children’s consumption. Sleeping Beauty, for instance, is a medieval riff on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, as are other fairytales that involve a prince or warrior facing dragons and other forms of certain doom to rescue a princess from captivity. Many video games use this same fairytale pattern as well—think The Legend of Zelda as a prime example. There are numerous versions of the myth, told in many art forms—some with happy endings (these are usually the ones with Judeo-Christian influence), and some with conclusions that are more faithful to the original Greek myth that concludes with the despondency of Orpheus who spends the rest of his miserable life doing nothing but singing poetically about the love he has lost—that is, of course, until he dies violently at the claws of demon possessed witches who tear him limb from limb… those Greeks didn’t mess around with their tragic stories.
Witches, demons, and claws aside… the 2007 film Reign Over Me is an exploration into these themes of love, death, connection, and separation.
Reign Over Me slowly introduces us to the character of Charlie Fineman as played by Adam Sandler. It is, by no means, a typical Adam Sandler movie. This is one of the few very serious roles that Sandler has played throughout his extensive filmography—and he does a great job at it—aside from the couple of times he raises his voice to shouting level and Happy Gilmore accidentally slips out. But we can let that slide because there’s nothing funny about the man he’s portraying—an utterly broken soul who is caught in the grip of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of losing his wife, three young daughters, and the family dog in one of the airplanes that was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The film doesn’t hit us over the head with this fact. We find it out very slowly throughout the course of the film as we are invited into the world of pain and sorrow that Fineman inhabits–a world that he navigates very carefully via motor scooter, headphones, video games, Chinese food, Mel Brooks marathons, alcohol, comic books, and habitual kitchen remodeling–all ways in which he creates interference to dampen the pain of reality. We meet Fineman and experience his life through the lens of Don Cheadle’s character Alan Johnson who knew him in college when the two were roommates. When they first run into each other at the beginning of the film, Fineman is, mentally speaking, so far removed from reality that he initially doesn’t even recognize that Johnson is the old friend he once shared a room with. Much of the meat of the film involves the two friends re-connecting with each other. Alan, through many hazardous missteps, is eventually able to do what no one else has been able to—that is, to breach the walls of noise, isolation, fantasy, distraction, and guilt that Charlie has built around himself for protection. If you can watch the scene where Charlie breaks down and tells Johnson all about his family, and how he lost them, and you don’t shed a few tears (or over-exert your facial muscles from attempting to hold them back) then you are most likely a diagnosable sociopath without a soul.
Charlie Fineman is, to a reasonable degree, the embodiment of Orpheus in this movie. That which he loved the most was stolen from him tragically and unexpectedly by hatred and death. And each day, he enters into the Forbidden Land atop his black mustang Agro in an attempt to slay the sixteen giants who guard the soul of his lost love. As the viewer, we only witness this quest by seeing him play an old PS2 video game called Shadow of the Colossus—one of the most beautifully rendered and unique games ever produced. For Charlie, however, it’s not just a video game, but a temporary catharsis and escape from the pain of the real world that he can hardly bear.
Whatever forms the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice may have taken over the centuries of human history, including this one told in Reign Over Me, they all find their orbit around that common theme—that love and death are related to each other, that they cannot be separated from one another, and that they are locked together in a perpetual conflict that is so enormous and so powerful that it has touched the lives of every human being who has ever lived. This is what makes the story archetypal; the idea that it’s an abstraction of a truth that all humans in all cultures of every age have had to face in some way. That’s why the story has been retold so many times, and how it continues to endure, regardless of whatever disguise it happens to be wearing. Love is the ultimate binding force in the universe—it’s how we connect to each other. Death, on the other hand, is the ultimate force of separation in the universe—it’s the one thing that has the definitive power to rip us away from those we love the most. The Apostles of the early Church, well acquainted with Greek culture, religion, language, and philosophy understood this connection—though they didn’t share the conclusion that death was the end of love, but rather that love was the end of death.
One of my favorite authors, J.R.R. Tolkien was a master at taking the myths from the old world and ‘baptizing’ them in the waters of Christianity to give them new meaning, and to infuse them with hope. In The Fellowship of the Ring, for instance, one of the characters in the book, pontificating on the evil and destruction that is overtaking the realm, laments poetically that, “the world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places. But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”
Reign Over Me, in spite of the melancholy it immerses us in, reflects this same small ray of light and hope. At the end of the film, we see the very fragile first indications that Charlie’s broken heart has been truly seen and recognized by someone else, that empathy is the response to his pain, and that love may, perhaps, find its way back from death once more. The title of the movie, and the song at the end—Pete Townshend’s epic track from Quadrophenia (as sung by Pearl Jam)—provide the necessary bookends for this new telling of a very old story. They echo the desperate howling cry for love to be victorious over all else. May love, indeed, reign o’er all of us.