Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts

Part 4 of:  Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories We Live By

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we are constantly flattering the people and communities who have transmitted their “scripts” to us… for good or for ill.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Crash, 2006 Academy Award-winner for Best Picture, provides a powerful metaphor for why worldview change is so difficult.Crash follows a stellar ensemble cast through multiple story lines, most of which explore deeper and deeper levels of worldview.It is one of my favorite films for helping students explore “memes” and the “inciting events” that evoke worldview transformation journeys. [1]

In 1961, literary critic extraordinaire René Girard first introduced the idea that we borrow most of our desires from other people rather than developing our personal desires from scratch. Girard developed his highly influential concept of memetic borrowing throughout his long career, branching out from literary theory into theology, philosophy, and psychology. (See René Girard: The Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of.) [2]

Then in 1976, Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins made the idea of memetic borrowing more palpable when he coined the term meme (short for the Greek root of “imitate”) to convey the idea of a single “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”(in the same way that a gene is a unit of biological transmission.)[3] In Dawkins’ memetic theory, memes jump from “brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (p. 192). Since Dawkins’ initial publication, the field of Memetics has grown both in influence (it helped birth the idea of “viral marketing”) as well as skepticism as to its value as a theory of cultural evolution.

Staying on Script

The concept of memes is a useful interpretive key for helping for understanding why our worldview is so resistant to change. As memetics proponent Susan Blackmore explains, “Everything that is passed from person to person (by imitation) is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others, the games you like to play, the songs you sing and the rules you obey.” [4]

In other words, like actors in a screenplay, we all follow “scripts” provided for us largely from outside of our own self-awareness. (Think of the role of “Tradition” in Fiddler on the Roof.)  If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then we are constantly flattering the individuals and communities who have transmitted their “scripts” to us. Our worldview is so deeply rooted within us that we glide through thousands of “preconditioned” decisions each hour, following the cultural and philosophical scripts provided for us by the stories that have shaped us. We simply do what we do without giving a great deal thought as to why we do it. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.)

These “scripts” exert such a powerful influence on our daily lives that it normally takes a significant  “crash” to reexamine them. These crashes—unexpected events or decisions, often called “inciting events”–are a common devise in nearly all (good) films, but they are particularly evident in Crash. Writer/Director Paul Haggis predicates Crash on the simple premise that no one in Los Angeles deviates from the script of their daily “commute” without a crash.

In the words of Crash’s narrator, Det. Graham Waters (Don Cheadle):

WATERS: In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind
this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much,
that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.  .
Officer Dan Ryan’s racially-charged traffic stop ends horrifically for Cameron and Christine Thayer

Officer Ryan’s Scripts

One notable story line traces the interplay between LAPD Officer Dan Ryan (Matt Dillon), and socialite Christine Thayer (Thandie Newton). In one of the film’s early scenes, Officer Ryan gropes Christine in a racially motivated traffic stop.  Later, he heroically risks his own life to save Christine from a burning car.  In each case, he is unreflectively following “scripts” (memes) transmitted to him by the best and the worst of police culture. Only the “crash” of a life-and-death encounter with Christine jolts him into a completely new script of tolerance and understanding.

Ryan’s first “script” is rooted in the story of his father’s relationship with the African-American community. As a young man Ryan watched his father dare to treat his African-American employees with dignity only to lose his business to the city’s affirmative action policies. Now, his father suffers in agony from what Ryan fears is prostate cancer, and the one person standing between him and the specialist he needs is a no-nonsense African-American insurance adjustor named Shaniqua Johnson (Loretta Devine).

RYAN: I'm not asking you to help me. I'm asking that you
do this small thing for a man who lost everything so people
like yourself could reap the benefits. And do you know what
it's gonna cost you? Nothing. Just a flick of your pen.
SHANIQUA: Your father sounds like a good man. And if he'd
come in here today, I probably would've approved this request.
But he didn't come in. You did. And for his sake,
it's a real shame!
[To security guard.] Get him the hell outta my office!
Ryan’s bitterness is no match for Shaniqua’s commitment to company policy

Dan’s frustration creates unstated presuppositions of injustice, anger and retaliation against all blacks that are only reinforced by the worst elements (memes) of LAPD culture. Dan never examines the cultural, philosophical, or mythical basis of his decision. He never asks how his father’s story, and the “racist meme” in LAPD culture shape his actions. He simply acts. With horrific brutality, he uses his power as a police officer to abuse Christine.

Click here to watch scene: Traffic Stop from Hell (Warning – Disturbing content)

In an instant, Christine’s life is shattered. Now part of Officer Ryan’s story of racism has deeply impacted Christine‘s story. His actions fill her with unspeakable anguish. Her personal life disintegrates in anger and confusion. Her relationship with her husband, Hollywood director Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) begins to spiral out of control as she begins to act out a “reverse racism script” she barely understands, but which her husband knows all too well.

CAMERON: You need to calm down here.
CHRISTINE: No, what I need is a husband who won't just stand
there while I'm being molested!
CAMERON: They were cops!  They had guns!  Where do you think
you're living, with mommy and daddy in Greenwich?
CHRISTINE: --Go to hell.
An unexpected crash brings Officer Ryan and Christine face-to-face in a fiery wreck

The Crash

Ryan and Christine’s new scripts begin with a crash (literally). Christine’s SUV crashes and flips. Gasoline spills everywhere. She is trapped in a burning car with a malfunctioning seatbelt and no hope of escape. No hope, that is, except Officer Dan Ryan. First to arrive on the scene, Ryan quickly springs into action following the hero script written for him (the meme transmitted to him) by the best of LAPD culture.

Then comes the real crash. Christine and Ryan face each other in an inferno that threatens both their lives.  Christine suddenly recognizes Ryan and responds according to the script provided by the personal, cultural, philosophical presuppositions of her story. Despite the approaching flames, she refuses Officer Ryan’s frantic attempts to help her.

RYAN: Lady! I’m trying to help you!
CHRISTINE: #&$% you!  Not you! Not you! 
Somebody else! Not you!


Transformed by their encounter (at least for a moment) Officer Ryan pulls Christine to safety

Momentarily confused, Dan suddenly recognizes Christine, not just what she is, but who she is, that she too has a story separate from his. The screenplay reads, “Ryan looks into her face and sees her pain and humiliation, and knows he was the cause of it.” His worldview begins to shift.

Full of shame, he begins to treat Christine with the dignity and respect he never afforded her in the ill-fated traffic stop. But to no avail. As the flames envelope the car, it is obvious that there is nothing to be done for Christine.  Ryan’s partner begins to pull him to safety before it’s too late. The secret that could ruin Ryan’s life will die with Christine.

Suddenly, against all odds, Ryan completely rejects his racist script (meme) and fully embraces his heroic script. Kicking off his partner he dives back into the burning car, risking his life to save the same woman whose life he so carelessly degraded just a few days earlier.

Against even greater odds, Christine rejects her hatred script and accepts help from the man she has hated with archetypal passion. Her worldview shifts as she accepts his now dignified help and heroic rescue. Everything they thought about one another is changed in an instant; everything they thought about themselves is changing as well. As they weep together in a rescuers embrace both characters hover at the edge of transformation.

Click here to watch Unwanted Rescue scene. (Warning: explicit language.)
CHRISTINE throws one look back over her shoulder –
hate filled with fear and gratitude.
RYAN watches her, equally confused, overwhelmed
and embarrassed by his feelings.


As the scene ends it is clear that Ryan and Christine have each entered a new story–a story that will alter their future value and belief system,  personal practices, and decisions. Their scripts (memes) change because they crashed into each other’s stories with sufficient force to jolt them out of their culturally transmitted roles. Christine returns home to reconciliation with Cameron (who has been in his own transformation journey).  Ryan returns home and begins to treat his father with a new tenderness and dignity.

Snowfall in L.A.

Cameron Thayer (Terrence Howard) watches flames rise to meet a once-a-century snowfall

Paul Haggis’ masterpiece, concludes with the most unlikely crash of all—a once-a-century snowfall in Los Angeles. The snow is as unimaginable as a worldview shift.  It is also symbolic. For decades, snowfall has served as a favorite Hollywood metaphor for “something is changing.”

As the audience considers this final image, they are challenged with the questions:“Will we continue gliding through the thousands of “preconditioned” decisions we make each day, or will the “Crash” of this movie cause us to reexamine them deeper levels? Will we dare to change?

And as we rise we see the twisted chaos of the intersection,
the cars and people and the (now freed) Illegals disappearing into the maw of the churning city.
And it starts to snow.

Next post in the series: It’s a Wonderful Worldview: Frank Capra’s Theistic Masterpiece


See also:

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through Academy Award-winning Films

Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview: Why Everyone Meets at Rick’s 

Fiddler on the Roof: Worldview Change and the Journey to Life-Interpreting Story

Bungee-Jumping to Eternity: The Existential Angst of Dead Poets Society

Deep Culture: Is Winning an Oscar a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

If you Live it, They Will Come: The Blind Side and Better Faith-Based Filmmaking

Related Posts:

Using Zombie Movies to Teach Politics, by Daniel W. Drezner

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger

Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on Shutter Island, by Cari Myers

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert


[1] Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman, Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito, William Fichtner, and Brendan Fraser. Crash. (Santa Monica, Calif: Lions Gate Entertainment, 2005). All quotations from, Crash. Story by Paul Haggis; Screenplay by Paul Haggis, and Robert Moresco. (Bob Yari Productions, Bull’s Eye Productions, Blackfriar’s Bridge & the Harris Company, 2004).

[2] René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press). See also, Cynthia Haven’s excellent mini-bio in the Stanford Alumni magazine, “History is a Test: Mankind is Failing it.” See also, Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004), The Girard Reader, James G. Williams, Ed. (New York: Crossroad, 1996),  Mimesis and theory : essays on literature and criticism, 1953-2005 (Stanford University Press, 2008.)

[3] Richard Dawkins, The selfish gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). See also, Robert Aunger, Darwinizing culture: the status of memetics as a science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). Kate Distin, The selfish meme: a critical reassessment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[4] Susan J. Blackmore, The meme machine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 16. “So, for example, whenever you drive on the left (or the right!), eat curry with lager or pizza and coke, whistle the theme tune from Neighbours or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behaviour to get itself copied” (p. 16).

The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles Bellinger, PhD

Part 2 in series: René Girard: The Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of

Christ is not a character in the movie, but he is present throughout, in the sense that his defeat of Satan on the cross, through nonviolent love, put Satan on display, thus making the revelatory insights of the movie possible.

By Charles K. Bellinger, PhD

The Dark Knight movie franchise broke box office records precisely because it is a powerful expression of theological ideas. I need to elaborate a bit on this apparently odd statement. Let’s list, in no particular order, some of the main themes of the second movie in the trilogy The Dark Knight (2008): The Joker’s main goal is not acquiring money, but sowing chaos and destruction; Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent are rivals for the affection of Rachel Dawes; the police force is filled with corruption; Batman’s exploits have produced copycats, imitators; the “law-abiding citizens” and the “criminals” are distinct groups of people . . . aren’t they? . . . or are they all in the same boat?; a symbol of “justice,” such as Harvey Dent, can be seduced to join “the dark side”; criminals often kill each other, taking greed to an irrational extreme.
These themes can be elucidated very effectively with reference to the writings of René Girard. If you are not familiar with Girard, I will provide a brief outline of his theory of culture. The theory begins with the concept of desire. Human beings have basic natural desires. If my stomach sends hunger signals to my brain, then I have a desire for food. But because human beings are highly social creatures, our basic natural desires very quickly become overlaid with complex patterns of social mediation. I may feel hungry, which is an internal, natural desire, but if I see a commercial for Burger King and decide to satisfy my hunger by eating a Whopper, then my desire has become socially mediated.

Borrowed Desires

“I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” (Heath Ledger as Joker in Warner Brothers Pictures, ‘The Dark Knight,’ 2008)
Girard uses the phrase “mimetic desire” to describe this bedrock phenomenon of human psychology. We may think that our desires are internally generated, but most of the time we do not know what we should desire until we look around at others and see what they are desiring. We mime, mimic, imitate the desires of others, particularly those others who appear to us as models of successful living. The models strike us as having a greater fullness of being than we have; in order to be like them we must desire to possess the things that they possess.
There are many examples of mimetic desire. If two small children are in a room that has many toys in it, what will happen? One child will start playing with a particular toy and the other child will then want that toy also, and a tug-of-war will ensue. This will happen even if there is an identical or equivalent toy in the room . This is a perfect example of the phenomenon of mimetic desire, which is not predicated on scarcity; the scarcity of objects is not relevant because an artificial scarcity is created by the process of mimicking another person. When children grow into adults, mimetic desire does not fade away; it simply takes more sophisticated forms.
I have already referred to advertizing as a key shaper of socially mediated desires. In general, the strategy of advertisers is to present happy, beautiful, successful people who own or use a certain product. You should own the product also if you want to mimic their success in life. In many ways the stock market is a mimetic phenomenon, as is fashion. The concept of “fashion” is not limited only to clothing; it also includes lifestyle items such as iPods, cars, computers, and avid devotion to sports teams or NASCAR drivers.

Mimetic Rivalry

The phenomenon of the romantic triangle, two men fighting over a woman, is a common theme in literature, television, and movies. In his works of literary criticism, Girard traces the roots of romantic rivalry as it is unveiled in the works of key authors such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky.
Does the Joker really want the same thing as the mob bosses, or is he borrowing his desires from someone else? (Warner Brothers Pictures, 2008)
This concept of rivalry is the second major element of Girard’s theory of culture. If human beings are copying the desires of other human beings, the stage is set for envy, rivalry, conflict, and violence. If I am imitating someone else’s desire for an object, then by definition I am setting myself up as a rival and potential enemy of the other person. If mimetic desire is the bedrock of human social psychology, then human society is always a conflictual field of mutual antagonisms which can lead to generalized chaos.
If I imitate others then those others are always stumbling blocks for me, impeding my ability to get what I (and they) want. The phenomenon of the stumbling block is designated by a very precise term in the Greek language of the ancient world: skandalon. Mimetic desire and the rivalry to which it leads are inexhaustible sources of scandal, which Girard interprets as our inability to break free from the entangling webs of imitation and the violence to which it leads.

The Scapegoat Mechanism

“They need you right now. When they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.” (Warner Bros., 2008)
How do societies prevent themselves from suffering a meltdown into generalized chaos, into a war of all against all? Girard answers this question by pointing to the phenomenon of scapegoating. If the members of a society can single out a victim, they can channel their violent emotions toward that victim and do away with him. This cathartic release of pent up violence serves to give the society a new sense of unanimity and purpose. Instead of hating each other, people can agree to hate a particular victim or perhaps a minority group or class within society.
It is easy to find examples that illustrate the scapegoat mechanism. In the Middle Ages in Europe , if the plague were to break out in a certain city, usually what would happen is that a rumor would be started that the plague was caused by the Jews poisoning the drinking water. This rumor would lead to a massacre of local Jews. The fact that the Jews were also dying of the plague and had been drinking from the same water sources as everyone else is irrelevant.
Scapegoating violence is irrational and subconscious. It is commonly noted by historians that those who were preaching in favor of the Crusades and whipping up public fervor for them, such as Pope Urban II, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Catherine of Siena, would commonly say to the people that European Christians should stop killing each other in petty internal wars. Instead, they should become united, march to the Holy Land , and slaughter the infidel Muslims. This is a clear example of how the scapegoat mechanism serves to unite people and channel their violence toward a scapegoated Other.

Twentieth-Century Scapegoating

Girard’s theory maintains that an individual who is lifted up as a hero today is likely to become the scapegoat tomorrow. But what society cannot admit to itself is that its need for scapegoats is itself immoral. (Warner Bros. 2008)
The lynching of blacks in the United States is another particularly stark example of the scapegoat mechanism at work. The ideology of slaveholding specifically taught that persons of African descent are subhuman and can therefore be killed with impunity to maintain what was claimed to be a superior white civilization. The killing of Jews by the Nazis is another immense example of scapegoating at work, as is the killing of so-called –counter-revolutionaries” in Stalinist Russia. In Japan in 1923, there was a major earthquake that killed thousands of people. False rumors began to circulate that persons of Korean descent living in Japan were taking advantage of the situation by looting, robbing, and raping. Vigilante groups of Japanese men began to massacre anyone they suspected of being Korean.
The similarity between this situation and the medieval plague is striking and undeniable. It also shows that the phenomenon that Girard is describing is not simply –Western.” He is unveiling the social psychology of human beings as such. Human culture is a lynch mob which has normalized and structured the process by which scapegoats are identified, vilified, and killed. The lynch mob always sees itself as innocent and the victim as a guilty transgressor who must be killed to restore “law and order” in the universe.

I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning: The Joker in The Dark Knight

Like Satan in John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost,’ the Joker is the most interesting character in ‘The Dark Knight’ and clearly a figurative version of Satan. (Warner Bros. 2008)
Girard’s theory of violence comes to a head in his discussion of Satan. He says that Satan is not a individual person but rather the entire complex process that we have just summarized. Satan is the seducer who alienates people from God and insinuates to them that they must long for something that they supposedly lack. They must seek out models of success and imitate them. Satan is also the one who “kicks it up a notch” into rivalry, conflict, and chaotic violence. And Satan is the whisperer behind the lynch mob, the voice demanding that One must be sacrificed for the Many. In this way, “law and order” will be restored.
Some scholars have commented, regarding John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost, that Satan is the most interesting character, much more so than Adam, Eve, the angels, or Christ. In a similar way, the Joker is clearly the most interesting character in The Dark Knight, and he is obviously a figurative version of Satan. His main purpose is to sow chaos, confusion, and destruction among human beings. He does this by stoking the flames of the skandalon — the intense fascination that human beings have with each other in the pursuit of their desires. There is the obvious romantic triangle of Bruce Wayne, Harvey Dent, and Rachel Dawes; two men seeking the affection of one woman is one of the most common mimetic plots. The Joker says to Batman at one point: “Does Harvey know about you and his little bunny?” which throws Batman into a predictable jealous rage.
On a larger scale, there is the rivalry between the criminals and the “law abiding citizens,” who are all seeking money, mammon. In modern Western culture, which is highly secularized, money is the new god that people worship. The movie is saying that all people are greedy; the difference between the citizens and the criminals is that the latter take greed to an absurd extreme, killing each other off in the process. The Joker recognizes all of this and uses the fascination with money to create all kinds of temptations and conflicts, so that the police become just as corrupt as the criminals.

Echoes of Girard

‘Welcome to a world without rules.’ Such strong Girardian overtones it is hard to believe Nolan has never read Girard. (Warner Bros. 2008)
The Dark Knight is a movie that has so many resonances with Girard’s ideas that the question inevitably rises as to whether or not the film makers have read him. It may be that his ideas have filtered into the consciousness of the Hollywood intelligentsia. It may be that the comic book authors and the film makers are simply drawing on the same inspirations that Girard draws on: the Bible and great works of literature. The answer to this question is not germane to our discussion here, but it is an interesting sidebar.
The quotations from The Joker that I will present shortly have such strong Girardian resonances that it is hard to believe that the film makers have not read Girard. One can speculate that they knew Girard’s ideas would make the movie philosophically powerful in addition to being visually dazzling. The combination would be a box office hit because of the public’s mimetic desire (word of mouth patronage). The film makers, motivated by a desire to make millions of dollars, employ Girard’s ideas. Delicious irony, isn’t it?

Interrogation Room Revelations

The interrogation room scene in the middle of movie is its center, where the entire story is revealed under the blinding lights. This scene shows that The Joker is the most astute observer of human pyschology in the film. His insights into mimetic desire and the scapegoating activities of the “civilized” people reveal a transcendent perspective; precisely the sort of transcendent perspective that Girard claims is the fruit of biblical revelation. The Joker says to Batman: “They need you right now. When they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper. You see, their code , their morals , it’s a bad joke.”
“You have nothing to frighten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.” (Warner Bros. 2008)
Girard’s theory maintains that an individual who is lifted up as a hero today is likely to become the scapegoat tomorrow. The King who is obeyed by his loyal subjects today will have his head chopped off tomorrow. Society sees itself as moral , as being comprised of the good people who can judge the bad people. But what society cannot admit to itself is that its need for scapegoats is itself immoral. Society cannot recognize its hypocrisy. The Joker says that “When the chips are down, these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.” He also says “I’m not a monster, I’m just ahead of the curve.” He is revealing that “law abiding society” is a mystification; human culture is a lynch mob riding the bucking bronco of chaotic violence.
By thinking that it is attacking Satan in the form of the scapegoat, society is actually acting according to the satanic principle. When The Joker says “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules” he is speaking the voice of chaotic, Dionysian violence. But he also reveals in this scene that the “rules,” the laws and prohibitions that society invents to contain violence, are a sham. The police and the legal system think of themselves as stemming from a different spiritual source than the demonic criminals; but in reality they all flow out of the fountain of the complex, shapeshifting satanic event. The violence of the criminals and the brutality of the police, symbolized by Batman slamming the Joker’s head into the table, reveal that the ultimate basis of violence is reciprocity.

You Complete Me

“You Complete Me.” (Heath Ledger in Warner Bros. Pictures ‘The Dark Knight,’ 2008)
The enemies who attack each other come to resemble each other more and more until they are indistinguish-able. This is recognized implicitly in the film’s underlying question: “How can evil be struggled against without allowing evil to overcome the one who is struggling, turning him to the dark side?”
The Joker’s statement to Batman – “You complete me” –  is profound, perhaps more profound than the film makers realize. Like the phrase from the gospels, “It is finished,” it offers the perfect summary of the entire story. The Joker is saying that his role as the chaotic Satan is complemented by Batman’s role as the “law and order” Satan, whose good violence is supposedly casting out the other Satan’s bad violence. This is why The Joker can say with such confidence “You have nothing to frighten me with, nothing to do with all your strength.” He realizes that Batman is actually his ally in the satanic event. The Joker knows about satanic shapeshifting, Batman does not.
It is customary in movies to present the criminals as evil and the cops as good. But the radical implication of Girard’s theory is that evil is present in the structure of “law abiding society;” Satan is ultimately not a person but a complex process. Satan is at work in the actions of the criminal, but when the criminal is apprehended, tried, and retributively punished, society is acting as a lynch mob which is also secretly inspired by Satan. When this is seen, the rhetoric of “Justice” becomes empty, or worse than empty, it becomes the evil of hypocrisy. This is why I say that the film makers may have put into The Joker’s mouth a line that is more profound than they realize. To understand that Satan is a shapeshifter who can be in the criminal and in a defender of Justice, such as Harvey Dent or Batman, is to deconstruct the (good guys vs. bad guys) genre of the film.

A Christological Solution?

In the end Satan is not so much a person as a complex process overcome only by a Cross. (Warner Bros. 2008)
In contemporary political parlance, if the bad guys, the evildoers, and those who are carrying out the War on Evildoing are all fulfilling Satan’s agenda without realizing it, then the world is utterly dark. How can such a world ever change? “Who can deliver us from this body of death?”(Rom. 7:24) This is a question that can only have a christological answer, which is articulated in Romans 12:21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” But while The Joker is clearly a Satan figure, it is my argument that Batman is at best an ambiguous Christ figure, in that he willingly accepts the role of scapegoat at the end of the movie. His willingness to use violence within the movie works against the notion that he is a genuine Christ figure.
Christ is not a character in the movie, but he is present throughout, in the sense that his defeat of Satan on the cross, through nonviolent love, put Satan on display, thus making the revelatory insights of the movie possible. This also is an idea which is articulated clearly by Girard. When The Joker says to Batman “I know the truth. There’s no going back. You’ve changed things forever … ” his words intimate that he is really addressing another conversation partner, the same one to whom Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor was speaking.

Next post in series: Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese: Scapegoats and Redemption on ‘Shutter Island’

Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in The Wrong Man, by David Humbert

Part of 4 series: René Girard: Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of

Our failure to resist the flawed but contagious human desire to punish a scapegoat for every wrong suffered, not only fails to bring justice to the world, it subjects innocent scapegoats to suffering injustice themselves

Click to view Hitchcock’s original theatrical trailer

by David Humbert

While neither a critical nor box office success in the U.S., the global film community considers this classic as one of Hitchcock’s best.

The title of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1957) identifies one of the principal recurrent themes in Hitchcock’s oeuvre: the theme of the wrongly accused or the innocent victim. The film was not a box office success and critical reception was mixed, drawing reverential appreciation from French reviewers and bland indifference from American critics. There were diverse reactions to Hitchcock’s unfamiliar use of documentary realism to portray the real-life story of Emmanuel Balestrero, wrongly accused and arrested for a crime. Jean-Luc Godard, then a reviewer for Cahiers du Cinema, was enthusiastic, arguing that the film’s documentary character in no way diminished its dramatic impact. The Wrong Man, he suggested, is the “most fantastic of adventures because we are watching the most perfect, the most exemplary of documentaries.”[1] A.H. Weiler of the New York Times, however, was condescending: “Frighteningly authentic, the story generates only a modicum of drama.”[2]

Confusing the matter further is Hitchcock’s own problematic attitude to the film, expressed in an interview with Francois Truffaut when he suggested that Truffaut “file The Wrong Man among the indifferent Hitchcocks.”3 Never indifferent to popular success or failure, Hitchcock fatally underestimated the film. If one considers the themes it raises and how the film generates both suspense and insight into plight of the innocent victim, it remains a film of enormous profundity and every bit as horrific as his more popular creations.

The Wrong Man is one of a series of Hitchcock’s films in which a crime is attributed to an individual either by mischance or by what could be described as contagion, or “transference.” One of the ground-breaking books of Hitchcock criticism, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol’s Hitchcock, argued that exchange or “transference of guilt” is not only a persistent theme but a touchstone of the director’s outlook and the aesthetic.4 A recent study by John Orr, Hitchcock and 20 Century Cinema, has reaffirmed the value of this interpretation.

As Orr suggests, the “wrong man” theme recalls elements of René Girard’s scapegoat theory.5 Though Hitchcock has stated that the “innocent victim” is one of his most cherished themes, Girard has only rarely been employed to explain its significance. Slavoj Zizek has suggested that The Wrong Man “epitomizes the Hitchcockian vision of a cruel, unfathomable and self-willed God who sadistically plays with human destinies.”6 If one examines the film from the point of view of Girard’s theory of the scapegoat, however, the plight of Manny Balestrero is only inadequately understood as a confrontation between a solitary individual and an absent God.

Hitchcock’s theological perspective is not reducible to a Jansenist emphasis on the vertical dimension, but focuses instead on the horizontal: the ambient and potentially homicidal delusions of human desiring. Hitchcock is far more interested in revealing a fallen humanity that arbitrarily persecutes and victimizes than an arbitrary God. What The Wrong Man reveals is not divine abandonment, but the horizontal operations of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism it engenders..


Girard on the Scapegoat and Mimetic Desire

The story of real-life scapegoat, Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero (Henry Fonda), provides the backdrop to Hitchcock’s tale (Floyd McCarty ©MPTV)

Girard’s theory of the scapegoat is a theory of the origins of sacrifice. It suggests that historical collective murders stand at the inception of primitive ritual sacrifice. Myths and rituals both disguise and memorialize these traumatic, violent origins.7 A central concept in Girard’s thought is that of contagion. Both contagious transfer and the mythic distortion of collective murder are illustrated in Girard’s analysis of the figure of Oedipus. In Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is revealed to be the cause of a deadly plague in the city of Thebes. He is said by an oracle to pose a danger to the city because he is polluted with the blood-guilt of parricide and incest.

Girard has argued that Oedipus plays the role of a scapegoat, a blameless victim, who carries the stain, not of original guilt, but of original violence. Guilt is assigned to him in the myth and in the tragedy as a means of disguising not only his innocence but the violent collective murder that lies in the background of the myth.8 Oedipus’s mysterious affliction has its root in the transference of the evils afflicting a community. The blame assigned to Oedipus reflects the blame assigned to the victim of violent persecution.

The attribution of crime and evil to an innocent victim, of course, is neither arbitrary nor motiveless, according to Girard, but is a response to real social danger. In the “collective murder” that is alleged to stand at the origin of rituals of transference, the immediate cause is a breakdown of social ordering, an “undifferentiation” provoked by plague, war, famine, or some other social disaster. In this situation, each becomes the enemy of all: brother against brother, poor against rich, neighbor against neighbor. Each becomes the double and the rival of the other.

In a situation of spiralling violence, in which each resorts to retribution to achieve what is rightfully his or hers, the scapegoat enters as a safety valve. The violence that threatens to envelop the community, the war of all against all, is transformed into a war against one. With the death of the scapegoat, the cycle of violence is brought to an end.

Universal and Mythic Scapegoat Mechanism

Hitchcock and Fonda on Set. It is the role of myth and ritual to disguise the reality of violence.

That scapegoating occurs is not a matter of dispute. There are plentiful examples in every society and historical period in which groups or individuals were assigned monstrous acts or intentions that made them the objects of persecution. Witches were burned in the false belief that their magical powers were the cause of death, crop failure, or other misfortunes. Romans accused Christians of acts such as cannibalism to justify their persecution. The crimes attributed to Jews during the Middle Ages and later – of poisoning wells and making pacts with the devil – were as deadly in their consequences as the charges were fanciful.

In his account of the origin of sacrifice, Girard draws a parallel between these historical cases of persecution and the collective murders that he believes are at the root of religion. Since it is not possible to observe the historical genesis of ritual sacrifice except by inference, the evidence for Girard’s conclusions is necessarily indirect. Innumerable myths closely associated with ritual practice are violent in nature and involve killing or dismemberment that resembles and sometimes duplicates a collective murder. But many do not, at least not overtly.

Girard argues that this is precisely the point. The horror of undifferentiation and social collapse, the extremity of a war of all against all, and the murder of an innocent are difficult to acknowledge. Human beings tend to flee the vision of unlimited violence. It is the role of myth and ritual to disguise the reality of violence.

In the process, the reality of the victim recedes and the criminality and monstrosity attributed to the victim is transformed and imbued, in time, with sanctity. After all, the violent killing celebrated by the sacrifice actually did bring peace by generating the protective order of prohibition and ritual, suggesting that the power of the victim was all too real. By his death, the victim performs a near miracle by restoring a binding unanimity among the perpetrators. The elimination of the scapegoat renders a double service – the quelling of violence in the community and the forgetting of its own violence:

The mechanism of the surrogate victim is redemptive twice over: by promoting unanimity it quells violence on all fronts, and by preventing an outbreak of bloodshed within the community it keeps the truth about men from becoming known. The mechanism transposes this truth to the realm of the divine, in the form of an inscrutable god.9

The victim embodies all the ambiguity of the word sacer, which suggests both malefic and beneficent qualities of pollution and holiness. Religion, ritual, and the gods themselves emerge from a circuitous process of violent genesis in which violence is turned on violence and then excluded from the community by the establishment of taboo, prohibition, and ritual. Religion provides shelter from violence but also disguises its origins.

Scapegoating in Modern Cultures

Look in the background. One of Hitchcock’s famous cameos.

Shifting to the scene of modernity, what remains disguised in sacrificial religion has become all too clear. Persecution and the condemnation of innocents are openly acknowledged as social problems. The rise of scientific rationalism has assured that the belief in magical causation, responsible for much persecution in the past, has been abolished — in many societies the horror of vengeance and false accusation has been mitigated by the establishment of rules of evidence, law courts, and rational procedures of investigation. But if Girard is correct, the processes of mimetic contagion that overwhelm reason and give rise to persecution have only been contained and not destroyed. Rivalrous desires, mutually incited fears, and mimetic escalation thrive even in a highly rationalized society for the very reason that society has abolished the rituals, prohibitions, and taboos that once controlled their release.

If violence and victimization are difficult to acknowledge in societies that take refuge in myth and ritual, they are perhaps equally hard to acknowledge in advanced societies in which it is assumed that such passions have been overcome. Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man is remarkable for its subtle evocation of the social desires and institutional violence that lead to scapegoating even in the context of modern life. The uniqueness of the link he discerns between violence and mimesis is revealed when his films are considered in the light of Girardian theory.

Mimesis and Retribution in The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man tells the story of the arbitrary arrest and confinement of Manny Balestrero, who is misidentified as the robber of an insurance company office as well asseveral other stores. The film is based on a true story, the real-life case of ChristopherEmmanuel Balestrero. As portrayed in the film, the effects on Balestrero are catastrophic.As a result of the arrest, his wife loses her sanity, a plot turn that would seemunnecessarily melodramatic except for the fact that it actually happened.

This film is one of many directed by Hitchcock that involve someone who is falsely accused, for example, The 39 Steps (1935), Saboteur (1942), I Confess (1953), and Strangers on a Train (1951).  The film that Hitchcock considers his first, The Lodger (1927), even features a scene in which a man who is falsely believed to be a killer is nearly lynched by an angry crowd. At the end of I Confess, a priest who is thought to be guilty by the assembled citizens of Quebec City is also nearly attacked by them. The motif of false accusation and victimization, not to mention scapegoating, is always either present or on the horizon of Hitchcock’s plots. In The Wrong Man, he confronts the phenomenon of scapegoating and the plight of the scapegoat not at the periphery but at the centre of the film.

The danger of doubling. Though Manny Balestrero seems a victim of chance Hitchcock’s film suggests that Balestrero is also, and perhaps primarily, the victim of the violent and vengeful desires of others.

René Girard’s observations are apposite here. Though Manny Balestrero seems a victim of chance and the mechanical and essentially impersonal procedures of police investigation and the court system, Hitchcock’s film suggests that Balestrero is also, and perhaps primarily, the victim of the violent and vengeful desires of others. It reveals how human beings sometimes respond to chance and misfortune by scapegoating; he shows this mechanism at work not in aboriginal but in modern culture, in which the court system has long modified and contained the potentially volatile eruption of unending retribution.

Hitchcock’s shot selection and camera placement emphasize the subjective experience of Balestrero himself, whose point of view becomes the central axis of the film. Just as, according to Girard, the Biblical perspective provoked awareness of the plight of the victim of sacrifice, Hitchcock does the same cinematically for the innocent victim. By placing the viewer in the vantage point of the victim, the audience is invited to share the terror of Balestrero as he suffers interrogation, incarceration, and, ultimately, vindication.

Legalized Violence

But Balestrero is not the only a victim of chance; he is the victim of a peculiar form of institutional violence, a legal and judicial process that authorizes the violent disruption of his private life. On the one hand, it is an intervention that is set in motion by existential suspicions and fears of his fellow citizens. On the other hand, the violence to which it gives rise is neither mob nor personal violence, but the rationalized, legitimate, and socially approved violence of the constabulary and the courts.

The act of sentencing a convicted defendant is among most routine acts performed by judges, yet on further review it is distinctively shaped by violence.

The legal theoretician Robert Cover has argued that the decisions and judgments of courts and judges cannot be abstracted from the threat of violence that they entail. The decisions of a magistrate set in motion a procedure by which force is applied to the human object of those judgments: to arrest, apply financial penalties, incarcerate, disarm, and otherwise limit his or her rights. The rational procedures of the court disguise the fact that the threat of pain and death stands in the background of its authority:

The act of sentencing a convicted defendant is among [the] most routine of acts performed by judges. Yet it is immensely revealing of the way in which interpretation is distinctively shaped by violence. First, examine the event from the perspective of the defendant. The defendant’s world is threatened. But he sits, usually quietly, as if engaged in a civil discourse. If convicted, the defendant customarily walks – escorted – to prolonged confinement, usually without significant disturbance to the civil appearance of the event. It is, of course, grotesque to assume that the civil façade is “voluntary” except in the sense that it represents the defendant’s autonomous recognition of the overwhelming violence ranged against him, and of the hopelessness of resistance or outcry.10

As Girard has also argued, the court is not just a rational mechanism but a practical and social authority that stands in the place of traditional vengeance or arbitrary retribution. For this reason, like the pronouncements of the judge, it still retains an aura of the sacred. Girard insists that the judicial system bears the marks of its violent origins:

“Like sacrifice,” he states in Violence and the Sacred, “the judicial system both reveals and conceals its resemblance to vengeance.”11 One needs look no further than The Wrong Man to find the visual and narrative correlates of both Cover’s and Girard’s claims. The film shows without equivocation that “the experience of the prisoner is, from the outset, an experience of being violently dominated, and it is colored from the beginning by the fear of being violently treated.”12

The roots of retribution, both legal and personal, are suggested in an important sequence in which Ballesteros first visits the insurance office that has been robbed. He is in the office to inquire if he can borrow on his insurance policy to pay the dental bills for his wife. This scene addresses a decisive question: What led not one but a group of witnesses to repeatedly misidentify an innocent man as the culprit in a crime? Of course, one reason is that Balestrero physically resembles the real robber. But as we discover at the end of the film, the resemblance is not close enough to be the sole reason. It is reasonable to assume that the bank-workers fear a repeat robbery and the violation it involves. In their reaction to the presence of Balestrero and their discussion about his identity, fear is clearly etched on their faces.


Contagious Fear

We see how an emotion like fear escalates and how it leaps contagiously from one person to the next. Obvious, too, is the equally contagious desire,with the encouragement of others, to take action and to find a culprit. The fear the womenfeel toward the robber is balanced by the potential triumph of finding and capturing him.

Hitchcock renders this contagious fear and the complementary desire for retribution in a subtle series of shots.

At first, Balestrero is seen by a teller through the grating of her booth. From her look alone it is clear that she recognizes him in some way and fears him. This initial “look” sets off a chain reaction of desires that find the culprit in Balestrero.

When she reports the possible presence of the robber, she turns and informs one of her coworkers, who looks, again anxiously, over the shoulder of the first teller.

Her anxiety is dwarfed, however, by that of a third woman in the office, who was on duty as a teller when the company was robbed. The tight framing of these three, when the third teller refuses to look out of sheer terror, emphasizes how the desire for retribution is beginning to coalesce out of the fears that they share.

The framing emphasizes that their desires are not autonomous, but that they are sharing fear and desire: the fear of violation and the desire for retribution. When exposed to danger, there is an “autonomous” and natural desire to victimize in return, but the escalation of this desire to victimize is a product of contagion and imitation. What Hitchcock conveys here in this brief but carefully designed sequence is precisely this complex relationship between natural and acquired desire, or between desire and mimesis. A shot like the one above suggests the doubling of the women – two of them face each other in profile, hair swept back off their faces, the striped design of each of their v-neck dresses echoing the other.


The Evil Eye

The emphasis that Hitchcock places on the “look” or the glance should be evident from this sequence. It is the “exchange” of looks by which, according to Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, guilt and evil is relayed among characters.13 Girard has pointed out the significant role that the myth of the “evil eye” has played in aboriginal cultures, particularly those in which lynching is of central importance.14

The evil eye, he asserts, is a stereotypical accusation made of those who are selected for persecution, as in the case of a witch who is blamed for destroying a crop. In his own characteristic use of the “look,” however, Hitchcock highlights a different aspect of the scapegoat problem. The evil stare may refer not to the fantasized power of the victim to cause harm and that legitimates violent persecution, but to the very real victimizing glances of the persecutors themselves, eager for a victim through whom to channel their mimetically incited violence. In Hitchcock’s scenario, it is not the evil eye of Manny Balestrero that is accented but the suspicious and murderous stares of his accusers.

The Evil Eye: In the front of the car is a driver whose persecutory stare is framed by the rear-view mirror

Girard has suggested the possibility that Greek myths, like the one that recounts the destruction of Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, the Dionysian diasparagmos, are founded on the dim memories of real events of collective murder. For example, the hundred eyes of the “hundred-eyed Argos” of Greek myth suggest those of an enraged crowd in the grip of a sacrificial crisis, frenzied by the lust for retribution and drawn to select a victim on whom to vent the violence that its members might otherwise exercise on one other.

At first this example might seem implausible. Io is the object of Zeus’s lust and has been turned into a cow as a disguise to conceal her from Hera. In some versions of the myth, the monster merely acts as a sentinel over Io for the jealous Hera and does not inflict violence. But Argos does his job at the behest of Hera, who is consumed with hatred for her rival. In his version of the myth, Aeschylus describes the gadfly as the “ghost of earth-born Argos” who was killed by Hermes.15 The wrath of Hera extends through Argos to the gadfly, to Io. Argos, “whose anger knew no limits,” looks for Io’s traces everywhere, while after his death the gadfly pursues and persecutes her across the earth like “a god-sent scourge.” The “hundred-eyed” stare of the monster operates not only as a passive surveillance but the disguised, or “repressed,” agent of transference, contagious guilt, and persecution. Like the many-eyed stares of the members of a vengeful crowd, the “evil eyes” of Argos invest their victim Io with guilt but also, in the form of the gadfly, subject her to heartless persecution.16

Provided the resulting frenzy is severe enough, a crowd in the grip of a sacrificial crisis may contain the victim’s relatives, even his or her parents, who have lost their senses and no longer recognize their own family member. The central horror of The Bacchae, of course, is that Pentheus’ mother Agave is one of the crowd that tears him apart. The monstrosity of Argos, like that of the gadfly, is a disguised memory of a social plague of vengeance and undifferentiation in which society implodes and each becomes the enemy double of the other. Seen in this light, the Argos myth becomes a potent image of undifferentiation because it loses the remoteness of the fairy tale: it is composed of elements drawn from history and not from fantasy alone.


Persecution and the Double

In The Wrong Man, the scene in the insurance office is not enough on its own to suggest that Hitchcock is aware of the scapegoat mechanism, or that he is re-enacting a modern version of a Dionysian diasparagmos. But it does suggest his awareness of the potential for atavistic violence and victimization, not to mention the deep potential for social disorder even in the humdrum confines of an office, and this by a process of imitation and contagion. The young women in the insurance office become a microcosm of society, the fears of social anarchy of which are aroused by unsolved crime or even by personal injury, and which is anxious to find the culprit to recover its equilibrium.

In response to this fear, the young women in the office identify the “wrong man” and the police are dispatched. Out of duty or pressure from the public or their superiors, they, too, seem compelled to misidentify the culprit. Corroboration of this claim is found in the sequence in which two policemen arrest Balestrero. Police appear very early on in the film. The first time we see them is when Balestrero, the night before his visit to the insurance office, leaves work for home.

Framing Balestrero between two officers is a standard foreshadowing of the fateful forces that will soon impinge on him. More importantly, though, it is the first instance of the visual and narrative doubling that is integral to the structure of the film. In the first place, Balestrero is in trouble because a physical double has robbed some stores. The film is riddled with scenes that are either repeated twice or contain characters that are twinned.

Balestrero has two sons that compete for his attention. He and his wife have adisconcerting encounter with two girls when they are looking for someone who willprovide Balestrero with an alibi. Two detectives appear early in the film to arrestBalestrero and subject him to harsh interrogation. The sequence of the arrest itselfemphasizes the symmetry between the two detectives. The construction and editing ofthis sequence confirms the pervasive and deliberate structure of doubling in the film.17

In the scene in which Balestrero is apprehended, he is led towards the police car by the two detectives, who grip him tightly by the arms on either side. When he enters the car he sits between them, and Hitchcock evokes a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere with a series of isomorphic point-of-view shots from Balestrero’s perspective. Balestrero looks to one side and then the other to see the twinned profiles of his persecutors.

The sequence of shots, showing the profiles of both detectives that flank Balestrero on either side in the car, reveals a strict symmetry between the two officers. They are visual twins. In the geometrical centre of Balestrero’s forward-looking gaze we see the persecutory stare from the driver, which echoes the stares of workers in the insurance office.

The determination of the officers to find Balestrero guilty is expressed further in casual banter in the car, during which they suggest that Balestrero is living a “high life” in the club where he works or that he may have gambling debts that might have driven him to steal, even though none of this is true. Their interrogation of Balestrero in the precinct is shot in a way that emphasizes their collusion; an exchange of looks underlines their mimetic and reciprocal incitement to victimize Balestrero and to find him guilty.

A simple spelling error condemns Balestrero in the eyes of the already biased investigators.

His fate is sealed when his difference from the real criminal is erased by a casual mistake on his part. He is asked to reproduce the wording of the note the robber wrote for the insurance teller and he makes the same spelling mistake. The detectives are exultant.

The detectives’ attribution of minor vices to Balestrero bears some resemblance to the standard accusations made of the scapegoat. Balestrero is not accused of incest or parricide, but the officers’ determination to ascribe anti-social and prurient tendencies to Balestrero is in similar territory. The fear of crime and the pressure to find a perpetrator is the modern version of the sacrificial crisis, which all too often engenders false convictions, public outcry for punishment, and wrongful incarceration on the slimmest of evidence.


Hitchcock and Undifferentiation

It has been noted by many critics that Hitchcock demonstrates in his narratives a consistent fear of the collapse of human order and an awareness of its fragility in the face of irrational forces.18 It has not been sufficiently emphasized, however, that the root of that fear is undifferentiation. The structural and thematic doubles in a variety of films, and especially The Wrong Man, are the signs of that same undifferentiation in myth and literature that Girard subjects to such penetrating analysis. The dread of undifferentiation is everywhere in Hitchcock’s narratives, especially in his repeated use of the theme of the double.

At the same time that The Wrong Man was in the script development stage, Hitchcock himself directed an episode of his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which was a thinly veiled re-working of Dostoyevsky’s short novel, The Double. In this episode, a mild-mannered office worker finds his life is turned upside down when a double begins to impersonate him, do his job more efficiently, and even impress his friends and his own servant. When the double is successful in replacing him entirely, it is clear that undifferentiation is the origin of his demise. The same applies to Manny Balestrero. Balestrero is undone by a casual mistake that leads others to conclude his undifference from the robber. Both, in the eyes of society, become cyphers. In The Wrong Man, however, this crisis of undifferentiation is not only an individual, psychological crisis but a social one as well.


Violence and the Burden of Guilt

When Balestrero is released on bail from temporary incarceration in prison, the crisis of undifferentiation breaks out anew in the relationship between Balestrero and his wife Rose. A harmonious and happy family is now shattered as Rose suffers a breakdown. A kind of hostility erupts in Rose that destroys the bond of trust between them. The crisis begins when their hopes for a vindicating alibi are crushed: two crucial witnesses of Balestrero’s whereabouts on the night of the crime turn out to be dead. When they have a subsequent meeting with the lawyer, Rose shows signs of hopelessness and mental instability. (Watch scene below and watch Rose’s transformation.)



The extent of her breakdown is only evident when Balestrero returns home one night from work and finds what is described in the unpublished script as “a strange tableau.”19 Rose sits in her chair, her bed neatly made at a time of the night when normally she would be fast asleep. What follows is an exchange between the two that shows the extent of her paranoia and feelings of persecution. At first she begins by blaming herself for her troubles. But the feelings of guilt quickly metamorphose into aggression when she misinterprets Balestrero’s suggestion to have their children stay with their grandparents as an attack upon herself. Her status as mother is in question, and her once trusted husband now seems suspect. Her despair at being the arbitrary object of persecution now rebounds on her love for her husband.

She imitates his accusers, adopts their desire to victimize, and now says to him that he indeed might be guilty. She is infected inwardly by that same crisis of undifferentiation that has engulfed both Balestrero and his accusers. In this intimate scene between a hitherto trusting couple that escalates from suspicion to outright attack, Rose’s accusations culminate in a blow that she delivers with a hairbrush to Balestrero’s head. It glances off a bedroom mirror and Hitchcock offers a powerful representation of disintegration and undifferentiation in the image of Balestrero in the cracked mirror.

But this shot also suggests the full reach of the war of all against all in which even family members are swept up in the cycle of retribution, where none is innocent, and a scapegoat is randomly chosen. Rose’s lashing out against Balestrero is not remote from the response of the women in the insurance office, but its final and fatal echo in the internal lives of both Rose and Balestrero.

It is tempting here to attribute to Rose, as does the script, a “persecution mania” [20] that bears no relation to reality. But this is to miss the point of the film’s shift of perspective from Balestrero to Rose. Rose’s apprehension of the situation of lurking dangers everywhere is not entirely unrealistic. Most people live with the belief that the detectives repeatedly state to Balestrero: an innocent man has nothing to fear. Rose discovers through experience that this is far from true. She realizes not only this rather unsettling fact but also that many others are eager to assist in one’s downfall.

An errant hairbrush provides the crack in the mirror needed to see the disintegration and undifferentiation of the victim.

Regardless of justice, one can be chosen at random for persecution. The personal guilt she feels, out of all proportion to her real responsibility, is the inner psychic reflection of that unlimited irrational violence she sees in the eyes of her persecutors. It is this vision of the infinitude of violence and victimization that destabilizes her.

When Balestrero observes that she doesn’t seem to care about his plight anymore, Rose replies: “Don’t you see that itdoesn’t do any good to care? No matter what you do they’ve got it fixed so it goes againstyou. It doesn’t matter how innocent you are or how hard you try – they’ll find youguilty!” While Rose seems to speak “in a way that is quite unrelated to ordinary life andits circumstances,”21 she is in fact giving a very exact description of the extraordinarysituation of a sacrificial crisis that issues in the selection of a scapegoat. It is, moreover,told from the perspective of the victim of that crisis, who looks about her and sees not asingle person to defend her from the mob.

In the grip of this paranoid but exact vision but without the intellectual or moral resources to confront it, it is not surprising that Rose turns the aggression of the crowd upon herself in the form of guilt, and then towards her husband. The avalanche of hatred she perceives from the world around her is now turned on him: “How do I know you’re not guilty? You could be, you could be!” Not only does she begin to blame him for their victimization because he borrowed money, but she also visualizes their complete destruction at the hands of their persecutors: “They spoiled your alibi! They’ll fix it somehow so they can smash us! And they will! They’ll smash us down!” The vision of metaphysical violence for Rose is so compelling that, like Agave in The Bacchae, she is no longer able to recognize or respond to her own kin. The cycle of retribution has been internalized. She carries the stain of violence in the lacerations suffered by her own psyche.

The Viewer as the Victim

Hitchcock’s use of the point of view perspective in this and other films is rooted in his determination to place the viewer in the role of the victim. He repeats cinematically what Girard has suggested is the historical contribution of Christianity itself: that it brought to consciousness the perspective of the victim of persecution and revealed its sources in the scapegoat mechanism. It is perhaps no coincidence that the doctrine and iconography of Catholicism often surfaces in his films, which for the most part can be described as secular suspense dramas. In the conclusion of the film, frustrated by his bad luck, Balestrero is shown facing an image of Christ and silently praying. What follows is a transition from a close-up on Balestrero’s face to a street scene in which the real robber appears, his face emerging from Balestrero’s in a lap dissolve.

Hitchcock’s dissolve reveals the true identity of the perpetrator, not the scapegoat.

This dissolve occurs just before Balestrero’s double, the real criminal, is caught committing another crime. Because of a lucky arrest, Balestrero’s “difference,” his true identity, together with his connection with the social order, is restored. Ironically, this is announced with a dissolve that plays upon his prior confusion with the double. Though Balestrero is obviously relieved at the turn of events, his later encounter with Rose in the asylum in which she has been placed reminds him that the scars of the incident still remain.

Balestrero’s difference is restored, but not Rose’s sanity. Rose remains dully unresponsive even in the face of Balestrero’s acquittal. The film was originally supposed to end with Balestrero’s exit from the home where Rose was to have remained, but was amended during production when it was revealed that the real Rose had been released from treatment.22

The new ending—a written denouement, Hollywood style, announces the eventual recovery of Rose—feels tacked on and unpersuasive. The prior scenes of Rose’s painful psychological withdrawal from her husband leave the strongest impression on the viewer, as if the role of scourge that is taken by the court in the first part of the film has now devolved upon Rose.

The Wrong Man distills the essence of violence and traces it to the sacred. Where it is most powerful, in the sequences that follow Balestrero through interrogation, arraignment, and imprisonment, it shows with searing economy that “the experience of the prisoner is, from the outset, an experience of being violently dominated, and it is colored from the beginning by the fear of being violently treated.”23

What Hitchcock portrays here is the victim at his most exposed, when he stands trembling and helpless before a force that is irresistible. Both Balestrero’s and Rose’s experiences duplicate the plight of the scapegoat before a mob, which Girard claims stands at the violent origin of both ritual and, by descent, the court system. What was present at the birth of the sacred in the establishment of ritual sacrifice is still present in the scandalous failures of justice when an innocent man is falsely accused. Hitchcock’s recourse to Catholic iconography in the film is natural considering it reflects the suffering shared by Christ and Emmanuel Balestrero, two men who are falsely accused.

Mimetic theory explains the shift in the narrative from Balestrero to his wife Rose, which some critics have judged problematic. This is not a narrative failure, but a very significant case in which Hitchcock, in shaping the narrative with his screenwriter, has determined to follow out both the social and personal dimensions of the scapegoat mechanism. His knowledge of this mechanism is not theoretical, but springs from the instincts of an artist who keenly perceives the inner workings of the human passions and depicts them intuitively. Hitchcock’s cinema suggests the same origins of human culture that Girard outlines in the following quotation:

There is a unity that underlies not only all mythologies and rituals but the whole of human culture, and this unity of unities depends upon a single mechanism, continually functioning because perpetually misunderstood – the mechanism that assures the community’s spontaneous and unanimous outburst of opposition to the surrogate victim.24

A Worldview of Biblical Realism

In acknowledging the pervasive presence of this mechanism in human culture, Girard also asserts the historical uniqueness of the insight into the victim mechanism that is afforded by the Biblical perspective. The victimization of Manny Balestrero is comparable to the victimization of Christ or the misfortunes of Job, and arguably would fail to resonate with an audience that did not already share the cultural experience of archetypal Biblical images of the scapegoat. After all, these images fertilized the entire Western tradition of art and literature, not just the cinema of Hitchcock.

Furthermore, those who would argue that the influence of the Catholic tradition on Hitchcock’s work is limited perhaps do not fully appreciate the importance of the innocent victim in his cinema, which is reflected in his stylistics as much as in his choice of subject matter. Hitchcock’s wizardry with point-of-view perspective, down to the travelling POV shot that is his trademark, cannot be separated from a moral perspective that concerns itself radically with victimization. The outwardly secular masterpieces of horror, Psycho and The Birds, are unthinkable without that perspective and the stylistics that Hitchcock refined to express it.

If Chabrol and Rohmer misconceived Hitchcock as a Jansenist Catholic, it was because they misconstrued, or did not realize, the full significance of the transfer of guilt or of exchange. As John Orr has observed, “exchange” is the “‘substance,’ the only substance, of his cinematic form.”25 The focus in Hitchcock’s work is not the incomprehensible vertical abandonment of the individual by a hidden God, but the quite comprehensible (if sometimes misconstrued) horizontal dereliction worked by the desires, the contagious violence of other human beings. Hitchcock does not just point the finger at Balestrero’s persecutors, however, but also at Balestrero’s silent co-operation with them. The propositions of fate are always met by the responses and stances of the human self.

“Curse God and die!” The victimization of Manny Balestrero is comparable to the misfortunes of Job and the victimization of Christ.

The recommendation from Balestrero’s mother that he must pray, and his decision to do so before the picture of Christ, precede the chance discovery of the true culprit in the robberies. Hitchcock seems to suggest that Balestrero is just as responsible as his accusers to react to chance and fate, but also that virtue comes about by an exchange, in this case with his mother. By his action Balestrero breaks the chain of mimetic contagion and refuses the despairing response that has consumed the mind of his wife. It is indeed human error, the failure to resist flawed but contagious human desire that works injustice and subjects the innocent to suffering and dereliction. The courage to resist the tide may indeed come from a source that must be supernatural if it is to be effective. But on this Hitchcock remains resolutely silent.

If both good and evil, or sin, come about by exchange, it stands somewhat at odds with the modern emphasis on the unique individual who struggles alone with his conscience. It seems to suggest the integral, mutually dependent relationship of self and other. Both sin and virtue have their origin in the inevitable fact that desire, both for good and for evil, is contagious. Hitchcock’s suggestion of the instability of social order, mounting with disturbing inevitability in the series of films that culminates in the avian apocalypse of The Birds, is tempered with the conviction that our relation to others is never completely severed or futile. But it is leavened by dangers that lurk in the malleability of desire and the subjection of our wills to processes that are more than individual. In this he remains not just an entertainer, but a Catholic realist.





[1] 1. Jean-Luc Godard, “Review of The Wrong Man,” in Godard on Godard: Critical Writings by Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Jean Narboni et al (New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1986), 49.
[2] A.H. Weiler, rev. of The Wrong Man, The New York Times (24 Dec. 1956).
3. Truffaut, Francois, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 243. For further background on Hitchcock’s intentions for and opinions on the film, see Patrick McGilligan, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light (New York: Harpercollins, 2003), 531-45.
4. Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, trans. Stanley Hochman (New York, N.Y.: F. Ungar, 1979).
5. John Orr, Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema (New York: Wallflower Press, 2005). Orr is one of the few to make this connection between Girard and Hitchcock (39-40) but his discussion of the issue is all too brief. For examples of how Girard can be used to interpret Hitchcock and other filmmakers see David Humbert, “Desire and Monstrosity in the Disaster Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture, 17 (2010), 87-104; and Vaughn Roberts, “Too Much is Not Enough: Paul Verhoeven, René Girard, and Femme (Fa)Tale,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, 15: 2 (2000): 233-45. See, also, the following review of Orr’s book by David Sterrit: “Hitchcock,  Hume, and the Matrix of Modern Cinema,” Film-Philosophy 11.3 (December, 2007): 238-46; available online:
6. Slavoj Zizek, “In His Bold Gaze My Ruin is Writ Large,” The Symptom: Theory, Poetry, Fiction and Contemporary Art 4 (Spring 2003). Available on-line:
7. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1979), 92.
8. Girard, Violence, 68-88.
9. Girard, Violence, 276.
10. Robert M. Cover, “Violence and the Word,” Yale Law Journal 95 (1986), 1607.
11. Girard, Violence, 22.
12. Cover, “Violence,” 1608.
13. By way of example, Chabrol and Rohmer speak of the confrontation of Balestrero with his double, the true culprit in the robberies that have been committed: “the looks exchanged between the man falsely accused [Balestrero] and the man who is really guilty, looks by means of which – as though they were transmission wires – the ‘exchange’ takes place as the former passes his guilt to another” (Chabrol and Rohmer, Hitchcock, 151).
14. René Girard, in collaboration with J.-M. Oughourlian and G. Lefort, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, trans. S. Bann and M. Metteer (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 116-17.
15. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. David GRené, in The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David GRené and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago: U Chicago Press, 1942), line 567.
16. Aeschylus, Prometheus, lines 679-85. It is also significant that, when Io makes her first appearance before Prometheus, she mentions not the one hundred eyes but the “ten thousand eyes” of Argos (570). Of course, this mistake may illustrate her state of frenzy and fear from the gadfly’s sting; perhaps it is the verbal expression of a paranoid hallucination. But if the myth is indeed flexible on this point, it is could also further bolster the claim that a historical scene of collective violence and victimization is lurking behind the myth, thinly disguised. The scene breaks through in the form of the paranoid vision of Io. From the point of view of the victim, the apparent number of eyes of even a small, enraged crowd may indeed, in the fear of the moment, swell to thousands.
17. For examples of narrative doubling in the film, see Godard, Godard on Godard, 53: “Each crucial scene in The Wrong Man has in effect its respondent, its ‘double,’ that justifies it on the narrative level while at the same time ‘redoubling’ its intensity on the dramatic level. Rose’s burst of laughter echoes that of the little girls who now live in the apartment belonging to one of the missing witnesses. The domestic scene where she hits Balestrero is the double – the negative – of the one at the beginning of the film in which she jokingly expresses mild doubts about the probability of being happy in this world.”
18. Robin Wood, in his ideological reading of Shadow of a Doubt, detects “skepticism and nihilism” behind Hitchcock’s portrayal of the small-town family in the film. He discerns in this and other elements in the film “the whole Hitchcockian sense of life at the mercy of terrible, unpredictable forces that have to be kept down” (see Hitchcock’s Films Revisited [New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2002], 298-99). Wood, unfortunately, is limited in his interpretation by a doctrinaire Freudianism that traces all conflicts in Hitchcock’s films back to the primordially sexual; the essence of Hitchcock’s view is, for Wood, “that ordered life depends on the rigorous and unnatural [italics Wood’s] suppression of a powerfully seductive underworld of desire” (Wood, Hitchcock’s Films, 94). Freud’s hostility to religion and skepticism about civilization are here uneasily blended with Wood’s Hitchcock. Since Wood himself finds true authenticity in polymorphous instinctual liberation rather than in the nuclear family, he falsely assumes that such views are present in Hitchcock’s work. For more on the limitations of Freudian theory in accounting for violence see David Humbert, “René Girard and Philip Rieff on the Mystique of Transgression,” Society 48.3 (2011): 242-46.
19. Anderson, Maxwell and Angus MacPhail, The Wrong Man, unpublished script (1956), 124. Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library.
20. Anderson and MacPhail, The Wrong Man, 125.
21. Anderson and MacPhail, The Wrong Man, 125.
22. See Bill Krohn, Hitchcock at Work (London: Phaidon Press, 2000), 180.
23. Cover, “Violence,” 1608.
24. Girard, Violence, 299-300.
25. Orr, Hitchcock, 41.



Aeschylus. “Prometheus Bound.” Trans. David GRené. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Vol. I. Eds. David GRené and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942. 310-51.
Anderson, Maxwell and Angus MacPhail. The Wrong Man. Unpublished script, 1956. Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library.
Cover, Robert M. “Violence and the Word.” Yale Law Journal 95 (1986): 1601-25.
Girard, René, in collaboration with J.-M. Oughourlian and G. Lefort. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Transl. Stephan Bann and M. Metteer. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.
—. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1979.
Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard: Critical Writings by Jean-Luc Godard. Eds.
Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. New York, N.Y.: Da Capo Press, 1986.
Humbert, David. “Desire and Monstrosity in the Disaster Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis and Culture 17 (2010): 87-104.
—. “René Girard and Philip Rieff on the Mystique of Transgression,” Society 48. 3 (2011): 242-46.
I Confess, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1953. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2004. DVD.
Krohn, Bill. Hitchcock at Work. London: Phaidon Press, 2000.
The Lodger, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1927. Los Angeles, CA: MGM, 2008, DVD.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Harpercollins, 2003.
Orr, John. Hitchcock and 20th Century Cinema. New York: Wallflower Press, 2005.
Roberts, Vaughn. “Too Much is Not Enough: Paul Verhoeven, René Girard, and Femme (Fa)Tale.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 15. 2 (2000): 233-45.
Truffaut, Francois, with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 2002.
The Wrong Man, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. 1957. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2004. DVD.
Zizek, Slavoj. “In His Bold Gaze My Ruin is Writ Large.” The Symptom: Theory, Poetry, Fiction and Contemporary Art 4 (2003). Available on-line:


Dr. David Humbert is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Thorneloe College of Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Specializing in religion and modern culture, his published work includes articles on Kierkegaard, René Girard, Freud, and Alfred Hitchcock. He is currently working on a book that examines the themes of violence, desire, and the scapegoat in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock.  A version of this essay first appeared in the Journal of Religion & Film. (Used by permission.)

Shutter Island: Echoes of René Girard in the Films of Martin Scorsese, by Cari Myers

Scapegoats and Redemption

The closer the relationship between the people competing for the same object, the more potential exists for a violent outcome

by Cari Myers • Iliff School of Theology

Part of 3 series: René Girard: Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of


Summary of René Girard’s Theory

The mimetic model begins with human need – an inherent “lack” within an individual and the search to meet that need.[1] When faced with an initial need or lack, the individual selects a model to imitate in order to gain what the individual requires. At this point, a person has two choices: to imitate God or to imitate another. Put plainly, why would a human choose to follow another human and not God in order to fill this void? Is this not a clear choice?  Charles Bellinger gives a persuasive answer:

The deeper, truer, more mature form of selfhood is a possibility toward which God is always drawing the individual. But insofar as the individual is actively resisting the call of creation, he is existing in a state of inner conflict. He loves himself and seeks to maintain control over his own selfhood, and he hates the pressure that is being placed upon him to become a more mature person…. the sinful human being becomes immensely frustrated at his inability to prevent his creation. In his anger over his inability to kill his deeper self, he develops a need to kill other human beings. He subconsciously construes the other person as a representation of that which he is trying to kill within himself….To attack the Other, the Enemy, becomes a psychological need for the sinful person, as he seeks to avoid becoming another to himself, that is, a new self. The most basic root of ill will toward others is ill will toward the self that one is in the process of becoming.[2] (See also, Bellinger’s The Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight)

‘Shutter Island’ (2010) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo was Martin Scorsese’s second highest-grossing film ($128M), behind only Oscar-winner, ‘The Departed.’

Humans are never completely formed, finished, and perfected. The path of humanity is one of growth and progress. Only Yahweh can say, “I AM.”[3] The rest of us may only say, “I become.” How humans respond to their unformed nature determines their path. We may turn to God and allow God to form and shape us or we may turn to others and look for what they have that we have not in an effort to seek our own completion. If we choose to turn to another human as the model for the next step in our own personal evolution, we seek someone who seems to encompass what we lack. What remains is the question about our perception of our own lack – how do we know we are missing something?

Are these needs natural innate needs all humans share, or are these socially constructed “needs,” things that a human does not physiologically or emotionally need, but only perceives to need? Is the difference really significant? Perhaps there is a preliminary step required in which we examine how we perceive our needs, and how we distinguish between needs and wants. For now, let us simply begin with the observation that all humans have needs, and we may either choose to follow God and allow God to form us or we may turn to other humans and seek to obtain what they have that we have not. Beginning the mechanism at this point answers the question, “Why do we copy the desires of others?” The inner emptiness of each human inspires the mimetic process.

From Comparison to Rivalry

Mimesis is the awareness that someone else has something that I believe I need and begins with a game of comparison. I examine my situation and my state of being to assess what I believe is missing. I then see another person and compare her situation and my perception of her state of being, and assess what she has that I need. I will then take steps to obtain what she has or wants, and imitate her in some way in order to obtain it.[4]

Mimetic desire is a “pharmakon” – both a medicine and a poison that can either create illness or cure it.

This portion of the theory describes the driving force behind the effectiveness of advertising and much of the social construction of trends, fashion, technology, education, romance, and friendships. If a famous and stylish celebrity is photographed carrying a designer lunchbox, one may be sure there will be a waiting list for that very lunchbox the next day. One needs only step in the halls of a local school or turn on the TV to see the mimetic desire at work.

Mimesis may be either positive or negative, depending on the being one imitates. If one chooses to imitate Jesus, mimetic desire may be very positive: “What Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me….the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father.”[5] Girard declares that mimetic desire is a “pharmakon – a medicine and a poison”[6] and can either create illness or cure it. When a person chooses another to imitate, he or she must choose wisely or come to ruin.

Two Types of Rivalry

When more than one person desires an object, a rivalry is born. This rivalry for the same object leads to envy, competition, and conflict. A mediator is the person with whom I am in mimetic relationship. This person, my rival, mediates reality to me. This makes us “interdividuals;” our identity is construed by the other or model, and we are a conglomerate of mimetic relationships.7

There are two types of rivalry at work here: internal and external. External mediation exists “when the distance is sufficient to eliminate any contact between the two spheres of possibilities of which the mediator and the subject occupy the respective centers.”8  External mediation exists when an eighth grade girl idolizes a pop star and copies the star’s wardrobe, haircut, and mannerisms. The possibilities for contact, or even actual awareness, between the girl and the star are minimal. Internal mediation exists when “this same distance is sufficiently reduced to allow these two spheres to penetrate each other more or less profoundly.”9

The closer the relationship between the people competing for the same object, the more potential exists for a violent outcome.

Brotherhood and Violence

In both secular and biblical literature, the theme of warring brothers or twins is rampant.10 Perhaps because the relationship is more intimate and has greater value for each participant, the dissolution of a close relationship would necessarily require greater violence. At some point in a relationship of this nature involved in a mimetic rivalry, the members must decide whether the object of their desire is more important than the relationship with the other. Perhaps this is the greatest act of violence – that break with the other and the replacement of an object where a person once stood. Girard goes on to clarify that “the distance between mediator and subject is primarily spiritual,”11 and while geography may be one factor, it is not the sole factor in rivalry. Expanding the relational dimension to the spiritual plane creates an even greater arena for rivalry – and introduces the concept of rivalry with one’s self.

In both secular and biblical literature, the theme of warring brothers or twins is rampant.

Eventually, mimetic rivalry leads to acts of violence, and peace may only be restored through the use of a scapegoat. In a real rivalry, both sides are both aggressor and victim, and the violence escalates to become all-encompassing. In order to stem the cycle of violence, the rivals, be they individuals or communities, must find a victim to carry the responsibility of the conflict: a scapegoat. Girard describes the function of the scapegoat within the mimetic process as follows: “The desire to commit an act of violence on those near us cannot be suppressed without a conflict; we must divert that impulse, therefore, toward the sacrificial victim, the creature we can strike down without fear of reprisal, since he lacks a champion.”12 The scapegoat must exhibit some weakness or vulnerability, or bear some marker that sets him or her apart from the rest of the culture.

The sacrificial scapegoat has several functions within the rival communities, but primarily the scapegoat serves to “restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric.”13 The sacrifice must “quell violence within the community to prevent conflicts from erupting.”14 Through the use of a scapegoat, societal violence may be avoided because “the sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence; it prompts the community to choose victims from outside itself.”15 The community is united through the establishment of a common enemy.

The Innocent Victim

In a hospital for people society thinks are beyond saving, Teddy is the scapegoat and the most violent of all the patients who have ever visited Shutter Island.

The actual guilt or innocence of the scapegoat is inconsequential. The community must perceive the victim as potentially guilty, and the community must remain ignorant of its establishment of a sacrificial victim. The community must believe that the scapegoat carries the responsibility for all the community conflicts so that the destruction of the scapegoat will bring peace. If members of the community recognized that they themselves were responsible for the conflict and violence as a result of mimetic desire, violence would overlap all Girard recognizes that the Bible reveals mimetic desire and scapegoating, and that God sides with the innocent victim. Satan is the scapegoat mechanism16 and serves as a skandalon,17 or stumbling block, an idea that will become critical later.

Jesus became God’s instrument against violence to save us from our own faulty system. Girard declares that “the Gospels tell us that to escape violence it is necessary to love one’s brother [sic] completely – to abandon the violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles.”18 Jesus is the only human who ever achieved this goal and was “the only man who has nothing to do with violence and its works.”19  Therefore, Jesus was not a sacrifice killed on the cross because a blood-thirsty God demanded death to appease God’s wrath. Instead, “Jesus has to die because continuing to live would mean a compromise with violence.”20 Mark Heim takes up this hopeful idea and further states,

Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’s death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our [humanity’s] equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us.21 The long-held misunderstanding of the wrathful violence of God and the victimization of humanity is corrected as the wrathful violence of humanity and the salvific victimization of God. It is not God’s blood-lust that must be appeased by sacrifice, it is ours. And only the Son of God can save us from ourselves.


Echoes of Girard in the films of Martin Scorsese

Scorsese saw two career options before him, “organized crime and the church.”

Martin Scorsese was born and raised in New York City to two Sicilian immigrants. Both parents worked in the garment district and raised their children surrounded by Italian American family and friends. The cohesion of family and community was of utmost importance, as was a shared faith through the Catholic Church. [22] Many elements of Scorsese’s childhood inspired his interest in film. In addition to his faith and community, primary among these early influences was his poor health and his lack of contact with books. [23]

Young Scorsese’s daily life involved gangs and gangsters, priests and nuns. This social situation created a specific foundation from which all of Scorsese’s movies would stem: “Growing up in this neighborhood exposed the young Scorsese to two different, indeed opposite, kinds of role models – that is, men who had power – whom he could strive to emulate: the petty criminals on one hand, and the priests, on the other.” [24] Scorsese saw two career options before him, “organized crime and the church.” [25] Scorsese chose the priesthood but flunked out of seminary after one year, disillusioned and frustrated by the hypocrisy, intolerance, dogma, and moral ambiguity he claims he experienced in the Catholic Church. [26]

Scorsese still declares himself a Christian, but one on a “quest for non-institutionalized religious experience.” He believes that “living the good life is practicing the tenets of Christianity through love, rather than making Mass on Sunday. You don’t make up for your sins in church, you make up for them in the street.” 27 Due to this formative environment, the themes of power, corruption, the outsider, the sacred, violence and redemption would permeate his films.

Girardian Themes

Enemy brothers Jake (Robert De Niro) Joey (Joe Pesci) LaMotta in ‘Raging Bull.’ (United Artists, 1980)

Martin Scorsese is a revisionist like the best directors, and he reworks preexisting themes with fresh insight.28 Intentional or not, the constructs of Rene Girard seem to occur frequently in the films of Scorsese. Indeed, “the value of Girard’s schema to Scorsese’s Italian American films is that their religious, social, and cultural values… provide an especially rich and dramatic breeding ground for the phenomena Girard describes.”29

While Girard and Scorsese share many themes, primary to this study are the portrayal of the social value of rituals and scapegoats, close brothers or twins, and mimetic violence. Girard describes the function of the ritual of sacrifice as “a collective action of the entire community, which purifies itself of its own disorder through the unanimous immolation of a victim, but this can only happen at the paroxysm of the ritual crisis.”30 For Girard, the ritual serves to temporarily reconcile and reorder the community, to “’trick’ violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals,”31 but eventually the community will collapse back into mimetic rivalry and require another scapegoat.

Scorsese makes sure to draw distinctions between ritual mimetic violence and the church, often contrasting the sacred and the violent: “Mediated by priests, ritual is the controlled mimesis, in disguised form, of the crisis that issued in peace and harmony,”32 which in the end fails to control the spread of violence in the community.33 For both Girard and Scorsese, ritual is important for negotiating social order but in the end only serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence.

Girard and Scorsese both give emotional weight to the cost of mimetic violence through an examination of the motif of feuding brothers or twins:

The proliferation of enemy brothers in Greek myth and in dramatic adaptations of myth implies the continual presence of a sacrificial crisis, repeatedly alluded to in the same symbolic terms. The fraternal theme is no less ‘contagious’ qua theme for being buried deep within the text than is the malevolent violence that accompanies it. In fact, the theme itself is a form of violence.34

Enemy Brothers

Again, a closer relationship between the rivals provides the opportunity for greater potential violence. “Enemy brothers” may be here a symbolic term for people in a close mimetic relationship such that “in their repetitive, unacknowledged imitation of each other, the rivals have unwittingly become each other’s doubles. As their envious rivalry intensifies, they forget the original objects of their desire and become absorbed in the mimetic conflict to the point of actual violence.”35 Scorsese examines this fraternal internal mediation in several films. To name a few, in Raging Bull there are Jake and Joey, in Mean Streets there are Tony, Michael and Charlie, and in Casino there are Ace and Nicky. Within the Scorsese collection, “these feuding fraternal ‘doubles’ symbolize the collapse of familial, social, and ritual order through undifferentiated violence.”36

Often, these fraternal groups are childhood friends if not actual relatives, and in more recent movies, such as The Departed and Shutter Island, Scorsese has begun to explore even more intimate conflicting doubles: dual identities, such as the conflict between the undercover cop embedded in the mob (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the police detective on the mob’s payroll (Matt Damon) in the The Departed clip below. (Warning: STRONG language.)


The Nature of Violence and the Cross 

In almost all of his films, Scorsese asks very difficult questions about the nature of violence, and mimetic phenomena and undifferentiated violence are very common in Scorsese’s films:

As Lucifer challenged God, his model, for his possessions, so in Scorsese’s films those who pretend to god-like autonomy are bound to attract not only imitators but violent rivals. Just as the rivalry between God and Satan caused the angelic host to divide themselves into factions, so in Scorsese’s cinematic world such rivalries draw other people within their violent orbit…. With the spread of random undifferentiated violence, more and more people are endangered, formerly accepted limits and boundaries collapse, and a small scale example of sacrificial crisis, complete with doubles of violence, comes into being. This situation typifies the climactic moments of several of Scorsese’s films.37

A Scorsese film is ripe with violent rivalries and doubles, and the violence increases into ever-widening circles throughout the film until the climax where, finally, the violence is “resolved” in one final great act of violence. With the ease of cinema, this final act brings resolution to the cycle of violence, rolling the credits over the real-life consequence of an even greater violence coming to life in response: “Their (Scorsese films) essential rhythm is that of a world which, beginning in comparative order however precarious and threatened, gradually spins out of control through violence and desire.” [38] Because of this rhythm, one of Scorsese’s primary totems, among many, is the wheel or circle, representing this cycle of violence. [39] Other Scorsese symbols of violence include the mirror or reflective surfaces and twins or close brothers to point to the mimetic rivalry or double mediation. [40]

A Non-Girardian Conclusion

In ‘Shutter Island’ the feuding brothers theory from Greek mythology has reached a point of extremes so that the dualities have collapsed in on themselves and have become feuding identities within one person.

The gulf between Girard and Scorsese opens in this violent climactic moment of Scorsese films. In the Scorsese library, violence solves violence. There is good violence and bad violence, and the good drives out the bad.41 In some films, “when violence has been allowed to proliferate, its increasing scope and randomness paradoxically hold out the possibility that the next victim will be the last, and that the seemingly uncontrollable crisis will then miraculously come to a halt.” [42] The scapegoat in the film has served its purpose, for the time being, but once the cycle has begun, Scorsese illustrates that “expulsive violence of whatever type cannot pacify society in the long run, so that the violent cycles must begin again.”[43] As Girard so clearly explains, “the culture born of violence must return to violence.”[44]

It seems that Scorsese still believes in a blood-thirsty God who destroyed bad violence with good violence on the Cross and professes redemptive violence is the answer:

Violence can be redeemed from senselessness to purpose, and can have a redemptive effect on others, both the perpetrators and recipient. It does, and must, always function like a parable, to shock and subvert our preconceptions, not for mere effect, but to change our perceptions and reactions, in particular those which many religious traditions often offer us and leave is simply comfortable. [45]

Therefore, most of the Scorsese library includes a Christ-figure of some kind, who disrupts the cycle of violence, at least temporarily. Scorsese, a man fundamentally formed and surrounded by violence, does not understand the Girardian Christ: “To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance.”46 For Scorsese, all are trapped in the cycle of violence, especially Jesus. The best we can hope for is for more good than bad violence.


Shutter Island (***Spolier Alert***)

What first appears to be a classic horror film (voted #7 on Business Insiders Highest Grossing Scary Movies of All Time), turns out to be so much more. A story of violent scapegoating of Girardian proportions.

While it is unlikely that Scorsese intentionally includes Girardian themes, it is reasonable to suggest that Girard and Scorsese drew their themes, tropes, and constructs from the same canon. In the opening scenes of Shutter Island, [47] one of the guards (John Carroll Lynch) describes the psychological and medical rituals on Shutter Island. Normally, the criminally insane are “treated” with shock therapy, sensory deprivation, lobotomy, pharmacology, and ice water baths. On Shutter Island however, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is trying something different. As the guard explains, Ashecliffe is unique, the “only facility like it in the world. We take the most damaged, dangerous patients. The ones no one else can manage. It’s a hospital for people our society normally thinks are beyond saving.”48

“I have this radical idea that if you treat a patient with respect, listen to him, and try to understand him, you might just reach him.” -Dr. Crawley (Ben Kingsley)

Dr. Cawley believes that where mental illness is concerned, what should be a last resort has become a first response. “I have this radical idea,” he explains to Marshalls Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Aule (Mark Ruffalo), “that if you treat a patient with respect, listen to him, and try to understand him, you might just reach him.”49 Therefore, the new rituals at Shutter Island surrounding the mentally disturbed include the prohibition of chains indoors, mandatory small group sessions and private therapy with a primary care giver, strict schedules, productive work assignments, and medication only when absolutely necessary. Also, staff and visitors are to address the residents as patients, not prisoners.

The End of Scapegoating

Dr. Cawley is trying to revolutionize psychological treatment for the criminally insane and is attempting to interrupt the scapegoating mechanism of larger society. Shutter Island is a three-fold community of scapegoats. Ashecliffe hospital is on an island about 11 miles from the mainland and is accessible only by one ferry controlled by the authorities on the island. The entire island is populated only by those who are too unsafe to mingle with the general population, those who are trying to cure them, and those who keep law and order on the island.

Unlike Dr. Cawley, Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow) believes Teddy is irredeemable, a monster who must be stopped.

The island is an autonomous police state, where the warden is the supreme authority. Within Ashecliffe, there are three residences for the patients. Complex A is for the men, Complex B is for the women, and Complex C, an old military fort, is the home of the most violent offenders, who serve as scapegoats of this community. The patients in Complex C are the most violent among the violent, those who cannot be trusted within the limited larger populace of the facility, and therefore never leave their cells unless accompanied personally by a guard. The Complex C patients are those largely responsible for the dim reputation of Ashecliffe, and as the “worst” patients they experience the “worst” conditions. While Complexes A and B are a hospital, Complex C is a prison. Of these patients in Complex C, Teddy is the scapegoat of even these and is the most violent of all the patients who have ever visited Ashecliffe.

The Role Play to End All Role Plays

Dr. Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) agrees with Dr. Cawley and helps construct a remarkable role play to help Teddy face the truth about himself and violence.

Because of this reason, the elaborate role play developed by Drs. Cowley and Sheehan (Mark Ruffalo) is Teddy’s last hope of survival. Drs. Cowley and Sheehan believe that Teddy is not a hopeless case because as Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) clarifies, Teddy is a man of violence, not a violent man. They are two very different things. [50] Teddy is a man of violence because of trauma he has experienced and witnessed, not because he enjoys violence. The trauma is Teddy’s fundamental wound, his “lack.” The initial events that wounded him occurred because he fell under the wheels of a violent cycle – war and mental disease. After watching the camp commandant at Dachau botch his own suicide and die slowly, Teddy killed the camp guards because he was ordered to. Teddy confesses that this act “wasn’t warfare, it was murder.”51

His wife killed their children by drowning them in a lake, so he killed her because she asked him to. He lacks peace and absolution, and he is so burdened by guilt and pain that he creates an elaborate fantasy to escape. Teddy’s reality clashes with his fantasy in his dreams, when he speaks with his dead wife and children, wet from lake water, and relives the liberation of Dachau. As Dr. Naehring, a German doctor at Ashecliffe, describes it:

“Did you know that the word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek for ‘wound’? Hm? And what is the German word for ‘dream’? Traum. Ein Traum. Wounds can create monsters, and you, you are wounded, Marshal.” [52]

Dr. Naehring believes Teddy is irredeemable, a monster who must be stopped, a monster whose death or immobilization will once again bring a measure of peace to Shutter Island, at least for the time being.

Dr. Naehring : “Do you believe in God?”

Teddy:  “You ever seen a death camp?” 53

 The intersection of the sacred and mimetic violence

The iconic “violence speech”of Shutter Island’s warden (Ted Levine) could be inserted into any number of Scorsese films with only minimal changes.

The prison warden is the only person on the island who might be a match for Teddy. The warden (Ted Levine) is a menacing presence throughout the film but only has two minutes of dialogue, all in one scene. The “violence speech” of the warden is iconic and could be lifted out of Shutter Island and inserted into any number of Scorsese films with only minimal changes. The conversation between Teddy and the warden takes place after a hurricane hits Shutter Island and has apparently sent a tree into the warden’s living room. The warden finds Teddy walking down a road, having been missing from the facility over night and lost his partner, Marshall Chuck Aule, who is in reality Dr. Sheehan. I include the conversation in total here as it describes the intersection between the sacred and mimetic violence as a major theme not only for Shutter Island but for Scorsese’s entire film collection as well:

Warden: Did you enjoy God’s latest gift?

Teddy: What?

Warden: God’s gift. Your violence. When I came downstairs in my home, and I saw that tree in my living room, it reached out for me… a divine hand. God loves violence.

Teddy: I… I hadn’t noticed.

Warden: Sure you have. Why else would there be so much of it? It’s in us. It’s what we are. We wage war, we burn sacrifices, and pillage and plunder and tear at the flesh of our brothers. And why? Because God gave us violence to wage in his honor.

Teddy: I thought God gave us moral order.

Warden: There’s no moral order as pure as this storm. There’s no moral order at all. There’s just this: can my violence conquer yours? You’re as violent as they come. I know this, because I’m as violent as they come. If the constraints of society were lifted, and I was all that stood between you and a meal, you would crack my skull with a rock and eat my meaty parts. Wouldn’t you? Cawley thinks you’re harmless and that you can be controlled, but I know different.

Teddy: You don’t know me.

Warden: Oh but I do. We’ve known each other for centuries. If I was to sink my teeth into your eye right now, would you be able to stop me before I blinded you?

Teddy: Give it a try.

Warden: That’s the spirit. [54]

Can Violence be Harnessed?

Because both the warden and Teddy have witnessed great violence and committed great acts of violence, they are men of great violence. Perhaps no one on Shutter Island can understand Teddy the way the warden can, but the warden has chosen the path of embracing his violence as a gift from God. Because the warden can be the most violent man in his community, he believes he is the most blessed man. This characterization calls to mind the gangsters and organized violence Scorsese was surrounded by as a child.55 Those who were the most violent had the most privileges and prestige.

But the warden does not recognize that he has become defined by his violent nature; he believes he has harnessed his violence to serve him. The warden is a violent man. Teddy is still struggling within this distinction set by Dr. Neuring and sees himself as only a man of violence. As Dr. Cowley describes it:

“In your story you’re not a murderer but a hero. Your crime is terrible. One you’ll never forgive yourself for, so you’ve invented another self.” [56]

Teddy is lacking absolution and forgiveness – this is what he seeks. The warden is no longer concerned with forgiveness as he has embraced his violence to the point of fundamental identity.

The mimesis then occurs because Teddy knows of no other way to function than through violence. Violence is his mimesis, which only leads to more violence. Because of his experienced trauma, Teddy labors in a cycle of centripetal violence that has finally turned in against himself in the dual identities he has created. In Shutter Island, the feuding brothers theory from Greek mythology has reached a point of extremes so that the dualities have collapsed in on themselves and have become feuding identities within one person. In his hatred of himself and the violence both he and his wife committed, he has created a twin, an alternate personality for both himself and his wife; Andrew Laeddis is an anagram of Edward Daniels, and Rachel Solando is an anagram of Dolores Chanal. In fact, Shutter Island is itself an anagram for Truth and Lies as well as Truths/Denials. Scorsese consistently points to these dualities by means of reflective surfaces – bodies of water, glass, and even a flask. Scorsese also keeps the air around Teddy full of objects for the first two thirds of the movie, with rain or dripping water, snow, ash, papers, and sparks, perhaps to reference the illusion within the cluttered, confused mind of Teddy.

Breaking the Cycle of Violence?

When Teddy witnessed the piles of frozen bodies at Dachau, the pure evil existing within the holocaust “rubbed off” on him.

The cycle of violence is one of the guiding questions of the film – how does one break a cycle of violence? Can one break a cycle of violence? Who is the greatest victim of violence – the victim, the aggressor, or the witness? Was it only after the war, the liberation of Dachau, and the death of his family that Teddy began responding violently, or was he always like that? Is there transference of violence taking place within the close contact of evil? Mark Heim associates Satan with the “parasitic activity” of the evil of sacrifice and the “disease of human conflict.” 57 These images of Satan define how the cycle of violence is perpetuated among humans – it is contagious via mimetic desire. Evil can be transferred via contact with a violent act, however we define it. Teddy himself jokingly references this possibility when he first arrives on Shutter Island: “You act like insanity is catching.”58

Is Insanity is Contagious?

When Teddy witnessed the piles of frozen bodies at Dachau, the pure evil existing within the holocaust “rubbed off” on him, so that when he witnessed the deaths of his children at the hands of his wife, his response was to kill her. Would it have been possible for Teddy to witness such evil and to participate in such acts of violence but not become a violent person? It is no surprise that a human who has experienced violence in any respect will, thereafter, instinctively respond to threat or conflict violently. It becomes inherent – we catch the disease. Is this idea of vampiric violence universal and unavoidable? Heim believes there is another way:

Is evil automatically transferred (i.e., we become violent) whenever we are victims, perpetrators or observers of violence? All of these have powerful contagious effects, but they are not automatic or inevitable. There are powerful, contagious positive models and contagions also. Christ and the Holy Spirit are such. But without such countervailing forces, it is very easy to catch the disease.59

Teddy’s problem is that he has had so few counteracting positive forces. For many soldiers returning from a war, perhaps an intact, healthy family, or a strong faith community of some sort, would have been sufficient to fight this transference of evil. Teddy’s family failed to be a “positive contagious model” for him and therefore served only to push him further into the evil disease of violence.


Dolores (Denise Williams) becomes Teddy’s ‘skandalon’ (Satan) who keeps appearing to him in hallucinations and dreams encouraging him to embrace the illusion he has created for himself.

Throughout the film, Dolores keeps appearing to Teddy in hallucinations and dreams, encouraging him to leave the island, to search for Laeddis, to search for Rachel, and to embrace the illusion he has created for himself. These actions are significant as Delores serves, in the Girardian sense, as Teddy’s skandalon in the film. Girard defines skandalon as a Greek word used in the Gospels often synonymous with Satan, or “the living obstacle that trips men up, the mimetic model insofar as it becomes a rival that lies across our path.”60 Girard goes on to say that “the skandalon designates a very common inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry which turns it into an addiction. The skandalon is anything that attracts us in proportion to the suffering or irritation that it causes us.”61 In almost every scene with Dolores and Teddy, Dolores is wet with lake water and begins to bleed from the stomach or burn into ashes, even as Teddy holds her and weeps over her loss.

As the person Teddy has loved the most, she is now the being who helps him the least, and keeps sending him back into the cycle of violence with instructions to kill Laeddis,62 to keep searching for Rachel,63 and to avoid the lighthouse64 (where the truth lies). Dolores’s power over Teddy is directly proportional to his love for her and his guilt over her death, and over his failure to help her with her own mental illness, which led to the deaths of their children. Teddy’s visions and dreams of Dolores are both wish fulfillment and penance, as it tortures him and appeases him to see her, even as she asks him to let her go.65

Remember us, for we too have lived, loved and laughed.


The penultimate scene of Shutter Island leaves us with hope that Teddy has recovered. He recognizes his real identity and can describe the world and personalities he has created. He asks for help, and confesses his crimes. But in the last scene, he is back to addressing Dr. Sheehan as Chuck, and declaring that something is amiss on Shutter Island and they must find out what it is. Sheehan turns to Drs. Cawley and Naehring and the warden, barely shaking his head, thus giving the signal for Teddy to receive a lobotomy. As the orderlies approach Dr. Sheehan and Teddy, Teddy turns to Dr. Sheehan and asks, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster? Or to die as a good man?”67

Scorsese leaves the possibility open that Teddy has chosen to sacrifice himself, thus casting Teddy as a sort of Scorsesian “Christ-figure” who sacrifices himself to save others, even if he is saving them from himself. Perhaps Scorsese would argue that this sacrifice is a form of “good violence,” which answers the warden’s question, “Can my violence conquer yours?” with a resounding “yes” as Teddy inflicts the violence upon himself. If this conclusion is in fact Scorsese’s position, then Scorsese is still missing Girard’s point that violence, particularly institutional violence, only satisfies society for a time and then begins the cycle again. Violence only begets violence. There are always more violent offenders.


Next post in the series: Hitchcock and the Scapegoat: René Girard, Violence and Victimization in ‘The Wrong Man’



Cari Myers received a BA in English Literature from Pepperdine University, an MA in Youth and Family Ministry from Abilene Christian University, and an MTS from Brite Divinity at Texas Christian University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Religion and Social Change at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. Her research focus is in Latino/a studies, specifically in Latino/a youth culture.  A version of this essay first appeared in The Journal of Religion and Film. Used by permission.



Bellinger, Charles. The Genealogy of Violence. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2001.

Casillo, Robert. Gangster Priest: The Italian Cinema of Martin Scorsese. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006.

Girard, Rene. The Girard Reader. New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996.

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Graham, David John. “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese.” In Explorations in Theology and

Film: Movies and Meaning. ed. Clive Marsh, Gaye Williams Ortiz. 87-96. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

Heim, Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006.

Miliora, Maria. The Scorsese Psyche on Screen. Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004.

Shutter Island. DVD. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Hollywood: Paramount, 2010.


[1] Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977,) 145.
[2] Charles Bellinger, The Genealogy of Violence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 67.
[3] Exodus 3:14, NRSV.
[4] Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, (New York: Crossroad Herder, 1996) p. 39-42.
[5] Girard, Reader, p. 63.
[6] Girard, Reader, p. 63.
7 Girard, Reader, 291.
8 Girard, Reader, 39.
9 Girard, Reader, 39.
10 Girard, Reader, 74, 146.
11 Girard, Reader, 74, 146.
12 Girard, Reader, 83.
13 Girard, Reader, 78.
14 Girard, Reader, 83.
15 Girard, Reader, 77.
16 Girard, Reader, 161,
17 Girard, Reader, 198.
18 Girard, Reader, 189.
19 Girard, Reader, 186.
20 Girard, Reader, 187.
21 Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006) xi.
22 Maria Miliora, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, (Jefferson, N. Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004) 12.
23 Robert Casillo, Gangster Priest: The Italian Cinema of Martin Scorsese, (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006)
24 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 15.
25 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 93.
26 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 96-97.
27 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 97.
28 John David Graham, “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” In Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning, ed. Clive Marsh, Gaye Williams Ortiz (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 89.
29 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 108.
30 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 11.
31 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 37-38.
32 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 105.
33 Girard, Violence and the Sacred 212.
34 Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 64.
35 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 103-4.
36 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 254.
37 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 114.
38 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 120.
39 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 120.
40 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 118, 157, 254.
41 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 121.
42 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 121.
43 Casillo, Gangster Priest, 122.
44 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 150.
45 John David Graham, “Redeeming Violence in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” 93.
46 Rene Girard, The Girard Reader, 193.
47 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
48 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
49 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
50 Shutter Island, “Scene 4”.
51 Shutter Island, “Scene 7”.
52 Shutter Island, “Scene 15”.
53 Shutter Island, “Scene 4”.
54 Shutter Island, “Scene 14”.
55 Miliora, The Scorsese Psyche on Screen, 15.
56 Shutter Island, “Scene 16”.
57 Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 149.
58 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
59 Mark Heim, email response to author, July 27, 2011.
60 Girard, Reader, 161.
61 Girard, Reader, 161
62 Shutter Island, “Scene 9”.
63 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
64 Shutter Island, “Scenes 15 and 16”.
65 Shutter Island, “Scene 5”.
66 Shutter Island, “Scene 2”.
67 Shutter Island, “Scene 19”.



René Girard: The Greatest Christian Intellectual You Never Heard of, by Cynthia Haven

“People are against my theory, because it is at the same time avant-garde and Christian: the avant-garde people are anti-Christian, and many of the Christians are anti-avant-garde.”     -René Girard


girard_rene-mRené Girard is probably the greatest living Christian intellectual you never heard of.  His work spans the disciplines of literary theory, theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology and beyond.  Over the next few months we’ll post a number of pieces exploring how his views of “mimetic borrowing” and “scapegoating” serve as interesting interpretive devices for a number of issues facing filmmakers, ministry leaders and Christian intellectuals in general. But first we thought you should get to know the man a bit.

Cynthia Haven’s Stanford magazine article on Girard includes an insightful biographic section. We hope it will help you grasp the deep connection between Girard’s spiritual and intellectual journeys. -GDS


History is a Test – Mankind is Failing It: 

René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse

By Cynthia Haven in Stanford Magazine

Published in 1961, Deceit, Desire and the Novel was important to Girard not just for the mimetic theory, but also for the powerful personal epiphany it brought the author. Girard discussed it with James Williams in an interview included in The Girard Reader. “I started working on that book very much in the pure demystification mode: cynical, destructive, very much in the spirit of the atheistic intellectuals of the time. I was engaged in debunking, and of course recognizing mimesis is a great debunking tool because it deprives us moderns of the one thing we still have left, our individual desire.”

.Intellectual Awakening

He described his eventual realization this way: “The author’s first draft is a self-justification.” It may either focus on a wicked hero, the writer’s scapegoat, who will be unmasked by the end of the novel; or it may have a good hero, the author’s alter ego, who will be vindicated at novel’s end. If the writer is a good one, he will see “the trashiness of it all” by the time he finishes his first draft—that it’s a “put-up job.” The experience, said Girard, shatters the vanity and pride of the writer. “And this existential downfall is the event that makes a great work of art possible,” Girard said. The work is no longer a self-justification, and the characters he creates are more than good guys or bad guys.

“The debunking that actually occurs in this first book is probably one of the reasons why my concept of mimesis is still viewed as destructive,” he added. “Yet I like to think that if you take this notion as far as you possibly can, you go through the ceiling, as it were, and discover what amounts to original sin.” The experience, “if radical enough, is very close to an experience of conversion.”

.Spiritual Awakening

Indeed, that awakening returned Girard to an orthodox view of the Bible as revelation—the revelation of the nature of mimetic desire and what it would lead to, which became the subject of subsequent books. This was his “intellectual conversion,” which he describes as “comfortable,” without demands or commitment. But a brush with cancer in 1959 changed everything. “Now this conversion was transformed into something really serious in which the aesthetic gave way to the religious.” He had his children baptized, and he and his wife, Martha, were remarried by a priest.

(Girard) began to see the Bible as “anti-myth”—a description of humankind’s long climb up from barbarity. Violence, retaliation and a vengeful God evolve over centuries into themes of forgiveness, repentance and the revelation that the scapegoat is innocent, culminating in the Crucifixion.

.A Christian/Avant-garde No Man’s Land

“People are against my theory, because it is at the same time an avant-garde and a Christian theory,” he says. “The avant-garde people are anti-Christian, and many of the Christians are anti-avant-garde. Even the Christians have been very distrustful of me.”

“A counter-mythical story” (Francois Gerard, [1770-1837], Joseph recognized by his brothers,’Musee des Beaux-Arts)
During a meeting last year of an informal (Stanford) philosophical reading group, Girard recounted the Old Testament story of Joseph, son of Jacob, bound and sold into slavery by his “mob” of 10 half-brothers. At first, “they all get together and try to kill him. The Bible knows that scapegoating is a mob affair.”

Joseph establishes himself as one of the leaders of Egypt and then tearfully forgives his brothers in a dramatic reconciliation. It is, Girard said, a story “much more mature, spiritually, than the beginning of Genesis.” Moreover, the story has no precedent in archaic literature.

“Like many biblical stories, it is a counter-mythical story,” he said, “because in myth, the lynchers are always satisfied with their lynching.”

Girard suggested the group might not have noticed this before. After all, they had been trained to think that the Bible was a backward book, preceded and followed by superior texts, with little new to offer the world. The room erupted at once into a series of “but . . . but . . . but.” Girard slouched back in his chair a little, smiling softly and watching…

Continue reading


Next Post in Girard SeriesThe Joker Is Satan, and So Are We: René Girard and The Dark Knight, by Charles K. Bellinger, PhD

See also: History is a Test-Mankind is Failing It: René Girard scrutinizes the human condition from creation to apocalypse.