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Blog

Peeling Back the Layers

Jayne English

21 Saint Vincent Bill Murray often explores themes beyond the comedic in his films. This is what makes St. Vincent not the predictable story of a misanthropic old man (Vincent, played by Murray), but a film that leans toward larger ideas.

One of the ways it does this is when Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), the misanthropic old man’s new neighbor, reads Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree to her 12-year-old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). I never liked that book because the tree gives itself, apples and limbs and trunk, to the boy, until all that is left is a stump. I read it for the first time to my son when he was five. When I finished, I closed the book and said, "That's ridiculous, you're not supposed to let someone use you up like that." But doesn’t the book reflect the Gospel? If we are measured by the measure we use, what does a good measure—pressed down, shaken together and running over—look like? This scene raises unsettling questions about how we should love. We soon learn that Vincent’s wife is declining from dementia in a nursing home. He sacrifices his own financial security and physical safety to make sure she is well cared for.

Another scene raises existential questions. On Oliver’s first day at his new Catholic school, the teacher (a young priest) welcomes him warmly and asks him to pray to begin the school day. When Oliver objects (“I think I’m Jewish”), the priest has Oliver’s classmates tell him their religious persuasions. Each child identifies their view—Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, agnostic. The fact that the priest makes space for these expansive differences in his class of 12-year-olds reminds us that these questions about God's existence and our own press in on us from a young age. As with the reading of The Giving Tree, the scene opens the movie’s scope to thoughts of what lies beyond us.

Vincent’s weekly appointment with Daka (Naomi Watts), a prostitute, stands in sharp contrast to his devotion to his ailing wife. But the relationship is another telling fruit of this flawed man. And Daka, being part of the story, crowds in on our tendency to make assumptions about people. In “Tell It Slant,” Camille T. Dungy tells us good poems and fiction “weird the truth” to “subvert our expectations and also reward them.” Dungy points to Lucille Clifton’s poem “here rests” and how Josephine, a prostitute, surprises our expectations by doing something we think would be out of character: she (and her pimp) return home to care for her dying father. The poem also tells us Josephine is a lover of books and “carried a book / on every stroll.” Then Clifton tells us:

and they would take turns reading a bible aloud through the house.

Dungy says knowing this about Josephine has “complicated our understanding of her...Clifton tells us a different side of a story, several different sides of a story, so that we see a deeper truth that is both superbly surprising and also so beautiful we can’t turn away.” Daka “complicates our understanding.” She was changing in ways other than not being able to pole dance anymore, due to her growing belly (we’re never told who the father of her child is). After Vincent suffers a stroke, she cleans and organizes his grossly neglected home. She also tells him the old relationship is over; he will now pay her to keep house for him. She enters into this new relationship with Vincent out of feelings for him and also out of a growing love for her unborn child. The film offers us this surprising and deeper insight into the life of a prostitute we assumed would be predictable.

Throughout the film, Vincent has some of his crusty layers planed through his relationships with Daka, Maggie, and Oliver. At the end, they’re all sitting down to a nice meal in a clean house. They pause to have Vincent pray. But Vincent refuses, shaking his head and laughing his sardonic laugh. It seems blasphemous. Who is he mocking? In “The Fire,” Franz Wright says,

And everything alive (and everything’s alive) is turning into something else as at the heart of some annihilating or is it creating fire that’s burning, unseeably, always burning at such speeds as eyes cannot detect, just try to observe your own face growing old in the mirror, or is it beginning to be born?

The film weirds the truth again. Vincent mocks himself. The prayer he didn’t pray was the prayer and shows us the bigger picture of an old man growing humble before a holy God.