A cross on its side: Logan gets religion

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A cross on its side: Logan gets religion

Photo: 20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

This article contains spoilers for Logan.

“We always thought we were part of God’s plan. Turns out we were God’s mistake.”
Logan

James Mangold’s Logan, which draws heavily on Western stories about gunfighters in twilight, ends with the moving gesture of a makeshift cross being turned on its side to make an X. The film itself is a fluke of the superhero-franchise era; it’s both violent and terrifically subtle (aided by some of the best acting in the genre) and has more in common with great mid-period Clint Eastwood movies like A Perfect World and Unforgiven than with the X-Men series to which it serves as a revisionist epilogue. Let me draw your attention to just one side of a film that I think has a lot worth appreciating: its careful, pointed broaching of the subject of religious faith. Throughout Logan, one hears the religion of broken souls, classic frontier-town Westerns, and country songs, unique in a genre that is more likely to portray its heroes as Christ figures than as Christians. But religion is a deeply humanizing pursuit, and the overarching struggle of the mutant X-Men has always been for equal terms with humanity. God belongs with Mangold’s conception of the characters—old outlaws haunted by a past they remember only in murmurs, trying to help a killer child get to a promised land that probably doesn’t exist. When it comes to redemption, you have to take what you can get.

There’s a lot of religion in Logan, sometimes obvious (heck, the end credits roll to Johnny Cash’s Revelation-inspired “The Man Comes Around”), sometimes sublimated into the deceptively simple but richly conceived narrative. I may be in minority in thinking of the long middle section in which Logan, his aging mentor Charles Xavier, and the young Laura come to the farmhouse of the Munsons, a family they met on a roadside, as the high point of the film. For a Hollywood movie, this is a very risky sequence, an apparent interlude that ends up resolving or clarifying something like half of the plot. The first scene is at the dinner table, with a mealtime prayer; the Munsons are a family of three, and while our heroes are only pretending to be one, this brief communion of grace, shared food, and shared jokes brings them within spitting distance of the real thing. Considering the bleak conclusion of the farmhouse episode (and the fate of the Munsons themselves), the scene retroactively becomes the saddest in the film, though in the moment, it appears to be the warmest. I’ll point out a small detail: there is a cross behind Logan throughout the scene, a small cross sitting just out of the light on the Munsons’ mantel.

Logan at the Munsons’ dinner table. (Screengrab: Youtube)

Of course it belongs there, too, because if an observant rural family like the Munsons didn’t have a cross on the mantel, it would seem like an oversight on the part of the set dressers. But all crosses are, by definition, symbolic. I like that it sits in the shadow at the one moment when Logan seems happiest, surrounded by keepsakes of a happiness he will never have: family life. Mangold’s restrained directing inspires admiration because it’s so easy to visualize a dozen different ways any scene could be bungled. And despite Logan’s eventual self-sacrifice and his scars and puss-filled wounds (which could easily be framed like stigmata), there is no way in hell that Mangold is going to let this troubled, word-weary killer come across as a suffering superhero messiah. Logan is almost biologically immortal and Xavier is (or was) a nearly omnipotent telepath, and there is something poignant about the fact that the film assigns a search for meaning and a need to make up for the sins of the past to a couple of mutants whose superpowers might be often considered god-like.

They are even worshipped, in a way, through X-Men comic books. In a nifty meta-fictional twist, these are presented as extremely exaggerated chronicles of the real X-Men’s adventures in years past. It make me think of the underlying irony of La La Land, which is in many respects a sad film. It asks what the characters of a musical would yearn for, and finds that the answer is an even more idealized and romantic anti-reality. It is logical for Xavier and Logan to think of God in ways that characters in comics-based movies never really have. They need to look to a higher power, because otherwise they can look only to themselves—and these are men with blood on their hands, living out their last years in a near-future with no future of its own. In Logan, there’s an interplay between how much Mangold asks the viewer to infer about the characters and the parallels he draws to George Stevens’ Shane, comics and Westerns as forms of popular myth, and The Tempest, with the former mutant leader Xavier as a senile Prospero in Mexican exile, tended to by a former foe named Caliban, an obscure X-Men comics character used to great effect.

Logan’s Eden. (Screengrab: Youtube)

But one thing that the movie never says out loud is that the supposed mutant hideout of Eden, the destination where Logan and Xavier are taking Laura, is both a bedtime story and a real place. It instead lets the viewer feel this for themselves. As is revealed at around the halfway point, the coordinates of Eden (which lead to a spot in North Dakota) were actually plucked from an X-Men comic book. Thus, Eden is a place that didn’t exist but does—perhaps not as the secret nuclear bunker depicted in the comics, but as an abandoned Forest Service fire lookout tower that becomes “Eden” simply because it’s where the escaped mutant clones created by the Transigen corporation gather before crossing the border into Canada. The question of whether the coordinates in the comic book were planted there or were just a random string of numbers is immaterial. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the place is called Eden, for crying out loud.

It’s an essential religious theme: faith and ritual are their own rewards or comforts, better than nothing. There is no miracle, no confirmation, no proof of a great intention secretly at work, because that would cheapen the whole thing. Let’s return to that dinner scene at the Munsons, a family that will meet a tragic end, as do so many who cross paths with the cursed figures of Logan and Xavier. They are playacting the part of a family on a road trip to avoid questions—but also for Laura. She’s only 11, but because she remains silent until the final third of the film, it easy to forget that she’s a child and not a small, ferocious adult. At the Munsons’, she briefly looks like a girl; it’s the first time she smiles in the movie. I’m of the opinion that religion is at its most meaningful as an acceptance of smallness and as a relationship with the unknown—a relationship through which we can mediate our understanding of ourselves and our responsibilities to others. So the relationship to Laura could almost be called a religious relationship. She is Logan’s afterlife.

Now, I wouldn’t call Logan a religious film per se, but Mangold does spend the whole movie working off Western traditions that are steeped in Christianity—whether it’s the redemptive goodness of classic Westerns or the damnation of the later revisionist ones. There is a long history of portraying the frontier as either a promised land or a purgatory for civilization’s sinners; Logan’s highway route traces a line through this former wilderness, traveling from the Texas-Mexico border up to the edge of the Dakotas. In simplest terms, it’s the story of a bad, sorrowful man who becomes something like a father to a girl he doesn’t consider his own and takes her to a place he knows doesn’t exist. These are good deeds, but they are also very destructive; people die, many of them completely innocent. The little girl, she’s no saint either. I can’t help but think of Martin Scorsese’s recent, sadly under-seen Silence, whose conceited protagonist thinks of himself as Christ-like; through a series of cruel ironies, he discovers his relationship to godliness through the figure of a weak-willed coward who has betrayed him and others many times before. You take what you can get.