The movie Little Children is about humanity.
It's about humanity in all its forms- the lust for life, the drive to conquer, passion, responsibility, and shedding that responsibility. It's about mistakes and errors, about judgement- of the community, of society, of the individual. It's a movie that's disturbing and beautiful and eerie, the kind of movie that won't let you go. It's the movie that I'm still thinking about, even though I saw it over a month ago. It's probably the best movie of the year.
Little Children is about the hunger. The hunger, as Sarah (Kate Winslet) states, for an alternative.
To escape, to escape from the desperation that is daily life, to leave the society of those who are not your equals, to escape from the dreary everyday dull nature of suburbia- to escape into fantasies that cannot exist in reality, to escape into fantasies that are tinged with the aura of the forbidden and the beautiful- this is irresistable; this is the light playing across Kate Winslet's face as she sits by the pool, imagining her life other than it is.
This desperation and desire for escape is what the characters have in common. Different characters with different stories, but they all desire to be other than they are, and take refuge in fantasies, escape, or in anger- directed toward the outside when it truly seethes within. Sexual escape is part of it, but that is not all. All of the characters are 'little children,' the adults as well as the true children. They want to throw away responsibilities in search of the carefree, but they are forbidden to do this.
And this is what Little Children is about.
What is by far, however, for me, the most affecting and powerful performance, the performance I haven't been able to get out of my mind, the kind that disturbs you and shakes you and makes you feel even if you refuse, if you logically try to abstain- why, this is the performance of Jackie Earle Haley portraying the sex-offender and pedophile- Ronnie McGorvey.
The movie begins with Ronnie's return to the suburbanite neighborhood. We don't know exactly what he has done- we hear that he is guilty of indecent exposure to a minor- but for all that, who is he? What is he? We see how he is treated. They whisper about him in the streets. One ex-policeman takes it upon himself to paper the neighborhood with signs, Ronnie's face plastered across each one. His door is covered in these signs. The sidewalk in front of his house is spray-painted.
Ronnie lives with his mother, an elderly woman. We see the toll this takes on her. We see her, catching her breath as she tries to wash away the painted word 'Evil' in front of her doorstep.
Somehow, incredibly, the director is able to make us feel for Ronnie. There is one scene where all the neighborhood children are gathered at the pool. Splashing, playing, dancing through the water, we see Ronnie enter the area in black scuba gear. He enters the pool. The camera builds tension, as we watch him swimming underneath the water, looking at the little children. Then we hear a terrible keening noise. There is screaming, mass hysteria. Parents rush for their children and yell for them to get out of the pool. It is quickly abandoned. There is a terrible silence.
And we see Ronnie, all alone, in the center of the pool.
We see his embarrasment. We feel for him. He angrily comments, "I just wanted to cool off!" as policemen escort him from the pool.
We don't know whether he deserves this. We think maybe he's been falsely acccused. It tugs at us, hurts us, to see any adult reduced to that state- to that pleading, shameful state. We think that Ronnie might be a human being suffering without reason.
His mother, an elderly woman, desperately wants him to lead a normal life. She urges him to place a personal ad in the paper, to meet a woman who doesn't know him. He can start over. All will be well. In a poignant, awful moment, he explains that he doesn't want women. That's not who he's attracted to. His mother pushes him.
He goes on the date.
He meets a nerdy woman, a woman who was abused in her past. She's very sweet. Ronnie himself seems sweet, nervous, anxious to please; this thin man without the niceties of social graces but doing the best he can.
And then it all changes.
Because on the ride home, when she's giving him a ride home, he tells her to stop the car. And then there's a transformation. Ronnie- our Ronnie- the Ronnie we thought was suffering more than he should, the Ronnie we felt for- becomes evil. We see the expression on his face as he boldly removes his penis and proceeds to stroke it and masturbate. We cringe, paralyzed, as we see how he orders the woman, now-turned-little-girl, "never to tell." Or else he'll hurt her. She knows. We see Ronnie as he is.
But how to reconcile this Ronnie with our other exposure to Ronnie?
The ex-policeman causes more trouble. One night he takes a megaphone and proceeds to blast to the entire neighborhood that they are harboring a pedophile in their midst. Ronnie's mother, an old woman, righteously storms outside and begs him to leave them alone. She orders him off her property, in a frail voice. He responds angrily, unwittingly blasting into the megaphone. She accuses the policeman about his past, and he becomes violent. Ronnie and the ex-policeman grapple. It is at this moment that the woman cannot take it anymore, and she suffers a heart attack.
We see her in the hospital. We see her reach for a thin slip of paper that the nurse holds for her, and writing upon it.
We see Ronnie when he realizes she is dead. He is shocked, calm. He puts everything in order. Brings home her clothes. Washes the dishes. And then he opens the slip of paper, and reads the note.
'Ronnie, please be a good boy.'
His reaction to this is indescribable.
He shakes. He shakes and then he clenches his teeth and then he puts his head in his hands, and he is sobbing, sobbing and shivering and shaking and holding his head in his hands as though he has no choice, there is no choice for him, and you hear this horrible tinkling of the clocks, all the clocks in the house, all mocking him and mocking his grief. His mother appears to have collected clocks. And out of nowhere, he grabs the clocks and smashes them, as though to smash their oppressive existence, and slams them against the walls as he shudders with a horrible grief and anger that is so internal, all at himself. And he stands amidst the shards of the clocks and his face is awful, and that is when he goes for the knife. We see him stand there with the knife, with this sense of realization and fear, and we don't know what is going to happen.
We think he's going to kill the ex-policeman.
In an elegant and by no means happy ending, that refers back to the beginning comments, where these lovely suburban women superficially pass judgement and say that this pedophile 'ought to be castrated' we see Ronnie once again, and he has done the impossible. Because he didn't hurt anyone else.
He hurt himself.
He castrated himself, or so we are meant to understand.
So who is the monster, and who is the man? Is this ex-policeman to be rewarded for driving him to this point? Is Ronnie to be reviled? The movie doesn't tells us. The movie doesn't make judgements. They are up to us to make, and it is pretty damn hard to call the shots here. Because what we are seeing is a pedophile who is indescribably human, and who is fighting against his natural desires, who is fighting as hard as he can to prevent himself from hurting other people, and what we end up with is his hurting himself.
Now, I don't know if that is actually true. I don't know if there's science that supports this idea, whether people are born with desires so strong and so sickening to society; I don't know whether you can argue for this to be so. But imagine, for a moment, that it were. Imagine there was a man, engaged in the struggle of his life- to hurt or not to hurt? How hard must it be to restrain such desires, seemingly unnatural, certainly damned by society, and yet, for him, so powerful.
You may claim that Ronnie's character was overly romanticized, but I will disagree- I do not think that he was made either wholly good or wholly bad. He was made human. He is a sympathetic character in that he is human, akin to us as opposed to a monster, existing on a different side of the spectrum. We underestimate people if we imagine them to be monsters, even if it makes us feel more comfortable.
What is far more heinous, then, than the actual pedophile, is the pedophile who does not regret his actions, who hurts children and takes pleasure in it, or refuses to admit that he is sick. What is even worse, I might argue, is the institution that protects such a man, that allows him to continue in his sickness and claims that nothing is wrong. This institution enables the man, empowering him and allowing him access to children, feeding his sickness and behavior. Whoever ran that institution- well, I wonder how this person can live with himself.
The Gemara in Bava Basra, 64 states:
- Rabha said again: An instructor of children, a planter, a butcher, a barber, and a scribe of the city are to be considered as if they were already warned (i.e., if they neglect their duties they may be discharged without previous notice); as the general rule regarding this is: All irreparable damage done by a specialist, who is appointed as such, is to be considered as if he were previously warned. (An instructor of children who has spoiled a child cannot repair this harm; and the same is the case with a planter who has spoiled the trees; a butcher who, through his neglect, has made the meat illegal for use; a barber who has killed a man by performing venesection; and a scribe who has written the Holy Scrolls fallaciously.)
Now, if I understand this correctly, this simply applies if a man teaches a child Torah incorrectly. How much more so if he hurt the child!
I have heard arguments that people want to protect the livelihood of teachers, even if those teachers are abusive or cruel. I have heard of schools that sweep the errors and transgressions of these teachers under the rug because it is important to provide them with a livelihood. I cannot understand how they can think this is all right, first from a logical perspective, and secondly, from the perspective of this Gemara.
But back to the original question. If anyone has seen this movie, I believe you will concur that it is probably one of the most controversial, powerful, fantastic movies of the year (and this is only one storyline of the many.)
So here we come to you. Are pedophiles human, and do you think of them and judge them as humans? Do they deserve any kind of sympathy or compassion? What if you absolutely knew this man tried as hard as he could to refrain from hurting children? And what about a man who took joy in hurting children, and didn't restrain himself at all? Does this matter in terms of your judgement of the situation?
I don't know if it matters in the eyes of the law.
But I think it matters to us as people.