Written by Lesley Coffin (spoilers included)
Much has been made of how the new film Logan incorporates and makes direct reference to the film Shane, one of the definitive films of the western genre in its golden age. The characters, narrative and visual inspirations are easy to spot; one of the reason director James Mangold’s black and white cut of Logan may even improve the film. The film not only pulls inspiration from the classic film, it makes direct on-screen reference by incorporating actual scenes from the film when the characters of Charles (Patrick Stewart) and Laura (Dafne Keen) watch it together in a brief moment to rest during their journey. But rather than feeling like a cultural artifact incorporated to confuse an audience that recognition equals universality, the Shane clearly plays a role in educating Laura (a child raised in captivity) of both the world she now finds herself in…and the moral lessons she must learn to survive and thrive within it.
Appropriately, the protective Charles chooses to share this film of complex morality with young Laura as he was her age when first seeing it, suggesting films like Shane (when westerns were at the height of popularity) informed his own views of righteousness and moral citizenship. As Charles explains, Laura is still young enough to learn and improve her behavior if given the appropriate lessons. This is in stark contrast it seems to Charles with Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) moral compass at this age, a man who is called a disappointment by Charles, and mirrored the new Hollywood anti-hero made so popular in the late 60s and 70s. Laura, still capable of influencing, is torn by the two views of humanity these men hold.
This new dystopian world we find Logan in is a future which looks suspiciously close to our present; a world of complete upheaval, although citizens go about their lives in a state of exhausted apathy towards others. Even a superhero with unnatural human strength and healing capabilities is willing to allow the cries for help to go unheard. Those cries come first from Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez), a nurse who takes a stand against the unethical company Transigen creating mutant as soldiers like Laura. In the gray of a hard rain, her cries are ignored by Logan until he returns in the dead of night and agrees to take Laura across the Canadian border…for a price. Putting her own life at risk, her selfless act to protect a child is repaid by the universe with her brutal murder in an empty hotel room.
These brief moments of human generosity from Gabriela occur in the darkness (cloudy rain or in the dead of night) while her murder is revealed in the stark daylight. Unlike other films (particularly westerns), director Mangold has clearly reversed the usual use of light and dark on film, as a statement on the stoic state of humanity. In the light of day, the evils of apathy towards others rain down on all of us. He makes this visual thematic clear early on in the film with a compelling visual moment when Logan sits in silence in his limo, as wealthy clients sit consumed with their own lives, as he plays news reports on the radio of the devastation happening around the world…all while the bright lights of Vegas beat down on them. Logan illegally buys drugs and lies his way over the Mexican border in broad daylight, before returning to care for a sickly Charles, ruined by dementia. His brief moment of compassion towards Charles always occurs in a home completely blacked out from light because their caretaker, the albino Caliban, must hide from the light. Only at home with Caliban is he confronted with the truth and given any genuine compassion by another person. In one of the cruelest moments of film’s depiction of humanity the soldier Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) burns Caliban with the sunlight while asking if his mother warned him “to beware the light”…reminding the audience that his weakness not only forced him to live away from sunlight but live completely alone, as humanity simply can be trusted.
The men who move freely in daylight are those with power bestowed upon them by the military, government, and big businesses. They have been given autonomy from the power of these institutions to commit horrific abuses against the less powerful, which unconsciously guarantees their weaker victims will be driven to act on their survival instincts and abandon their own sense of morality. We see men from a big agricultural business bully and threaten a farmer (Eriq La Salle who plays a role clearly inspired by Van Heflin’s character in Shane), men who only retreat when Jackman clearly changes from Logan to Wolverine. Like Logan’s animalistic regression when pushed to the limits, Laura behaves on complete animal instinct from the moment we see her, as this behavior is both a coping mechanism for the trauma she’s experienced and violence she must administer on the ready. Only when allowed to trust Logan does she drop her feral exterior and present her true vulnerability by speaking.
Unlike almost every superhero film we’ve seen since the rise of the genre, heroism in Logan is an act of selfless fatalism overcoming one’s survival instincts; with death providing no relief or closure. Gabriella’s murder is nothing but tragic, and Caliban’s act of heroism in killing himself by setting off two grenades in his cage ultimately does little to end the carnage he’s witness first hand…it is simply the only action he could take. Because death comes unceremoniously in Logan. The morally upright, generous family on the farm are murdered in cold blood (the most devastating example of collateral damage in a superhero film). Charles death is the final conclusion of his slow, helpless decent into madness, guilt, and regret…his last words revealing his awareness for the death of many of his students in Westchester (an event intentionally kept vague, as everyone seems guilty of past crimes). Only Logan is granted a moment of peace in his final death…because in his end, his death may allow Laura to live a life without the carnage and guilt he had to endure.
Logan is a great film (the best to date in 2017), because of how it utilizes and plays off its superhero roots, rather than disregarding or distancing itself from them. Like Clint Eastwood, the one time hero of westerns returning to the genre in Unforgiven and playing up his age and experience for maximum impact, Hugh Jackman’s long history with the character of Logan allows this version of the character a profound statement on what a lifetime trauma can do to one’s soul. Although a literal as well as the figurative statement, Caliban line to Logan that “something’s killing you from the inside” reminds audiences that despite his healing powers, the death and destructive over decades has stayed with Logan, even when the killing could be justified. And seeing the one time generous and wise Professor X as played by the masterful Patrick Stewart now suffering from an illness which leaves him frail, belligerent, and even dangerous, is far more devastating because of the time we spent with him at the prime of his life. Having seen both these actors at the height of their power and strength now weak and tired creates a stronger emotional impact because of the years spent watching these films. We watched students learn and grow under their guidance, but now the only remaining mutants are entirely new children who will enter this new world entirely alone.
By so thoughtfully incorporating elements of popular culture, Mangold reminds audiences that the arts we are exposed to can shape the way we see and make sense of the world around us. Laura has been exposed to Shane and the X-men comics, and they shape the way she makes sense of the world and who she will be within it. Her exposure to Shane is the only way she understands how to cope with the ultimate death of Logan (and why turning the cross to an X at his grave is meaningful to her). But Mangold is also commenting on the film he’s making and superhero genre as a whole. Now the most profitable genre of film around the world, what does the constant mass destruction and PG-13 violence on display say about the world we are leaving for future generations; how will they make sense of this carnage. It is his greatest strength that a director like Mangold, who can stage fights on screen with grace and power in the past, has made a film in which he pulls all glamor and fun out of Logan to show violence as brutal and sickening, rattling his audience to a new state of awareness about what they are consuming.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)