Keeping Watch on the Evil and the Good: Worshipping the State in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Minority Report (2002)

Keeping Watch on the Evil and the Good: Worshipping the State in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Minority Report (2002)

For 13 years, my father was a corrections officer in a high security prison in Texas. Among his wards was the infamous Eyeball Killer, a man who murdered prostitutes and surgically removed their eyes. During routine searches of the man’s cell, they’d find entire magazines in which he’d snipped out the eyes, page-by-page, of each photographed woman. On Sundays, this man led worship in the prison chapel services.

Dad became a prison guard in his 40’s. In his lifetime, farming had changed into a high-risk banking game, and a few years of drought pushed him to find a job that didn’t require a college degree. He thought he might shine a light into prisoners’ lives: “I was in prison and you came to me” became his mantra. But years of working 13-hour graveyard shifts, being frustrated with red-tape, and realizing that evil puts on flesh as apparently as God, drove him to alcoholism. He spent the better part of a decade in that stupor.

In the summer of 2002, fresh with ideas from college, I brought home Cool Hand Luke, which was celebrating its 25th year. Dad woke up in the afternoons then, and we watched it together on a Sunday. He’d seen it at the drive-in as a kid and in that nostalgic way that fathers share movies from their childhood, he was excited to watch it with me.

We laughed at all of the usual scenes cued by Luke’s smile. From the opening scene when we meet Luke decapitating parking meters to the highway-tarring race–his white grin shining out of the tar-streaked face, joyful to have gained two hours of relative freedom.

And 50 eggs? Ain’t no one can eat 50 eggs, yet there he was bloated, cruciform, and smiling. Has there been a movie since that can make you physically feel the discomfort, and laugh the whole time?

The tone changes though when Luke’s mother dies half-way through the movie. Sure there are still laughs, but the stakes are raised. The Captain (Strother Martin) pulls Luke off the road crew and puts him in “The Box,” which is this prison’s worst punishment. The Captain is afraid that Luke will “get rabbit in his blood” and escape in order to attend his mother’s funeral.

It’s an unwarranted punishment. Everyone in the prison knows it. Boss Keen (John McLiam), the guard who walks Luke to “The Box,” maintains that this punishment was not his decision.

“I’m just doing my job, Luke,” he says. “You have to appreciate that.”

“Calling it a job don’t make it right, Boss,” responds Luke.

After that scene, my dad got up from his chair and sat on the porch with our dog. When Dad had woken up that afternoon, he knew he would go to work in a few hours. He didn’t know which convicts would be provided to do the works of Justice with, just that he would arrive; that he would pray not to get his ass chewed by a flunky sergeant; that he probably would suit up in body armor and a gas mask to pepper spray a belligerent inmate, and then fill out the appropriate paperwork afterwards. No matter how beautifully Paul Newman played Luke, my father’s life made him sympathize with Boss Keen. Dad was an agent of the State. And this scene in particular shows just how far the State can reach into and regulate a person’s life. The State effectively told Luke, “You have sinned against Me. You cannot grieve your mother until you have properly grieved your crime.” Penance has the same root as penitentiary.   

Boss Keen though, not Luke, is the one who staggered my dad. The State also told Keen to violate his conscience, and he did because what other choice did he have? Even as a guard, he’s a prisoner of the State.

Keen is the only sympathetic guard in the prison. At one point, he tells Luke that he’s been working the road crew for 22 years, and in that time, he’d “never shot no white man.” Twenty-two years this man had been putting men in the box, against his conscience. Notice the subtle way the State made him feel justified in shooting a man, as long as he was not white. Then Keen asks Luke why he doesn’t believe in God, but Luke has had enough and stops the conversation cold.

***

I’ve been using this term “State,” but it’s not a term Luke uses, nor Minority Report. Both movies treat society, specifically the Justice organ of society, as an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent entity with an overbearing interest in its citizens’ lives. Luke’s prison world of the 1950s dramatizes that all-seeing organ as parking meters, hound dogs, and a mysterious Boss with mirrored sunglasses. Many people have observed that the more advanced a nation becomes, the more devotion she’ll coerce from her citizens. Despite our individual religious devotions, the State makes itself into a god. William Cavanaugh describes this phenomenon succinctly:

…the nation-state presents itself as…the keeper of the common good and repository of sacred values, so that it demands sacrifice on its behalf. The longing for true communion that Christians recognize at the heart of any truly common life is transferred onto the nation-state….as Augustine perceived, the earthly city flourishes by producing a distorted image of the heavenly city.

The State provides an infinite array of rules and regulations to protect individuals from each other, and therefore infinite opportunities to transgress. However, It does not provide an escape or savior from our inevitable sins; there is only our total devotion, service, and life.

A pantheon of minor gods exist in service of the State, like Education and Military, which through their rites, will teach us to practice our national devotions, but they operate behind a mirrored chthonian curtain. Their wills are inscrutable.

Imagine the war hero Luke (two Purple Hearts, a Bronze and Silver Star) having displayed incredible courage on the battlefield for the cause of freedom, returning to American soil to find parking meters. The land of the free doled out between paint stripes, and regulated by the watching eye of the mechanical meter maid. Luke must have felt like Odysseus being shipwrecked by Poseidon with the smoke of Athena’s sacrifice still in his nostrils. Remember when Boss Keen asked Luke why he didn’t believe in God? Luke might have asked, “Which god are we talking about, Boss?”

Instead, Luke stopped the conversation and escaped. Luke is clever. In the course of the movie, he escaped three times, but the State is omnipresent. All space belongs to It. There is no cleft in which to hide. Off screen, Luke was caught twice.

In his third and final escape, Luke hides in a church. In another time, before the State formed itself as a god, Luke might have sought sanctuary in the walls of a church. It might have been a place free from the clutches of the State. But as the posse surrounds the little country chapel, Luke realizes that there is no sanctuary in this life. He must die, and all of the movie’s hints that Luke would be a Christ-like martyr become apparent as he steps to the window to challenge the waiting State: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

Immediately, Boss Godfrey, the terrifying guard behind mirrored sunglasses, shoots Luke through the church window. Luke lives long enough to see his illiterate friend Dragline knock Godfrey’s glasses to the ground, and we see Luke smile as those glasses are crushed. The State-god is exposed. Listen to the pun in Godfrey’s name.

***

Like 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, 2002’s Minority Report imagines a godlike State. Rather than hound dogs and parking meters though, citizens are tracked by eye-scans, robot spiders, and Pre-Cogs that can see the murderous intentions of our hearts. That sounds terrifying, but the future Washington D.C. is presented as utopian. There hasn’t been a single murder in six years. There is still some human tendency to kill, but that urge has been relegated to crimes of passion, and even those are prevented by the Department of Pre-Crime.

At the heart of that organization is a trinity of pre-cognitive mutants that foresee murders. The script wastes no time aligning these psychics with something divine. Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), an investigator from the Department of Justice and a graduate of Fuller Seminary, calls the Pre-Cogs “oracles” and the pre-crime policemen “priests.” Their glass-walled offices are called “The Temple,” and from the helm of their investigating room, Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) argues the question of fate and free-will with Witwer. “The Pre-Cogs don’t see what a person intends to do, but what he will do,” maintains Anderton. Witwer retorts, “Can a person be guilty for a crime he didn’t commit?” So clearly is the analogy made, that in Minority Report, the State has flexed into a god not simply in deed, but in name as well.

Had the movie come out a year earlier, these propositions might have been dismissed as fanciful sci-fi paranoia, but instead, the movie was being edited as the Twin Towers fell and the Patriot Act was rushed through legislation. Any person sitting in the theater in June of 2002, as I was, would have been aware of the unprecedented access to our lives that the government suddenly possessed. In parts of the country, you could walk out of the theater and find signs that read, “If you see something, say something,” conscripting us all to be agents of the State. Minority Report is Foucault’s panopticon theory in a Spielberg blockbuster.

***

The Panopticon was a simple architectural design for a prison, proposed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the 1790s. A single guard tower in the prison’s center is surrounded by cells. Each prisoner is exposed to the guard, but the guard, hidden behind shutters, cannot be seen by the prisoners. The convicts never know if they are actually being watched, which makes them feel as though they are constantly being watched. Bentham theorized that the structure of the prison would cause prisoners to regulate their own behavior. And largely, he was right.

French philosopher Michel Foucault took Bentham’s design and proposed that an entire nation could be ruled in the same manner. If each citizen feels as though she is being watched, then she will be more likely to follow the rules. It operates on that old religious impulse hardwired in us all: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”

The all-seeing technology required for such an endeavor lagged behind society’s secular sloughing of God (see Charles Taylor) until recently. Although, in Cool Hand Luke the trajectory for the State’s omniscience was there. Even Philip K. Dick’s original “The Minority Report” story, published in the aftermath of McCarthyism in 1956, described the urge of the State to expose citizens to the all-seeing, but unseen guard. When I saw Minority Report in 2002, I shuddered at the thought that I could walk into the GAP and have khakis suggested to me. While I watched it in 2018, I mindlessly scrolled past Facebook advertisements for the same slim-fit chinos I wore to work. The technology has arrived.

Just last month, The Washington Post reported that Amazon is loaning out its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies all over the world. In China, millions of citizens’ faces are stored in a database attached to 176 million surveillance cameras. Citizens receive docked “social scores” for innocuous crimes like jaywalking or being critical of the government. As Orwell might have said, “The eyes of the State are in every place, deciding who is good and who is evil.”

Maybe the judgment of who is good and evil is the fear at the heart of these movies. Who is the invisible guard in the tower? With what capricious whim does he cast his all-seeing eye? When will he decide to throw one of us in the “The Box,” or accuse me of a murder that hasn’t been committed like John Anderton’s case?

In Spielberg’s take on Minority Report, there’s an optimism that eludes most Man vs. Society plots. Despite the ubiquitous State and what seems to be his inevitable capture, John Anderton decides to run. Where Luke was caught off-screen, John escapes the police at every turn, even ditching the State-controlled self-driving cars for a vehicle he can steer. At the film’s true emotional climax, John decides not to kill the man whom the Pre-Cogs predicted he would kill. Against everything he’d been trained to believe about the system, he realizes that he has a choice, and that freedom is power over the State. Luke, on the other hand, talks to God in the church and says, “You ain’t never dealt me no good cards. I started out pretty fast and strong, but I’m getting tired.”

I think about Boss Keen often, telling Luke that it was just a job, and that he’d pray for Luke’s dead mother. Luke’s response haunts me. “Calling it a job don’t make it right, Boss.” I think about what my dad must have been thinking on the porch with our dog. The banks, the debts, the droughts, the State teaching him to beat a prisoner when all he wanted to do was visit him in prison. He was completely exposed and compliant to the State’s demands. My dad’s alcoholism was like Luke’s calling through the church window.

I think about the Eyeball Killer, too, however that man came to be who he is. In one part of his soul so terrified of being seen that he takes control by cutting out eyes that watch him in sin. In another part of his soul, he feels compelled to sing and worship God.

The only question we have to ask is, “Which god are we talking about, Boss?”

Seth Wieck grew up on a dryland farm in a region that receives less than twenty inches of rain per year. His father counseled him to leave agriculture, so he now teaches literature and remodels homes. He lives in Amarillo with his wife and three children. His stories, poetry, and essays can be found in various publications, including Narrative Magazine, Fathom Magazine, and Curator.

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