On a recent plane flight from Europe I was reacquainted with the movie, The Scent of a Woman. I had seen this 1992 production many years ago, but seeing it again had a profound new effect on me.
The main character of this film is Lt Colonel Frank Slade, a retired, blind Army veteran. Due to his disability, he is living in a small apartment behind the house of a niece and her family. That family is contemplating a time away from home, so they advertise for a sitter to look after Slade while they are gone. A young, economically disadvantaged college student, Charlie Simms, from a local all male school responds to the ad in hopes of gaining airfare home for his own holiday.
The story has dual story lines, but the one that most intrigued me, deals with Frank Slade's life and mental state. Colonel Slade in many respects is the epitome of human degradation, at least as commonly perceived. He is an abusive alcoholic and inveterate womanizer, frequenting prostitutes and speaking of women primarily as sex objects, though with a tinge of reverence, which seems at odds with his general words and actions. He swears like the proverbial sailor and treats everyone with a withering contempt, apparently designed to eliminate all interpersonal contact and dialogue. His behavior toward his own family is an unremitting litany of unconscionable verbal tirades and emotional attacks of the most intimate sort. In summary, Frank Slade is not a very nice guy.
In the course of the movie, we learn that Frank's blindness is the result of his having drunkenly detonated a grenade in a training exercise, killing a friend and blinding himself.
The one thing that might evoke some measure of sympathy for Frank is thus eliminated from the narrative. All that remains is the question of why.
The young Charlie is hesitant to get involved with Frank, but economic necessity leads him to accept the challenge of dealing with this wildly conflicted man. Subsequently, Charlie and Frank find their way to New York City for a period of rich living and wild excitement, apparently one last fling in the mind of Frank. The upshot of this trip is that Frank intends to kill himself rather than return home, partially as a result of his diminished physical condition and also because he recognizes his own evil.
Ultimately Charlie is forced into the role of intervener/counselor for the immensely troubled Colonel Slade. At one climatic point, Frank dresses up in his Army dress uniform and prepares to shoot himself with his service forty five. When Charlie attempts to dissuade him, Frank turns the gun on Charlie and threatens to blow his brains out. In the middle of this emotionally powerful scene, while pointing his gun right into Charlie's face, Frank proclaims himself to be a wretched, evil man. Charlie rejoinders with what struck me as the most powerful line of the entire movie, " You're not bad, you're just in pain". Thus the answer to why.
Frank goes on to gain a measure of redemption by supporting Charlie in his own personal struggle at school, but for me all of that was anti-climatic after the above scene. The background to human evil was never, in my mind, ever so powerfully portrayed as it was in that exchange between these two disparate characters, who discover in their differences a kinship which elevates them both.
The movie is over the top in many respects but the spiritual lessons abound. The human animal is a complex and often confused emotional being, vacillating from pole to pole in an attempt to find its true bearings.