“Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob.”
Woody Allen’s movie Match Point received truly mixed reviews when it was released. Some called it the best movie he’s done ever; some warned Allen’s legions of fans to stay away, “lest their idea of Allen’s genius become ever so slightly dented,” as one wrote.
In Match Point, or so it seems to me, Allen’s interests are metaphysical, as they often are. In fact, the film is not so subtly crafted, prompting one to think the story is an object lesson in grace—amazing grace, in fact, but perverse grace, certainly not the species that prompted one-time slave-trader John Newton to write the famous hymn.
A handsome, ambitious and well-read tennis pro named Chris Wilton falls into the gravy when one of his students ushers him into the intimacy of a well-heeled family. He marries a beautiful daughter and soon finds himself at the helm of a family-owned multi-national. Sadly, however, his libidinous self won’t be suppressed, even though he risks all the blessings he’s received. Wilton can’t keep his hands off a woman who is not his wife, and when she gets pregnant, she threatens everything. He kills her and a neighbor. Double homicide.
Relatively ordinary potboiler, until the surprisingly metaphysical last few moments of the film. By sheer luck—a series of coincidences the murderer doesn’t even know himself Wilton gets away with his heinous crimes. As Allen makes visually (and somewhat painfully) clear throughout the film, fate is simply a matter of where the ball bounces. The trajectory of our lives has less to do with our designs than plain old luck.
All of which reminds me, in a way, of a famous Woody Allen quote: “If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. The worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.” Don’t look for moral order in the universe, Allen is saying, just deal the cards.
In an opening scene, Chris Wilton is reading Crime and Punishment, a set up that’s irresistible, as if Allen is taking great delight in revising Dostoyevsky’s famous tale, taking the novel to task for its clear suggestion of the importance of faith and salvation.
And yet, perhaps, differences are merely a matter of degree. After all, it’s Dostoyevsky who once wrote, “It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”
Woody Allen has plenty of his own furnaces, I believe. Match Point is as memorable as it is because it takes on cosmic issues, the way Allen’s work always does. If we aren’t in charge, who is? Is anyone? Is there a God? If there is, is he an underachiever? Not many films ask such questions so openly; that he can’t untangle himself from the messy mysteries of existence suggests an eternal battle, here as elsewhere in his work.
Faith may well seem the opposite of doubt, but I doubt it. In Psalm 84, the seemingly boundless faith of the psalmist is undercut, even deconstructed by the command form he employs, the vehemence, the raised pointer of his begging. “Listen to me, God!” he says, suggesting that the Creator of heaven and earth hasn’t always kept his end of the bargain. There are almost equal portions of faith and doubt in the words of this verse, as much joy in the promise of God’s presence as there is stiff fear of his absence.
Isn’t it amazing that a single line of scripture can hold so much tension, so much humanity, so much of what we recognize ourselves to be?
So much of who we are.