The Magnificent Seven deals out fun by the bucket load in a Western full of A-list actors and Western tropes. But its messaging about the themes of violence and revenge against the backdrop of a burning church are a lot more uneven, and ultimately undecided.
Like many Westerns, this one has story that’s rather simplistic: a widow recruits a group of mercenaries to kill a dictator and avenge her husband. The film’s villain, Bogue, is a corrupt tycoon forcing the citizens of a remote town out of their land. That’s hardly a complex plot, but the way it is expressed hints at theological considerations. In fact, Bogue establishes his reign of terror in a church – while the town’s people are discussing their options, he comes in, preaches a sermon linking God with capitalism (and implicitly, himself with capitalism and therefore God), and burns the church down, finally killing Emma Cullen’s husband for confronting him. Religion is at the forefront of focus from the start here, and although these statements are balanced out by a preacher who is kind and thoughtful, the filmmakers clearly want us to see Bogue as some sort of malicious false prophet. As Emma seeks out a team to rescue the town and kill Bogue, she says “I seek righteousness, as should we all. But I’ll settle for revenge.” Thus begins the conflict in the film’s theme.
If only it were to remember that’s what it was supposed to be about. The further the story progresses, however, the more it forgets about this theme. Before long, we’re back to the familiar action movie route, where it’s all about Chris Pratt’s jokes and Denzel Washington’s swagger, and we’ve forgotten all about any aspirations of depth. It’s fine if the film only wants be a fun shoot-em-up movie, but the division between religious messaging and skin-deep fighting makes the narrative seem scatterbrained and shallow. There are hints at these ideas in moments – one of the seven quotes Bible verses as he hacks Bogue’s men to death, but for obvious reasons this doesn’t appear to be a thoughtful and intentional narrative.
So what does the movie have going for it? For all of its flaws, it is fun. There are several throwbacks to the good old westerns (a confrontation in a saloon, shooting men off of horses, dead men falling on stuff, etc.), which brings a nice nostalgic touch if you, like me, remember watching old John Wayne movies with your grandfather. The seven characters, while being mostly surface-level just due to time constraints, do have a lot of chemistry with each other, and they are fun to watch.
The team is also racially diverse, with an African-American, American Indian, Mexican, and Asian rounding out the cast. This is even more interesting because Jack Horne (Vincent D’Nofrio) used to scalp American Indians. Yet now, he is fighting alongside one. This brings out a theme there of fighting past personal differences for the sake of a common cause. For the seven (most of them, anyway), this is a good cause: to save people. This is a particularly important piece for Goodnight (Ethan Hawke), who has some scars from his past that make it difficult for him to ride back into battle (which, by the way, is by far the film’s best piece of character development). There is an aspect of heroism here, though it may be hesitant for some characters, that is noble.
Warning: Some spoilers may follow
But when the film comes full circle, particularly in the climax, it becomes clear that heroism is not the core value being expressed here, especially for the film’s two main characters, Chisholm (Denzel Washington) and Emma. I’ve already mentioned Emma’s line about “settling for revenge,” but it turns out in the end that Chisholm’s primary motivator is revenge as well. Chisholm does actually have the authority of the law, which is introduced early on. He’s something of a state-sanctioned bounty hunter, which does at least on the surface mean that Emma is going through proper means for her problems. As Romans 13 says, “they do not bear the sword for nothing.” But when the proper authorities are also dealing out violence for the sake of revenge, and not for the sake of justice, we have a film that is telling us heroes can take revenge, and partially uses religious imagery to do so – even if it forgets what exactly the point of that imagery was.
In the end, while this is a fun film with some really cool action sequences, it’s far from espousing godly values, and joins a whole host of other movies telling us why, if you’re really a powerful hero, it’s actually okay to take your own revenge. There’s not enough good here otherwise for me to overlook that, much as I do love watching these actors work together.