Cool Hand Luke: An Atheist Apocalypse

Anthony wrote a post on A Prophet a couple months ago in which he called it the “better Cool Hand Luke” (as Lenin was “the better Jesus”), with his analysis of CHL centered on the apocalyptic horizon of the film. What struck me as I rewatched CHL is how it is specifically an atheistic apocalypse. It cuts away the entire transcendent element and leaves only the immanent side of apocalyptic: the utter claustrophobia, the lack of any hope of escape.

In this perspective, the only “hope” he can offer his fellow prisoners is sheer fantasy, as he points out by sending them the doctored magazine photo of him with two women — tellingly, they refuse to believe him when he is returned to jail and reveals the ruse, just as they refuse to help him in any way when the bosses break Luke by making him dig and refill a ditch all weekend. This picture returns as the sidekick relates Luke’s posthumous myth to his fellow prisoners, pasted back together but still bearing a cross-shaped scar from when one of the prisoners ripped it up after Luke was broken. That admitted fantasy image hangs over the prison, but then, curiously, the camera zooms in (skip to about 5:30 on the video):

In the mythical retelling, Luke is already reduced to a series of decontextualized smiles, identified with a staged photograph — and when you look more and more closely, the whole thing eventually becomes meaningless. Hope becomes a coping mechanism, a way of convincing yourself that it’s better to contemplate Luke’s gloriously failed escape than to stage one’s own, and the net effect of actual “subversion” is to make the situation worse. After all, what does Luke concretely achieve other than winning the other prisoner’s money and getting his most loyal sidekick put in shackles? Is Luke anything other than Lucille (see below) in a different key?

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7 Responses to “Cool Hand Luke: An Atheist Apocalypse”

  1. Daniel Silliman Says:

    What CHL seems to offer isn’t atheistic, but kenotic. Freedom through giving up. Freedom through admitting you have no power at all, except over your own will. Sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand.

    Note the scene where they decide to work really hard on the road — by giving up the fantasy of escape, by giving up to their chain gang shackles — they actually subvert the whole system. The same thing happens in the fight, when Luke refuses to recognize that he’s been beaten.

    He consistently tells them they have to give up. He consistently pushes them to recognize the truth of their situation — eg “she knows exactly what she’s doing” — puncturing the fantasy, and showing them how, through the fantasy, they’re participating in their incarceration, and actually giving up the only real freedom they have.

    The devil’s offer, in the end, is that Luke can have everything, if only he’ll accept his chains. If only he’ll participate in his own incarceration. Instead he chooses death, giving himself up to it, but by doing this, remains free in the only way that counts (and, at this moment, the sunglasses of the satanic overseer are crushed by the car that carries his dead body).

    I think the faked picture, then, makes more sense as a test. Which they fail. The mythical retelling isn’t a faithful retelling, but a complete misinterpretation. It’s a complete betrayal, in that it actually supports the penal system, and moves them, as you said, to accept the fantasies. This isn’t what CHL offers, though.

    But then, isn’t the catch line of the movie, “what we have here is a failure to communicate”?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m familiar with the reading you advance, and I’m offering a pessimistic counter-reading. I notice that you leave out a key point: when the bosses actually break Luke.

  3. Daniel Silliman Says:

    1. It’s been a while since I watched the movie (though I did some youtube spot-watching this morning, thanks!), so … remind me … which scene that is?

    2. How does CHL breaking mess up my thesis? Sorry if that’s a stupid question. I don’t see the link.

    3. I accept the counter reading in so far as it’s about the prisoner’s reception (the church of CHL?). It seems to me that the kenotic reading takes that reception into account, though, wheras the fantasy-false hope reading misses a number of things (including both the famous quotes, “what we have here …” and “sometimes nothing …”)

    4. You criticize the decontextualized smiles, but as I understand it, you don’t actually think the contextualized smiles are different than the decontextualized ones. Is that right?

    5. How do you read Luke’s song about the platic Jesus? I think the same thing’s going on there in miniature.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t really have the energy to go into more detail right now — trying to index my dissertation on kind of a tight schedule (and I hate indexing…). Hopefully I’ll be more able to follow up in a few days.

  5. ben Says:

    Until this very moment I took no account of the similarity of the names “luke” and “lucille”.

  6. JR Says:

    I haven’t actually seen Cool Hand Luke, but I’m inclined to say your reading is supported by the sort of creepy similarity between that final zoom and the last shot from The Shining…

  7. Monday Movies: Few « The Weblog Says:

    [...] Hand Luke: I watched this for class and wrote a post elsewhere about [...]


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