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?