Atoning for Trouble

“If forgiveness is not important, what is?”  This is just one of several theological questions that the film Troubled Water raises.  Released on DVD here in the states as part of the Film Movement project, it offers up an engrossing narrative and an interweaving structure that keeps viewers hooked until the end.

Troubled Water tells the story of a young man, Thomas (Pål Sverre Valheim), who along with an accomplice steals a stroller in which a young child sleeps while his mother, Agnes (Trine Dyrholm) buys hot chocolate at a small cafe.  In a park near a small river, the two young men rifle through the mother’s belongings, and when the child wakes up and tries to run away, he slips and bangs his head on a rock, knocking himself unconscious.  Thinking that the child is dead, Thomas takes his body to the river and lets it go in an attempt to cover up the accident.  The two young men are quickly apprehended and sentenced to time in prison.  Some years later, Thomas is released and finds a job as an organist in a church (he played the organ in prison for worship services as well).  He develops something of a close relationship with the priest Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and her son Jens (Fredrik Grondahl).  One day, Agnes spots Thomas and becomes obsessed with his release from prison, especially when she sees him in close proximity to Anna and Jens.  As the story progresses, Agnes the victim becomes Agnes the violator as she kidnaps Jens in an attempt to keep him safe from Thomas.  In retrieving Jens, Thomas tells Agnes the truth of what happened on the day that he kidnapped her son.

Anna and Thomas.

Ever since I read Marjorie Suchocki’s book, The Fall to Violence:  Original Sin in Relational Theology, several years ago, I have thought frequently about her notions of sin and forgiveness.  She argues that forgiveness involves willing the well-being of the offender.  One of the few shortcomings of her text is that she doesn’t really go into great detail as to what that looks like.  Of course, this could also be because such willed well-being will be unique to each experience.  Over the years, I have been drawn to films that embody Suchocki’s notion of willing the well-being of the offender and stopping the cycle of violence that plagues the human experience.  Two films that instantly come to mind are Kieslowski’s Blue and Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Troubled Water falls into this discussion for a number of reasons.  Even after the man who hired him learns of Thomas’ criminal past, he allows him to stay on as the church organist and to remain in close contact with Jens.  When Agnes expresses outrage over the church hiring Thomas, this same man says, “This is a church.  If he can’t get a second chance here, where can he?”  Yet after serving his prison sentence, Thomas still seems to be searching for atonement.  There is no doubt that the death of Agnes’ son was a theft of beauty and potential from the world as well.  While his life is irreplacable, we could look at Thomas’ choice to play the organ as an effort to replace some of the beauty that he stole.  He is an accomplished organist and his audiences are greatly moved by his gift.

Since Anna tells Thomas that forgiveness is not important, it might be odd to mention this film in reference to Suchocki’s notions of forgiveness.  However, Anna’s assertion that atonement is important makes it a fitting example.  In our culture of easily-dispensed forgiveness, we often fail to focus on the notion of atonement…of making right (or attempting to) what has been broken.  Our justice system suffers from a pitiful lack of creativity in its efforts to hand out punishment for wrongs committed.  Do we ever really have justice apart from atonement?  As if simply locking someone away in prison or putting them to death solves the equation.  Agnes’ husband, Jon (Trond Espen Seim), has taken a job in Denmark in an attempt to help her escape from Thomas’ presence.  He tells her, “He’ll never bother us again.”  Of course, Jon doesn’t know just how wrong he is as he and Agnes will always be haunted by their past whether Thomas is a country away or alive at all.

Agnes and her husband.

Troubled Water works so well thanks to flawless performances from everyone involved and a compelling narrative structure.  Thomas’ sin unfolds as his atonement does over the course of the film.  As we slowly learn what really happened on the day that Agnes’ son died, Thomas becomes more involved in the life of the church and his relationship with Anna and her son.  As he practices and plays the organ, he embues his performances with such emotion and energy that we get the sense that he is working out his guilt through his play.  It’s almost as if he’s trying to will himself to believe in what he plays as well and perhaps in God, forgiveness, and redemption too.  His name is not a little significant…Thomas, the patron saint of doubters.  Even though he has his own doubts, he also challenges some of Anna’s beliefs as well.   In one of her conversations with Thomas, she claims that God has a purpose for everything that happens and that good can come from evil.  Thomas’ life certainly testifies to that; however, when he tells Anna of his real identity and his past experiences, she essentially kicks him out of her life.  As such, Thomas exposes a level of hypocrisy in Anna’s ability to believe in some theological tenent without actually living as if it is true.

Troubled Water  is ripe with implications for discussions of forgiveness, atonement, redemption, faith vs. belief, and love (to name a few) that would be ideal viewing for communities of faith.  Like all good movies, it provides few, if any, answers to these questions.

Troubled Water (115 mins.) is unrated and available on DVD through Blockbuster and Netflix.