Would You Want to Be Immortal?

09/04/2012 05:08 EDT | Updated 11/04/2012 05:12 EST

If you could live forever, how would that change how you live today?

I've been thinking about this question ever since seeing Lawless. It's one of those party questions, the kind that peppers blind dates or lazy afternoons but, when taken a little more seriously, can also get people thinking. Taken even a little more seriously, it's a gateway into thousands of years of metaphysical and moral debate.

Some kind of eternal life, for the soul if not the body, is a tenet shared by all three of the major monotheistic religions, and plays an important ethical role in those traditions. The thought is that if justice doesn't continue after death, in one sense or another, it becomes very difficult to defend an allegiance to justice before death as well.

On the flip side, the fear of death, of the body if not the soul, has been used just as often to explain or defend benevolence. Hobbes, probably most famously, argued that human beings are motivated by self-preservation and that it is this desire which compels us to form societies. Only because of our own vulnerability, so the argument goes, do we care about the vulnerability of others.

And then there's Forrest Bondurant (played by Tom Hardy), the eldest of three bootlegging brothers, legendary in Prohibition-era Virginia for withstanding certain death, whose story is told in Lawless. I know Lawless isn't a great movie -- in the words of Roger Ebert: "I believe it's based on facts. I wish it were based on insights" -- but Forrest is a vivid character and if there is anything insightful about Lawless he's it. Well, him, and maybe the title, Lawless, as well.

On the most basic level, calling the movie Lawless captures the story's taken-for-granted condition of possibility: the Prohibition-era's complete lack of real legal authority. It's useful for the title to acknowledge this because it's not something any of the characters significantly do. Rather, lawlessness just permeates their lives. It is their ordinary. (So much so, however, that what's interesting about such a way of life is dulled for the audience as well -- hence, Ebert's critique.)

Lawless, though, can also refer to the more prominent, and directly discussed theme: immortality. The character arc in the film revolves around the Bondurants' assumed invincibility, a condition half believed by the brothers themselves, especially Forrest. More than just believe the myth, Forrest seems to will it, which brings up the relationship between conviction and actualization and our ability to fight past our natural limits. In other words, to step outside the laws of nature over and above stepping outside the laws of man. In so far as they appear able to do this, the Bondurants are doubly lawless.

The interesting thing in the movie is how these two states, or assumptions, of lawlessness fuel and compete with each other. Again, it's through Forrest that this gets played out best. On one hand, in the absence of sanctioned positive law, the majority of the movie's characters act under a law of fear. When the chips are down, they both respond to fear and expect that inciting fear will get them what they want. As long as this is true for everyone, fear is used to create a semblance of order, at the very least a socially accepted pecking order. It's all very Hobbesian and, even for outlaws, sadly ignoble.

Forrest, however, is the exception: he is always confident that, despite transient pain, ultimately he will be able to withstand and survive any resistance thrown across his path. But without the finality of death compelling him, Forrest sees no reason to enter into any social, or less than social, contract.

For him, natural lawlessness perpetuates political lawlessness. This is just as true when he refuses to participate in legal corruption as when he breaks the law. His bravery and his convictions make him a lone hero, not a superhero. Goodness isn't his main concern, but neither is wealth, prestige or even comfort. What he values is independence and autonomy. Every step of the way, he keeps himself slightly removed from his relationships and in this withdrawal echoes his stubbornness in the face of death.

Hegel, similarly to Hobbes, grounds communal dependence in physical dependence, but in a very different way. According to him, the insecurity that death creates reflects and is reflected in the insecurity created from social reality. Just as our self-knowledge is compromised by not knowing our origins or final destination, self-knowledge is also disrupted by not knowing or being able to control other people, particularly their perceptions and responses to us. For Hegel, the process of accepting death is tied up with the process of learning to live co-dependently with others. Immortality, in this schema, lines up with isolation and profound loneliness.

If and how this fits in with or challenges the metaphysics of an afterlife, well, I'll leave that to the reader to work out. And Lawless probably won't be any help there -- theology is even more absent in it than law. But what the movie does do is let us explore, just around the edges, what the experience of immortality might actually look like, at least in this world. Surprisingly, though certainly compellingly, even in the body of Tom Hardy it's difficult to imagine wanting to look at that picture forever.