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St. Vincent: A Meditation on Poor Souls, Not Saints

December 1, 2014


(Spoiler alert! This article contains revealing details about the film, St. Vincent.)

Bill Murray is brilliant.  He’s also Catholic, although I’m not sure whether or not he practices his Catholic faith.  Murray has eight siblings and one of them is a Dominican sister who travels the country playing St. Catherine of Sienna in a one-woman show.  In the new film St. Vincent, Murray plays the role Vincent McKenna, an ornery, drunk, adulterous, gambling, lukewarm Catholic, Vietnam vet, who lives by himself in a mess of a home in Brooklyn with his ironically named cat, Felix – a far cry from a saint, but for some reason, you can’t help but love him.

Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) is a recently divorced MRI-tech who moves in next door to Vincent with her adopted son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), whom she enrolls in the local Catholic School, even though he’s Jewish.  Through an interesting turn of events, Vincent becomes Oliver’s babysitter, and they commence a strange but beautiful inter-generational friendship, reminiscent of the inter-generational friendship of 2008’s Gran Torino.

Oliver’s teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) assigns a saints’ project to his class.  Each student has to give a presentation on one canonized saint, and one “saint of today” – someone the student knows personally and deems saint-like.  Oliver decides to report on St. William of Rochester for the first part of his project, since St. William is the patron saint of orphans, which speaks to Oliver’s own experience as an orphan.  But for his saint of today, Oliver picks his next-door neighbor and babysitter, Vincent, in whom he recognizes genuine goodness and virtue, amidst his fallen and sinful self.

There’s a telling scene early on in the film where Vincent is at the local bar, drunk, and dancing in front of the jukebox alone to Jefferson Airplane’s “(Don’t You Want) Somebody to Love.”  Vincent’s awkward but genuinely desperate dance moves tell us that, yes, he wants somebody to love, and he wants to be loved too – it’s the deepest and most universal of all desires.  And as the film unfolds we find that Vincent has suffered some major emotional and spiritual wounds, which don’t justify his sins of adultery, drunkenness, theft, and gambling, but they do make us pity him, and understand that he turns to these acts ultimately because he is longing for love.

Postmodernity does not know what to do with someone like Vincent.  Murray’s character is fallen indeed, and he is weak, and he makes very poor decisions, but at the end of the day, he’s really not a bad guy – he’s what Aristotle would call the incontinent man – he wants to do right, but he can’t.  But he’s not all bad.  Oliver is right to recognize that Vincent has redeeming qualities: he’s a humble hero of the Vietnam war; he lives in poverty so that his wife who suffers with Alzheimer’s can live in the best of nursing homes; he eats sardines while Felix eats gourmet cat food; and he’s happy to support the baby within the womb of his Russian stripper girlfriend, Daka (Naomi Watts), even though it’s likely that he’s not the father.

Most intelligent people who go and see St. Vincent will agree that Bill Murray’s character is not a saint.  But they won’t want to condemn him to hell either, because as we’ve seen, deep down, there is a goodness about him.  What Oliver did for Vincent through his modern saint project is what we Postmoderns often do at funerals for people like Vincent – we canonize them.  Most of the time we know that our deceased friends and family members weren’t actually saints, but we have no idea what to say about them or how to speak about them. (Deep down we may even know that they need lots of prayers!) We don’t want to put them in hell, so we make them into “modern saints” even though we know that’s somehow not actually right. Postmodernity may not know what to do with people like Vincent, but Catholicism does.  We call it purgatory.

In his second encyclical Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI writes the following about purgatory: “For the great majority of people – we may suppose – there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate openness to truth, to love, to God.  In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil – much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul.”  Benedict’s description of the great majority of people perfectly describes Vincent’s condition, and the Pope Emeritus argues that it is only before Christ’s gaze that all falsehood melts away.  Benedict continues, “This encounter with him, as it burns, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves.”

Vincent encounters Christ’s love through others – Oliver, Maggie, Daka and her newborn daughter, and Ana from the nursing home – and it changes him.  But he also seems to encounter Christ, The Living Water – the one who satisfied the thirst of the woman at the well so that she would never thirst again – immediately and sacramentally.

If you go and see St. Vincent, do not leave until the house lights go on, because the final scene of the film, which runs as the credits are rolling, is worth the price of admission.  Vincent, who by this time is no longer drinking, no longer fornicating, who is now eating a healthy foods, and after having a real meal around a table with family and friends for the first time in the entire film, steps outside in his camouflage cargo shorts, half-buttoned shirt and old-school Walkman slung around his chest, for some solitude in the literal desert of his backyard.  He begins to smoke a cigarette, but soon reaches for the garden hose, unscrews the nozzle, and lets the water flow without restriction – all the while speaking (more than singing) each word of Dylan’s classic “Shelter from the Storm,” which becomes a sort of hymn. 

As I watched this beautiful scene unfold, I couldn’t help but think of the water flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47, or the beautiful imagery of Psalm 62, “Like a dry weary land without water, my soul thirsts for you” as Bill Murray’s restless character finally finds shelter, rest and his true self in the living and purifying water that washes his false self away through an old ordinary garden hose. No one with a sacramental imagination will miss it. 

And no one with a sacramental imagination should miss this film either, as it’s a great meditation on God’s strange and mysterious grace which is constantly at work to redeem poor souls like Vincent McKenna, like me, and like you, through the purifying love of his only begotten Son.