Moonrise, Frank Borzage

Dignity and the Death Penalty: On Borzage’s ‘Moonrise’

In the nearly eight decades since Moonrise‘s release, Borzage’s melodrama-noir-styled meditations on social causality, dignity, and redemption have lost none of their potency.

Frank Borzage
8 May 2018

After roughly a decade of appeals, Scott Dozier gave up. “Scott Dozier has been on death row for many years for [the double homicide of two other drug dealers] in Las Vegas about a decade ago. And he decided a couple of years ago that he didn’t want to fight his appeals anymore, that he would rather be dead than spend the rest of his life in the conditions of death row,” reports Maurice Chammah in an interview with Democracy Now! “He’s very open about that. He’s very sort of articulate about his reasons.” Chammah, staff writer at the Marshall Project and recipient of the 2014 Livingston Award for reporting on the decline of the death penalty, published a profile on Dozier earlier this year.

Dozier, he argues, caused ‘chaos’ in Nevada when he decided to stop fighting his sentence because the state couldn’t find a pharmaceutical way to kill him. “They had just built a new execution chamber that’s never been used before. More than 200 different drug companies, distributors, manufacturers, said they wouldn’t sell drugs, that it sort of went against their company policies. This is an ongoing problem for many states that want to carry out executions…” When Dozier’s July 11th execution was halted due to legal action by the pharmaceutical company Alvogen (claiming the state obtained their execution drugs illegally), the long-ongoing debate on both lethal injection and the death penalty as broadly construed found cause to advance: if prisoners want to die, is execution the worst punishment they can receive when that is meant to be the explicit character of the sentence? Furthermore, is the purpose of the death penalty to conduct a state-assisted suicide? Continues Chammah, “There are multiple states in which almost all or [literally] all of the people who have been executed over the past 20 [to] 30 years have been these volunteers who give up their appeals.”

More to the heart of the matter and the history of the debate, what are we doing this for anyway if it so difficult, costly, visible, and lengthy a process? What purpose is the death penalty serving, particularly when there remains no body of evidence to prove that it is a successful deterrent? What meaningful purpose did it ever serve? The fact that a ‘volunteer’ such as Dozier would so easily further promote such questions offers insights into the critically flawed rationales which substantiate the death penalty in principle.

In other words, it’s easy to tear down emotive justifications for the penalty such as the ‘urge toward retribution’ when the target of said retribution considers you to be doing him a favor. The legal and moral fortitude of the deed is a deck of cards which tumbles easily, vulnerable to the taunts of self-forsaken men such as Dozier, particularly when you also consider analyses which have shown the penalty to be cost-ineffective; however, I’d note that while one can understand the need for cost-benefit analyses in policy debates, it deserves little mention in the debate over the fundamental moral character of the death sentence. Need we always scale lives to tax dollars in order to be convinced of any course of action?

Indeed, the United States is infamously behind on criminal justice reform in the developed world, whether the beyond-shameful phantasmagoria of human rights abuses which are for-profit prisons, the barbarity of solitary confinement, or the fact that the US is the only remaining Western nation to maintain a death penalty. More than half the states in the union – 31 to be exact – keep the penalty on the books. Irrespective of whether the penalty is still being used with regularity among many of those 31 states (according to Chammah, difficulties in procuring pharmaceutical resources for lethal injections do indeed compose a major obstacle), American attitudes regarding the death penalty – while trending away from the practice – remain in majority favor: according to 2017 data from the Pew Research Center, 49 percent remain in favor of the penalty, while 42 percent are opposed (to be sure, grand improvements from the staggering highs of the hopelessly vindictive ’90s; in 1995, support rose as high as 80 percent).

While America remains on a downward trend for now, the debate has seen similarly wide swings in the past over the course of just a few decades (e.g., between the mid-’60s and the ’90s, the debate saw a massive upswing in-favor from roughly its present levels of approval to the aforementioned 80 percent); it would be more than premature to say the issue is settled, particularly when one considers the deeply cultural aspects of the debate as it is conducted in the United States. America’s history with the discourses of righteous indignation is perhaps nowhere clearer than it is with violence, whether in emotive justifications for wars of aggression (“we’ve been patient, and we’ve been pushed, but dammit, we aren’t going to take it anymore!”) or in its historical support for corporal punishment (“these people made their choice! We should take them out behind a shed a shoot them; simple, fast, and cheap!”). Writes Damon Linker for The Week: “Americans are addicted to self-righteous rage… Unfortunately, there is so far no sign at all that the warring parties in America’s dysfunctional civic marriage are anywhere close to growing weary of the false sense of empowerment and superiority that accompanies the exposure and denunciation of injustice.”

Like so many debates in the American public sphere, the issue of corporal punishment has long struggled to either remain focused on the logic of the policy (the aforementioned costs or its ineffectiveness as a deterrent) or avoid rampant partisanism in debate, often devolving into yet another bickering contest between mainline conservatives and liberals, culture wars played-up cynically by pundits to generate ad revenue for the likes of CNN, FOX, and MSNBC. Though I think it would be fair to argue that the philosophical underpinnings of this debate lie between the staunch individualism of many astroturfed conservatives today (e.g., ‘we are all responsible for everything we do and live in a socioeconomic bubble’) and a broader, structural understanding of the behavioral tendencies of individuals living in complex societies (an understanding which tends to underpin American ‘liberal’ cultural modes and the greater Left in general to varying degrees), what is so often lacking from these popular debates is any substantive nuance. Indeed, as much as I may be tempted, it is far, far beyond the scope of any one article to delve fully into the issue of the death penalty, because within lies vast considerations for the history of the humanities, the social studies, and pretty much anyone of note who has had anything to say on the intrinsic value of a human life.

What’s so accomplished, then, about Frank Borzage‘s 1948 masterpiece Moonrise is that it manages to cut through all of that history toward a deeply human examination of the sociological effects of the death penalty without sacrificing many of the nuances of the issue; moreover, it manages to deftly accomplish all of its thematic aims within a paltry 90 minutes. To suggest that Moonrise is somehow just about the law as narrowly construed, however, would be wholly remiss, much as the debate around the death penalty extends to so much of what we consider fundamental to our ideas about what a society should be, what dignity we should afford our worst offenders, what intrinsic value we attribute to life, what we understand about the ‘decisions’ people make, and how love can fit into all of it.

“You just can’t hurt a little boy.”

Moonrise opens with the hanging of a man we presume guilty of some heinous crime. Foregoing any graphic or even direct depiction (as wouldn’t be generally appropriate in post-war cinema), we pan and then cut away to a small child wailing in their crib, darkened over by the ghastly silhouette of a hanged man – in this case, a child’s doll hung by a rope. The scene is surreal, akin to a nightmare, but unlike the common haze of a dream, the message simply couldn’t be any clearer: the hanging of this child’s father is going to cast a shadow over their entire life. From the beginning, Borzage manages to create this sort of claustrophobic environment for the viewer, a horrid determinism, a tightening noose around the neck of a child before they had any opportunity to prove themselves otherwise.

The child, Daniel Hawkins (Dane Clark), grows up ruthlessly bullied for the very conditions of his birth – for a father he didn’t get to choose. He learns to fight early, but these are bouts he tends to lose. We eventually see him as a young man, enjoying a town dance and band. Somewhere near but secluded from the party, he tussles with the abusive Jerry, his chief tormentor over the many years.

It’s easy to root for Daniel here. Pushing a boy for his father’s death seems about as heartless as ‘schoolyard’ bullying is like to get, but Moonrise doesn’t make a habit of casting innocent eyes at people’s capacity for cruelty when they feel they can get away with it (particularly in numbers). Initially losing, Daniel finds renewed fury and strikes back at Jerry. The fight gets dirty. An infuriated Jerry picks up a rock and assails Daniel with it, and before long, Daniel returns the favor. He hits him back, too hard, too much, and too fast. Before he knows what he’s done, it’s done. The noose gets tighter. A lot tighter.

What follows is Daniel’s rapid descent into what his soon-thereafter-lover Gilly Johnson (the stunning Gail Russell) describes as “like being in a long dark tunnel, the way you look and talk and walk.” He attempts to hide the body by dragging him into some reeds, letting his pocket knife slip away from him in the process. Returning to the party, he finds Gilly (who up to now had been dating Jerry) and insists rather firmly – in a way which could land you in court today – that she dance with him ‘and only him’. When he later leaves the party with Gilly and two others, he drives recklessly in the rain. Despite desperate pleas for him to slow down, a haunted Daniel sees visions of his victim in the torrent, loses focus, and totals the car. Gilly later demands to know what had him so ‘angry’, why he’d act like ‘he wanted himself and everyone else to be killed’.

Clearly enough, Daniel’s guilt-driven urge toward self-destruction is immediate. ‘Guilt’ may be too simplistic, though: for Daniel, he knows that the rope hung for him when his father was killed has truly come down around him, and rather than wait for the executioner, a part of him thinks he might just do his own jumping. Returning to Dozier, he looks to cancer for analogy to his overriding death drive: “My sister points out, it’s a lot like a terminal disease. You know, if he had cancer and told me he was miserable and he wanted to stop treatment, I’m not going to argue with him about it. And they believe me. I mean, my family believes me when I tell them I’d rather be dead than this.” In other words, waiting for a death you’re certain of is psychological torture, and the longer it goes on, the greater the suffering. A kind of suffering someone might think to opt out of.

Particularly early on, nearly every interaction Daniel has with someone eventually results in or contains a defensive outburst at the mere mention of his father; it’s understandable, after all, but after a similar show of emotion with his aunt (his caretaker after Daniel’s grandmother sent him away to live somewhere other than a remote American wooded mountainside), we can see that years of abuse are finding no reason to conceal themselves any longer. Dane Clark expertly portrays Daniel like a live wire, a young man with a wound so deep, storied, and yet fresh, blazing. Daniel remains a most pitiable figure even as he leaves anger and destruction in his wake.

After what Daniel has put her through, this comes as something of a shock. The viewer hasn’t seen much of Daniel and Gilly’s relationship so far, so Gilly’s sudden turnaround suggests either a deeper history or a fairly strange woman. It’s indeed an odd love scene, and in fact, one of the primary ways Moonrise might unbalance modern viewers lies in how this relationship is handled. There’s a lot of dramatic 180 degree turns only for the other to grab at them before the can rush away (usually Danny, who again, grabs roughly enough to land him in legal trouble today); early on, these dramatic flair ups happen several times per scene together, something so melodramatic as to possibly fatigue those aforementioned modern viewers.

Still, while it’s fine enough to take this as a consequence of the era’s tropes, I’d argue one would be remiss not to at least consider whether Borzage intended for their relationship to be off-putting; it seems to be suggested that Gilly is at least a bit older than Daniel, at times regarding him almost motherly. The film’s poster, for example, features Gilly tenderly cradling Daniel against her, standing taller than him, while IMDB cites an early tagline that went as follows: “HER ARMS…HER LOVE…HIS ONLY ESCAPE FROM A HERITAGE OF HATE!” Many viewers throughout the decades have no doubt wondered what Gilly is doing with a quick-to-anger-and-violence wreck like Daniel when the obvious answer is that they are both – in their own ways – a mess, people who are in one manner or another deeply unhappy by themselves.

Still, Gilly plays a fairly clear role for Daniel: she is the compassionate gaze cast at a boy who needs it desperately, and insofar as she was once Jerry’s, a kind of middle-finger to his life-long tormentors. Putting it most essentially, Gilly sees Daniel for what he is: a scared little boy who needs to step out of the shadow of his own life, who maybe needs a hand to help pull him out of it. Prior to Daniel wrecking the car early on, Gilly relates the story of one of the troublesome young boys she teaches: “All the kids pick on him…he [lashes out and] gives me a lot of trouble…You see Daniel, he was unhappy…and you just can’t hurt a little boy.” The flashes of recognition are all over Daniel’s face. His foot presses on the pedal. He needs Gilly, but he’s angry. Most of all, he’s a downright sad young man.

The rest of the film plays out along two threads which eventually collide: Daniel and Gilly’s relationship (combined with a few of Daniel’s interactions with other townsfolk), and the sheriff’s ongoing murder investigation. It’s useful to examine the film’s themes in terms of what each of these interactions reveals about what Borzage has to say on social alienation, guilt, responsibility, death, love, and chances for redemption. In particular, it is useful to look at how Daniel relates to the mentally handicapped Billy Scripture (a young Henry Morgan of M.A.S.H. fame), how Sheriff Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn) zeroes in on Daniel and comes to understand his situation, Daniel’s close father-like relationship with Mose (Rex Ingram), and Daniel’s late meeting with his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) in the mountains.

“Sure is remarkable how dying can make a saint of a man.”

It is through the torment of Billy Scripture that Daniel is quickly established as a basically decent fellow. As an outcast young man, Billy finds himself bullied at the dance much as we’ve seen Daniel bullied throughout his life; Daniel comes in not only to defend him but to shove one of his tormentors off: “Just because he’s deaf and dumb…got a mind like a baby don’t give you no right to make fun of him. Lay off him!” Daniel turns the corner into a nearby restroom to clean up, and when he spies Billy behind him watching him with a simple sort of grin, he gets irritated. “Must be nuts, talkin’ to a dummy” he decries to none of Billy’s comprehension, but as he walks out he touches him tenderly by the shoulder in another show of affection. You can get the sense that while Daniel resents Billy for what he sees of himself in him (Daniel has no shortage of self-loathing), he is his only protector; Daniel’s past abuse has given him the ‘perspective of the lesser’, a decent heart.

It’s all the more tragic then that as Daniel’s deep sense of guilt and dread progresses – as he feels the tightening of the law on his neck – that his care turns to its own form of abuse. During a raccoon hunt which ends up at the scene of his crime, Billy finds Daniel’s lost pocket knife at the crime scene. Billy tries to present this, but Daniel, wracked with a dreaded anticipation of being found out, crudely dismisses Billy without so much as a look. “Beat it Billy.”

As the investigation closes around Daniel, his paranoia naturally grows with exponential vigor. Eventually realizing that the shopkeeper who sold him the knife is able to specifically identify it as his, when he later sees Billy whittling with his knife he decides to take action so drastic that it arguably represents Daniel’s moral low-point. Watching him from a distance until he retires to his small, lonely shack for the night, Daniel steels into his abode to demand the knife. “Where you get the knife!” Dan screams. Billy, naturally, is uncomprehending. Through a mixture of fear and frustration, Daniel begins to brutally choke Billy. Through it all, Billy remains innocent of what is going on, his eyes filled with fear and a kind of puppy-dog like confusion, an inability to understand why he is going through this.

Daniel releases him. Billy’s breath is raspy, his breathing labored, clearly having been throttled to within an inch of his life. Daniel props him up in bed and sees the knife behind his pillow. He goes to leave then pauses and turns, a pitiful, guilt-ridden look shadowed across his face contrasted with Billy’s simple grin. He tosses the knife back. Daniel reels himself from the edge of the abyss at the very last moment, but it had been so close. The specter of his father’s death very nearly came to result in his spiritual destruction – years of ugliness alchemized into a greater fiend. It almost made Daniel into something he isn’t.

Sheriff Clem Otis plays a thoughtful role atypical of what one might expect from a small-town sheriff, or indeed your typical American silver-screen-everyday-lawman. Where you look for brash, brooding, and commanding, you find sociable, patient, and considerate. It is through both the sheriff and Mose that so much of the film’s ethos is conveyed (not to dismiss Gilly’s role in same).

Daniel first runs into Clem sitting casually at a train station bench along with a few other town members. (As an aside, one of these men – Houseley Stevenson as ‘Uncle Joe Jangle’ – squints at Daniel every time he meets him through the film only to remark that he “ain’t Yankee.” Arguably, this subtly conveys another dimension of Daniel’s social alienation; having come down from what’s presumably either the Appalachian or Smoky Mountains, his kin don’t necessarily ‘rub easy’ with the townsfolk. In any case, he is being repeatedly identified as some kind of outsider.) As he uneasily sits with the group, they begin to discuss an odd, well-dressed man arriving in town who looks like he ‘might be a detective’. As he departs with a reputable banker, Jerry Sykes’ father no less, Daniel has cause for anxiety.

Clem eventually gets around to questioning Daniel, where he learns that the ‘detective’ was just a bank examiner. Clem conveys a suspicion of the band leader playing the same night of Jerry’s murder and regrets that he won’t be able to attend the night’s fair due to his investigation. Daniel briefly figures that he is off the hook. Exuberant, he takes Gilly to the fair, assuming the sheriff won’t be there to see him together with Gilly (again, Jerry’s ex-lover). When he later learns that the bandleader has not only been released from suspicion, but the sheriff is also at the fair, he panics. In a dizzying scene where Gilly and Daniel get onto a Ferris wheel, Daniel is clearly losing grip; Gilly can’t get the why out of him.

The sheriff notices. When he also gets onto the Ferris wheel, the sequence becomes nightmarish for Daniel as the sheriff glowers down onto him in obvious suspicious, the two of them on a ride together Daniel doesn’t want to be on. This is another example of Borzage’s craftsmanship; the uncanny angles and precise editing deftly conveying Daniel’s growing claustrophobia while both foreshadowing and symbolizing Daniel’s inevitable clash with the law. When his panic reaches a fever pitch, he begins to scream that he is being followed, that he has to get off, and literally leaps out of the Ferris wheel for a serious drop. When he comes to, he insists that Gilly ‘get him out of there’, but the sheriff has seen what he needs to.

It’s here we might assume that the sheriff would begin to come down hard on Daniel. He doesn’t, and in fact, we might conjecture the first thing he feels is pity. Clem knows Daniel’s background, and he knows that Jerry was a lifelong tormentor and spoiled brat to boot. “Funny how dying can make a saint of a man,” he once remarks to his wife, none too fast to think of the crime in simple terms. In a later conversation with the town doctor, Clem gives an anecdote: “I knew a man once kept accusing his wife of being unfaithful. After listenin’ to him for twelve years, she was.” The doctor chuckles and counters: “Proves he was right…he was just a little premature, that’s all.” Clem continues: “I say the husband was a lot responsible for what his wife did. Sometimes, murder is like love. It takes two to commit it: The man who hates and the man who’s hated. The killer and the killed…If you went into all the reasons why that rock struck Jerry’s head you might just end up with the history of the world.” The doctor begins to walk off. “You shoulda been a preacher Clem, not a bloodhound.”

“All I know is a man is a lot more than what you cut out of him on the autopsy table,” Clem concludes. A lot more than his blood, he means.

This perspective is key to the film’s understanding of justice, and it’s a perspective which, again, hasn’t much lost its salience in the decades since. It’s a distinctly social, or structural, understanding of why a crime is committed, rather than a simplistic view of demented criminals and their hapless victims, a sort of Manichean ethics where a man like Jerry becomes a saint just for being killed and a man like Daniel becomes a demon for having a rotten life. It slows Clem, steadies him, and allows him to think about Daniel as his own sort of victim without foregoing the need for consequences, for order. When he has a meeting with Gilly and lays it out before her, he briefly conveys his frustration at the whole thing, and the mess that is Daniel’s life: “Right now I can send Daniel to jail for life. Worse maybe. Jury might not believe a man who has to be brought back in handcuffs. I don’t want him punished beyond what’s right. He’s taken his share already for a long time.” Clem seeks justice. He wants him to pay his punishment, not to die – to have some chance to live the rest of his life “like an ordinary human being.”

Where Clem works in Daniel’s favor out of his sight and knowing, Mose is an explicit guide and counsel. Played by the excellent Rex Ingram, Mose is, to use the language of film criticism, a ‘magical negro’, something certainly of its time (not that there aren’t much later cinematic examples, unfortunately) which isn’t much going to please some of today’s viewers. That said, I wouldn’t denote Mose a total caricature, and he arguably stands out even amongst other examples of the trope. Writes Philip Kemp in his included essay for the Criterion release, “It would be hard to think of another American film of the period where a black man acts as adviser and mentor to a white southerner – a black man, furthermore, who is described as an ‘educated fella’ who has ‘read about every book there is’…It’s Mose [who] points Daniel on his way to redemption.”

It could be that Borzage and his writers didn’t personally know any black men and women (a theory as to why black characters are sometimes written this way), but whatever the case, Mose isn’t a ‘savage’, a simpleton with uncanny wisdom written on top of him (e.g., “I don’t know much mistah, but I know this,” and so on). The reasons why the trope is troublesome and even infuriating to some viewers are many and certainly deserving of attention, but as Glenn Erickson similarly concludes, Ingram’s performance in Moonrise hopefully remains thoroughly effective rather than thoroughly distracting. He’s well-spoken, educated, deeply moral, and of deep convictions.

When we first meet Mose, it’s clear Daniel comes along to visit often. Immediately striding in to pet his hounds, he notices that Mose keeps calling one in particular ‘Mr. Dog’. “Why do you keep calling him mister?” he asks. “Isn’t enough dignity in the world,” Mose replies. Eventually, Daniel moves on to what’s aching him: “What if there’s bad blood in me Mose? Makes me do bad things.” Mose answers resolutely, “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about ‘bad blood’. Blood is red. It doesn’t tell you what you have to do.”

In other words, more or less exactly the sentiment expressed by Clem later in the film; similarly, Mose proceeds to tie up what he is trying to say in a key anecdote: “When I was a brakeman, I found a hobo sleeping in a boxcar once… there was something about the lonesome cold look on his face, and the way he was lying there. It made me throw my coat over him and leave him. The next I heard was when the sheriff grabbed my dogs to chase him. I never felt right about the sheriff using the dogs. It’s alright for a dog to chase a [raccoon], but not a man.” This again speaks to Mose’s notions about dignity.

It’s the next part of his anecdote which could certainly challenge even leftist viewers today, however: he eventually describes the man as having been guilty of rape, and how in spite of the crime, he felt that what happened was he “got 15 years for being lonesome, not from having bad blood.” To put it another way, Mose is expressing some measure of sympathy for a rapist because, in his mind, there was nothing inherently bad about the man, but rather views his crime as a consequence of some mixture of bad luck and social circumstance. Again, it’s the systemic rather than individualistic view of criminal justice. The sum of the man is not ‘rapist, but rather, the sum of the conditions which led him there. He is a man who committed a horrendous crime, but he is not the crime itself personified. This is why there is a discursive distinction between ‘man who committed a crime’ and ‘criminal’.

It’s a careful distinction because the point Mose is making is not that rape is OK or even excusable (and it’s certainly not that ‘she was asking for it’ or any of the other horrid excuses which are the subject of awareness campaigns today), but that thinking of people as essentially bad or good by their ‘blood’ or any other intractable factor is wrong. In the view that there are no such intrinsic ‘criminal’ qualities, there is room for rehabilitation, whereas the view that the man is inherently bad, quintessentially a rapist, now and forever, does not allow for either redemption or rehabilitation much as it does allow for the death penalty.

It’s in giving such a difficult example, a rapist, that the film challenges viewers to really examine whether they ever accept the idea that criminals are irredeemable and therefore worthy of the harshest, most punitive and life-long (or ending) measures. It may be easy enough to accept that a drug dealer can be rehabilitated, or even a murderer, but a rapist? The nigh-ultimate social taboo of sexual violence? Yet, this is the film doing exactly what it should be: forcing the viewer to really examine justice, and by extension, the death penalty. I argue that one of the reasons Moonrise is so easily hailed as a cinematic masterpiece today is precisely because Borzage doesn’t let viewers off the hook in their examination of the issue, because Moonrise is taking what film as a medium can do seriously when examining difficult social questions, and what Moonrise so effectively suggests is that to accept the death penalty is to fail in understanding people and their social conditions.

Mose’s ideas about dignity are tied deeply to this view of social causality, that to brand someone a criminal for the rest of their lives and hunt them down like an animal is to deny them their most basic dignity as a human being. It’s also somewhat unique to him in the film. Nick Bromwell’s article in the journal of Political Theory titled Democratic Indignation: Black American Thought and the Politics of Dignity” offers some insight into the relationship African Americans have had to the concept of dignity; after all, this is not a concept the sheriff, a white man who is certainly quite intelligent and thoughtful, is as concerned with (particularly as he’s the one calling dogs after people, in Mose’s view), and while Clem obviously believes in treating people with dignity to some extent, he doesn’t make the same point of it. Writes Bromell, “…black Americans writing… at the margins of the democratic polity shed important light on the nature of human dignity… [indignation as a political emotion] offers the surest proof of the existence of such dignity… the presumption of dignity is the basis on which citizenship is conferred, while its denial is the justification by which citizenship is withheld… even though dignity feels woven into one’s innermost being, it is always vulnerable to social denial and therefore stands in need of social confirmation…”

Laying it out, whether you agree that (e.g.) using dogs to chase a felon down is undignified or not is beside the point. Following from Bromell, the indignity Mose suffers at the idea of his dogs chasing someone down serves as impetus for a deeper understanding of justice, and from that deeper understanding blooms the potential for democratic action if we were to imagine Mose as politically active. Moonrise is a film which, viewed today, I should hope spurs this drive toward action, helping the viewer to experience the tremendous indignity of something like the death penalty (or any other abuse under the pretense of justice) by touring them through a tortured life.

“Don’t you understand? From here on, it’s all bad.”

As the film nears its denouement, Gilly meets with Daniel after Clem implores her to convince a surrender. She comes to him as he looks out the window for pursuers: “I tried [to tell you], but I was afraid. What if I lost you, what if you wouldn’t touch me? [turning away] Ahh, what have I got to lose anymore. Why should I be afraid? Don’t you understand? From here on it’s all bad.” Daniel speaks the words of a man whose branded, who fears he’s branded, who’s been afraid of the brand his whole life. They’re fears easy to harbor in a society too eager to brand someone for their ‘blood’, to denote someone a paragon of their sins condemned forever no matter what their circumstances, no matter the horror of their lives. If there can’t be redemption, then there can only be the ‘bad’.

He starts to flee into the mountains, through the swamps and towards his grandmother’s where he means to see the tombstones of his parents and maybe ‘find answers’. Clem comes to Mose: “You’re not gonna ask me to hunt my friend are you?” Clem replies, “I need ya to handle the dogs.” Mose looks down, utterly crestfallen. “I wish they were dead.”

His words strike like a hammer. He’s being asked to degrade what he considers his friend’s essential dignity as a human being.

The pursuit goes on. Through maneuvers into and through the swamp, the dogs lose his scent temporarily. He arrives at last at his grandmother’s cabin way up in the mountains. She’s energized to see him, describing just how much alike Daniel is to his father in appearance, how his father had a grand voice when he was happy. This puts Daniel off. “What’s that about paw? About his being happy? When was paw happy?” At that moment, it’s the saddest kind of question, a question which ought to ache us as viewers: Daniel is trying to suss out how there can be any part of his blood that was ever happy. His grandmother’s reminiscence is, perhaps to some surprise, only of the proudest sort.

It sets Daniel off. He describes the hell of his whole life. After Daniel’s impassioned rant against the ‘curse’ his father put on him, grandma hears the dogs and eventually puts two and two together: he’s done wrong. Her face looks grave. “Now I know why you wanna hate your paw. I wondered why you came back after so long, bleedin’, smellin’ of swamp, and hatin’ your paw.” The night passes. Come morning, Daniel is setting to leave with a rifle in hand. He hesitates, and his grandmother comes around to shed some more light on what his father did: while he could have avoided the police easily enough through the swamps and into the mountains, he decided to turn himself in even though he knew he might get the noose. Why? He was thinking about Daniel. He thought it might save him. “‘I think I done right’ he told me, ‘If I done wrong, I’m gonna square it…maybe they’ll leave the boy be…not make him grow up payin’ for what I done.’ It took a man, Daniel. Coward blames what he does on other folks.”

In a film which does so much to lay out the ways in which people are a deterministic product of their structural conditions, it’s a hard message which might seem difficult to square. What Borzage seems to be suggesting, however, is that while we need a better understanding of social causality as it relates to justice, individual character can remain founded in a sense of responsibility toward others, and the courage to live up to this responsibility is the foundation of such character in action. You can understand that life has dealt you a vile hand, but it wouldn’t do to justify vile action on that account; no, there must be accountability on the part of the individual. Responsibility. What a truthful society should do for its part, then, is show individuals the decency owed to them, making an effort to pay serious attention to the conditions of their life, and by extension, the potential failures of the society to provide for that individual toward the common good. The death penalty doesn’t figure into that decent society, and nor do any of the human rights abuses of the US justice system today.

Daniel goes to his parent’s graves. He makes amends with his father. He offers himself up. Gilly embraces him. Mose smiles. Clem is relieved. When a deputy goes to cuff Daniel, Clem steps in vigorously: “What you doing there! Leave him be! Let him walk back like a man.” Clem affords Daniel his dignity as he understands it. What would have ended in death or tragedy in your typical noir ends in cheerful resolution. It’s not what you expect. It’s challenging. It’s why Moonrise is brilliant.

‘The worst thing a man can do is remove himself from the human race’ Mose argues early in the film. He chides himself for having tried to do just that in the past by moving way out into the boondocks. Perhaps he sees this impulse toward retreat in Daniel, identifying with him. When Daniel gives himself up, Mose’s eyes seem to well up with a kind of hope: “Mr. Dog, if a man knows how to rejoin the human race once he’s resigned, it helps Mr. Dog. It helps.”

It helps us all to get better. Continuing to genuinely engage with the world, whether by impetus of political indignation or whatever other sense of duty, helps us at a time that grows dim on all of us.

“It helps.”

The ‘Aum Cult’, Aum Shinrikyo’s ‘doomsday cult’ which coordinated the deadly sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway in 1995, has after more than two decades of incarceration and appeals seen its members put to death in a series of 13 executions by hanging. According to an Amnesty International report, Japan’s unprecedented ‘spate of executions’ “will not make the country safer and fails to address why individuals were attracted to a cult which orchestrated a series of horrific crimes.” Amnesty notes it as the first time since 2008 that ‘more than 10 people were executed in a given year’. “The taking of a life in retribution is never the answer. It’s high time for the Japanese authorities to establish an immediate moratorium on all executions and promote an informed debate on the death penalty as first steps towards its abolition.” Amnesty is here echoing Borzage’s Moonrise much as it echoes the salient arguments of decades worth of passionate human rights advocates who understand the grotesque social, political, and spiritual implications for a society which embraces the death penalty.

In other words, we maintain a dire need for Borzage’s message. We must think beyond the death penalty toward the basest notions of who we are as social animals in order to resolve a rot like this; critical human rights discussions will only see progress when the key discursive issues move away from taxpayer dollars and firmly opt for the moral imperative of respecting human dignity. In other words, Borzage’s message is as salient today as it was in 1948, with the dire need for that message ongoing. It goes beyond the death penalty; it’s about who we are as social animals. While Moonrise is of course not the genesis of these arguments (arguments which, again, have roots in some of the most ancient thought on the human condition), it uses the language of film to communicate the experience of indignation at the injustices of the criminal justice system in ways unique to the medium.

One thing Moonrise doesn’t comment on specifically is how class factors into discussions on criminal justice, though its message fits into such considerations easily (and is also alluded to in Mose’s anecdote about the hobo). Writes Bromell on the subject of class status as it relates to indignation, “Increasing millions of citizens are living in or near poverty and are less and less able to secure the basic conditions that would enable them to live confidently and with self-respect.” (Political Theory 41(2), 305).

How often has this social condition – a lack of self-respect resulting from economic instability – led to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, and crime? Have we ever executed someone motivated by these social conditions, or otherwise tortured, beaten, and confined them to solitary? It’s often argued that racist remarks strip minorities of their dignity, and surely they do, but not enough is said in mainstream leftist American political discourse about how poverty strips them equally so (if not much the greater). Indeed, race and class intertwine to place greater and greater proportions of minorities into what has been dubbed the ‘American prison-industrial complex’ every day, greater and greater proportions of the working poor – white or black or any other shade – into American prisons. Every. Single. Day. It’s a whole lot easier for the powerful and wealthy to do this if people believe that criminals can be essentially bad, if the state can find a way to make animals and savages out of the poor so as to convert them to slave labor (there are Californian inmates fighting forest fires right now for $2 a day).

Moonrise is, in the public eye, a nigh-entirely forgotten film classic which can and should be playing a vital role in the cinematic language of how we engage with these issues. It invites us to ask the hard questions and takes us on a journey toward some answers, much as Daniel searches for his own. Daniel’s quest should be our quest because our work is not done. We must engage. We must debate. We must act and organize and bring an end to our barbaric treatment of ‘criminals’, so many of whom are but the working poor pushed to the edge.

The momentum is on our side. The ground is moving under the feet of those who’d advocate for the death penalty as a coherent vehicle of justice. Even within often socially conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church, change is happening; according to an AP report, Catechism No. 2267 denotes the church’s previous policy on the death penalty as ‘outdated’: “…the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and [the church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” When you consider that according to the Pontifica Yearbook of 2017 the church estimates nearly 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, such announcements carry real opportunity.

It’s a shame to consider what happened to Borzage following Moonrise. Notes Kemp, Borzage’s film was panned by many upon its release, and following a blacklisting sometime after, the filmmaker removed himself from the world of film for ten years, then died in 1962 in a state of near-total obscurity. He never lived to see the critical reception Moonrise so richly earns today.

The world seems to grow so dark in 2018. Climate change, totalitarianism, rampant and exploitative neoliberalism, it’s all tightening around us like a noose. It’s easy to want to disengage, to run, to end it; it’s easy to paddle up the river into the swamps, losing the dogs. But no injustice was ever faced that way. Nothing ever got better via collective disengagement, collective and willful alienation. It might be hard, and it might take courage, but we need to stay engaged ’til the very end, even if only to show each other some last shreds of decency.

It helps.

RATING 10 / 10