The Road to Absolution:
Jake Lonergan’s Penance in Cowboys and Aliens
by the Rev. S. Randall Toms, Ph.D.
Warning! This review contains spoilers!
When Jake Lonergan, played by Daniel Craig, awakens with a case of amnesia in an Arizona desert, 1873, he soon finds himself surrounded by three men who appear to have been taking scalps for bounty. They stop to ask directions from Lonergan, explaining that they are on the road to a nearby town called Absolution. The concept of “absolution” figures prominently in this movie that mixes the western and science fiction genres. Though Lonergan has partial amnesia, with the result that he can’t remember who he is or where he came from, he does remember enough about himself to realize that he is someone that no one should trouble. He knows how to choose a good revolver by carefully listening to the mechanism. He knows he is a tough guy that can handle any threat to his own personal safety. He has been wounded by a gunshot, or so he thinks, but can’t remember how he received the gash in his side. Lonergan rides into Absolution and looks for a place where he can wash up and have his wound treated. The doctor in town also happens to be the town preacher, Meacham (Clancy Brown). The preacher senses that Lonergan must have a shady past, telling Lonergan that only two kinds of people get shot, criminals or victims. Lonergan can’t remember which one he is. Sensing that Lonergan is probably guilty of some terrible crimes, the preacher tells him that he can’t absolve him of his sins if he can’t remember what they were. We aren’t told what Christian denomination Meacham belongs to, but it is interesting that he uses the word “absolve.” Normally, when we think of ministers speaking of having the authority to absolve, we think of those in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican branches of Christendom. The preacher in Cowboys and Aliens doesn’t seem to fit into any of those categories, but he does appear to know what is necessary in order for him to grant absolution. While those ministers within Christian traditions who believe they have the authority to pronounce a person absolved may differ in some details as to what is required of those who seek absolution, there is a broad agreement about what is necessary. As Cowboys and Aliens unfolds, we see that Jake Lonergan is also “on the road to absolution,” spiritual absolution, as he does what is necessary to absolved of the sins he has committed.
When the preacher says that he can’t absolve Lonergan for his sins if he can’t remember what those sins were, he is pointing to one of the first requirements for absolution, namely, confession of sin. Throughout Scripture we are told that if we are going to be forgiven for our sins, we must confess them. The Apostle John wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). David also points to the necessity of confession in order for forgiveness to take place: “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the LORD; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5). The Scripture also contains a warning to those who will not confess their sins: “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.” (Proverbs 28:13). Jake Lonergan is not trying to hide his sin. He simply cannot remember what he has done. The sheriff of Absolution, John Taggart (Keith Carradine), recognizes Jake Lonergan from a “Wanted” poster, and arrests him. (Just as an interesting bit of trivia, “Taggart” is the title of a 1964 western based on the Louis L’Amour novel of the same title. “Taggart” was the film debut for Keith Carradine’s famous half-brother, David Carradine of Kung Fu fame). Whether or not it was intentional in the film, the sheriff’s role as the voice of the law parallels what the Law of God is designed to do in bringing a person to repentance and confession. In Romans 3:20, St. Paul writes “by the law is the knowledge of sin.” When Lonergan asks the sheriff what he is charged with, the Sheriff reads off the list of crimes from the “Wanted” poster. Again, making our sin known to us is necessary in order for us to begin our journey on the road to absolution. If we are going to confess our sins, then we must be made aware that we are guilty of sins that need to be confessed. In other words, there must be an objective standard of righteousness by which to measure ourselves. This objective standard is summarized in the moral law, or the Ten Commandments. When we look at ourselves in the light of God’s law, we see that we have sinned and are in need of God’s forgiveness. The law brings conviction of sin, exposing our need for absolution.
When the sheriff reads Lonergan his list of crimes, Lonergan doesn’t seem to experience any kind of guilt or remorse, because he has no personal knowledge of those sins. But as the film progresses, Lonergan begins to remember the sins he has committed. Lonergan, as a career outlaw, has transgressed the laws of God and man in many ways, but he finally experiences a sense of guilt when he remembers that his sin was responsible for the death of the woman he loved. Eventually, Lonergan remembers that he was involved in a gold robbery. Proudly, he comes back to his home and displays all of the gold for his lover. Though she is a prostitute, she rebukes Lonergan for his theft, realizing that it is blood money. Lonergan is unaware that aliens are on the prowl in the Old West, looking for gold. Their sensors detect the gold, beam it through the roof of Lonergan’s house, and abduct his lover by means of an alien spacecraft. Lonergan is also abducted, and when he regains consciousness, he finds himself lying beside his lover in an alien laboratory where they are performing some of the horrible experiments so typical in alien abduction stories. As Lonergan watches his lover disintegrate before his eyes, he realizes the terrible consequences of his sin. Lonergan has been guilty of many sins in his life, but the sin that seems to be most prevalent in this film is love for gold. When his lover protests that the gold was obtained illegally, Lonergan justifies his action by saying that the gold will get them all of the things that they need. But in the next instant, the very gold that would have made their lives so much easier, becomes the reason for her abduction, her death, and the death of the dream of their life together. St. Paul tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil, or “all kinds” of evil. In Cowboys and Aliens, the love of gold, both by humans and aliens, is the source of all kinds of evil and suffering.
After realizing that his sins have resulted in the death of the one he loved, Lonergan seems to undergo a transformation. Far from being a man who was willing to betray his friends and harm others for the sake of gold, he now becomes a model of self-sacrifice, willing to endanger himself in order to rescue other people who have been abducted by aliens. Saving others from the aliens appears to be an act of penance. There is nothing that he can do to bring back his lover, but he can atone in some way for his past by seeing the others rescued. In some branches of Christianity, the road to absolution involves penance or restitution. Penance is sometimes defined as an act of devotion or restitution that atones for the sin that the person has committed. In other churches, penance is not a form of satisfaction, for their belief is that Christ has offered that satisfaction on the cross. In order to be absolved, some form of restitution may be necessary as a proof that genuine repentance has taken place. Lonergan demonstrates that he has truly repented by seeking to deliver those who have been abducted.
Lonergan is almost transformed into a Christ figure who is willing to sacrifice himself in order for others to be saved. He even has a gash in his side, reminding us of the wound that Christ received by the spear of the Roman soldier at the scene of the crucifixion. But the true Christ figure in the film is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who actually does give her life for the sake of others. Though not an exact parallel of the Incarnation of Christ, Ella is a visitor from another world who has taken human form in order that she might rescue human beings from the aliens. She describes herself as one who came to earth from a place “above the stars.” At one point, Ella, is even resurrected from the dead so that she might continue her quest to save the humans. It is significant that throughout this film, the aliens are referred to as “demons.” Early on, the sheriff’s grandson, Emmett Taggart, played by Noah Ringer, asks the preacher if these creatures are demons. The preacher says that he isn’t sure, but in some ways they fit the description. The Apostle Paul said that the mission of the servant of God was to instruct people so that “that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will” (II Tim. 2:26). These people have been taken captive by these “demons,” and Ella and Lonergan are engaged in the battle to deliver them from this enslavement. It is through his association with Ella that Lonergan is eventually transformed into someone who is, like her, capable of giving himself sacrificially for others. In one of the scenes that demonstrates Lonergan’s transformation, he hops aboard a speeding spacecraft just to save Ella. Ella and Lonergan fall from the spacecraft into the river. It may be too much of a stretch, but filmmakers often give us pictures that they did not intend, but Ella and Lonergan are both “baptized.” The Apostle Paul said that “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). Through being united with Ella in “baptism,” Lonergan emerges as a new person. He proves that he is a new person by giving himself sacrificially to liberate others from the demons who have taken the people captive.
As the preacher is dying, he tells Lonergan that God’s doesn’t care what you were, but what you are, which is a pretty good description of how God looks upon those who truly repent. Sometimes the doctrine of “justification” is defined as “just as if I had never sinned.” When God forgives us, he no longer holds those sins against us. The prophet Micah tells us that God will “cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The Psalmist put it his way: “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). As Cowboys and Aliens ends, we see that Jake Lonergan is a new man. St. Paul describes Christians as those who have “put off the old man with his deeds” (Col. 3:9). As a matter of fact, in Biblical language, we can say that the old Jake Lonergan is dead. As Jake is about to leave town, he talks with Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) and Sheriff Taggart who invite him to stay in Absolution. Lonergan reminds them that he is a wanted man. Dolarhyde and Taggart say that they would be telling people that Jake Lonergan died in those caverns where he was fighting the aliens. Jake has been on the road to absolution, he has been absolved, and he is now a new man.
The word “absolution” comes from a word that means “loosening or removing from imperfection.” In Christian theology, “absolution” is an act of God’s grace whereby people receive assurance of pardon from their past sins if they are truly penitent. This grace comes to us as a result of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our sins. Though the need for Christ’s cleansing blood is never explicitly stated in the film, the cross is in the background. In one of opening scenes, when the preacher is stitching Lonergan’s wound, there is a cross on the wall behind the preacher. After the preacher is killed, his grave is marked with a cross, which in his case is particularly appropriate, since, like Christ, he died to save others. The forgiveness , the absolution purchased for us on the cross, is available to all those who truly repent. When we sin, we need to travel “the road to absolution.” In some ways, Jake Lonergan illustrates for us that the road to absolution is through an acknowledgment of our sins, a sincere confession of them, making restitution wherever necessary, and turning from those sins with a true hatred for them. This hatred for our sins is often produce in us as it was in Jake Lonergan, through a realization of the pain and suffering our sins have caused others.