-Thomas J. Watson
One night, several months ago, over a couple of drinks, a friend shared with me the following observation that has haunted me ever since, “You’re caught between who you want to be and who you think you should be.” That’s a pretty challenging thought to throw upon someone entering a post-college world, especially over a casual drink. I had always thought I had a pretty good grasp of who I was as an individual, and I had assumed, childishly, that dedicated pursuit of personal wants and goals would go hand in hand with such knowledge of self, but that was apparently not the case. Shaken, I felt an immediate need to re-evaluate my outlook on my future. “How can that be? I have a better understanding of myself, now more than ever before. Why would I possibly compromise that to be someone i’m not, but believe I should be? What does that even MEAN?” Questions filled my head, and still do, not just about what it simply meant as an observation of me as a person, but also of what it says about people, and why we are caught in this conflict between “want” and “should”. It’s one of the deepest, most challenging thoughts I’ve had the pleasure, and frustration, of encountering in the past year. Every so often, i’m reminded of it, whether that’s through a film, a show, a play, a quote, a book, a simple conversation, or anything, really. It speaks to human nature, and the state of our world today.
Good comedy is never just comedy. (I don’t know if someone has said that, but I’m sure they have. Since I’ve already quoted a couple people so far, i’m just going to skip bothering with that one.) Edgar Wright is a filmmaker who understands this concept and expresses it repeatedly through film. One need not look further than The World’s End’s partners in the dubbed “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy”, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, to notice that. He has a penchant for wild and raucous humor splashed with obscene violence, but he also has a passion for the underdogs amongst us. His heroes are the British equivalents of ordinary Joes (Jacks? Harrys?); the guys we would never expect to save the day. We find a sense of amusing recognition in some of their actions, and deep human empathy in others, which makes them not just funny, but real. Though Shaun and Nicholas Angel are delightfully complex and different comedic leads, End‘s Gary King might be Wright and Simon Pegg’s finest creation yet, and the film their greatest collaboration to date.
Have you ever talked to one those people who refuses to let go of their high school greatness because that’s all they’ve got? That’s Gary King. Loud, obnoxious, and seemingly self-absorbed, King comes across as a big asshole to start. It’s not hard to sympathize with his high school buddies (Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Paddy Considine, and Martin Freeman) when they initially refuse his offer to attempt the Golden Mile once more as an effort to relive the “glory days”. He’s almost unbearable, with a seeming lack of compassion, social graces, and respect for personal boundaries, not to mention a warped understanding of human nature and nostalgia, all mixed in with a insatiable thirst for pints of beer. Pegg seems to positively revel in portraying someone so uncouth and out of touch with reality, and that makes the character fascinating rather than repulsive.
What starts off as a seemingly simple story suddenly takes a bizarre turn, in true Wright fashion. Though the plot twists often bring about outlandish good fun, I always find myself fascinated with the build up. As it seems, Wright does as well. Quick cuts, odd characters, strange behavior, and an overall ominous mood create an eerie sense of foreboding that looms over the proceedings. It’s a fine line to walk, but it never strays into the area of being overdone or too much. Though editor Paul Machliss did not work on the previous “Flavours Trilogy” installments, his sharp work here does a lot to instill the tension, as well as to make it feel like a true companion to the other two films. His deft hand is also displayed exceptionally well in the clarity among the chaotic violence later on in the film. In fact, the behind the scenes departments all shine in their deceptive simplicity, and the film also boasts a wonderfully appropriate soundtrack (of the “Madchester” nature) coupled with original music by Steven Price (whose score for Gravity is one of the year’s best).
I can’t go further in discussing the film without an appreciation for Wright’s steady hand when it comes to violence on film. Always brutal and absolutely bonkers, his action sequences are highlights of his films. There is one particularly fascinating sequence where the five childhood friends are confronting five others in a vicious brawl in a pub’s men’s restroom. What could turn into a senseless beating in the hands of a lesser director, becomes a swirling painting of character and robotic blue ooze. The camera swoops and zooms around the room, catching each character as they fend off their attackers in their own personal and specific way. In fact, one could argue you learn more about these individuals from how they fight than how they interact normally. It’s hands down one of the best action sequences of the year.
But in the end, after all the head smashing and pint slamming, there’s a wonderful heart at the center of this story; a very human heart. Gary King, we come to realize, isn’t a self-absorbed prick, but a deeply flawed and wounded human being. His fascination with reliving the past and his piss-poor behavior are a mask to hide behind; a chance to escape his current life. His friends are content to live the lives and work the jobs that are expected of them by society, while Gary is more the outcast of the group and, therefore, society; the odd-ball-out. Gary is the free-spirit and independent thinker of the group, and though he is initially berated and chastised by his friends, they begin to realize the value of his outlook on life. Regardless of his faults and flaws, Gary is fighting desperately for his individuality. He is, at his core, striving to be the man he “wants” to be.
As human beings, we are all caught in this struggle between who we “want” to be and who we think we “should” be. Why? Because, from an early age, we come to understand that there are expectations from outside sources constantly upon us. That’s not to say that they are all with bad intentions, for many expectations come from those who have good intentions and love at heart. It’s challenging not to let yourself be defined by expectations, or pre-conceived ideas, because they are reinforced for us constantly. We are implanted daily with notions of “this is who you should be” from countless sources. I believe there’s also a fear that is rooted in such thinking. Is it that we fear rejection from others if we are deemed as being different? Is it our desire for acceptance that fuels our willingness to conform? Do we in turn desire safety and believe we will gain it if we meet the supposed ideals of our friends, society, or the world? I don’t know. I don’t have absolute answers to any of these questions, or countless others, but ever since that conversation several months ago, they’ve been impossible to shake.
The true beauty of The World’s End is that it challenges this trend in human nature; the fears and frustrations of societal expectations. In its final moments, what matters most to humanity is its independence; its constant desire for freedom, and its willingness to fight for its voice in the face of destruction. Our self-awareness is a gift and a burden, but it makes us human, and it makes us individuals. We have the ability to be who we “want” to be, so why not fight for it? Why shouldn’t we freely express our thoughts and opinions with others? Why shouldn’t we shape our path, our life’s journey, the way we are free to? Why shouldn’t we find our true calling and pursue it with energy, and excitement, and joy, and passion? As Ke$ha so profoundly put it, we are who we are. Understanding oneself is an important and meaningful journey, one that we all must take, but pursuing a life true to that self is a wonderful journey of its own, and, I believe, the results can be strongly life-affirming and life-changing.