Film Feature: Reign Over Me (2007)


We live in a mad world. In the midst of countless circumstances brought about by the cruel hands of human existence, lies our insanity and the search for the cure. Such a cure, as embodied in all of man’s feeble attempt to understand his condition, has essentially been the most perplexing, if not the most difficult, to man since time immemorial.

Even in the 20th century discourse in psychoanalysis, man remained only an object, but not the owner, of his entire being. For there lies beneath his consciousness the ground of the unconscious — uncontrolled and untamed even by his most fervent will, ignited by sexual desires and sensuous passions he never knew of, slaved by thoughts he thought was long forgotten.

In the course of centuries the naive self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science.

The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the center of the universe […] The second blow fell when biological research destroyed man’s supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom […]

But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even the master in its own house.  [1]

The elusiveness of the answer to man’s most daunting questions and the frailty of words that characterizes his human predicament are two of the wildest, most exacting, task to ever been shouldered by man. In the midst of life, we find death. In the midst of joy, we find pain. At the very core of our understanding of life is a misunderstanding of all that make and break all that is human within us.

Reign Over Me (2007) is an attempt at life. It is a cinematic voyage to uncover man from all of life’s greatest glory to all of life’s greatest pain. It is an endeavor to find words to define humanity as it is seen from the life of not just one character but as well as the rest of them. It is an attempt, like many others, to delve into the abyss of existence, to probe into man’s deepest thoughts regarding life and loss. It depicts almost too perfectly what every human being encounters in his lifetime: the fragile question of what it means to live life and what it means to lose it.

Behind the facade of everyday living lies a Charlie Fineman in all of us. For a typical audience, the main character is a lonely cliché wrapped up in one of the saddest stories to ever came out of the 9/11 tragedy, albeit fictional. A married man who lost his beautiful wife and three daughters to a hijacked plane, and went mad and isolated thereafter. But for the audience who knows the language of the soul, that man is more than just Charlie Fineman. He is a vivid reflection of what every human being encounters in life, what every human being is struggling for.

Careful observation would render the careful viewer a wide array of hints and suggestion throughout the entire film. However symbolic interpretations of any sort imply a subjective framework to any objective material, symbols nonetheless speak of a general language common to all men.

At the beginning of the film, we see Charlie Fineman as a deranged solitary man. All too soon we feel the urgency to extend our sympathy to him the moment we knew of his loss. We fixate our attention to this unfortunate man and we wait for the absolution that must soon be casted upon him. Then some of the characters are introduced; supporting roles as the industry calls them. But as the story progresses, we see the immediate connection between Fineman’s life and their lives. We see that as the story goes, there isn’t just one Fineman in the movie. All of the characters is Charlie.

A dentist suffocated by his relationship with his wife and with his colleagues. A wife who feel estranged from her husband.  A divorced woman who feeds on her delusional dreams, damaged by her failed relationship. Parents who lost a daughter, granddaughters. A landlady who only wanted to help. A practicing psychologist who is looked down by everyone as young and incapable. They were all like Charlie. Fractured from the inside out by the dominion of life. Trapped in the amber of the inescapable now. Maybe in some sense Charlie’s story is a little more grave than the rest of them, and we respect the magnitude of the character’s painful loss. But whatever the degree of difference that separate their struggles from one another, in the end they all share the same pain and they all have a chance at healing.

Perhaps one of the most striking details in the film is the kitchen. Remodeled by Charlie for what seemed like a thousand times, the kitchen symbolizes a part of Charlie that is forever beyond any kind of salvation or repair. The kitchen is a representation of a tragedy, a loss. The remodeling represents Charlie’s hope for undoing what was done, a remuneration for the damage that was to become the central disfiguring element in his life.

Another aspect of the film that is subject to historical and genealogical analysis is the crucial role of the State, more specifically the court and the medical institution. In the language of Foucault, these systems [2] are made to exclude the invalids, which in the story, includes poor Charlie Fineman.

By the end of the film we see how these powerful state systems tossed around Charlie’s little tragedy, even making a show of the pictures of Charlie’s wife and daughters. In the face of a most honorable judge it is plain to see the inequality that man himself has created in history: the legal system that gives power to a man in his highest robe to put away a man in headphones. The next few words from another character, Donna Remar, sound painfully true:

I don’t know how they can’t see that he’s just got a broken heart. It’s so broken, his poor heart.”

It is probably the most heartbreaking scene in the entire movie. It is that particular moment of silence when we all stop looking for reasons and simply allow the pain to carry us home. It is a moment of truth, of salvation; the sweetest saddest plight of comfort.

The only thing that lacked precision, in so far as this paper’s author is concerned, was the ending part. For one, it was highly peculiar for an honorable judge to delegate the power to rule upon judicial controversies to people outside of legal power. Even to argue on the matter concerning the civility of the case was a tad bit improbable. Perhaps in real life a real Charlie Fineman would have been sent to the sanatorium and not to the freedom the State so rightfully denies to the individual.

Reign Over Me is a hope movie. And if there is one thing that a movie of that kind offers to its audience, it is the moment, rare and revered, to pause for a little while and to reflect upon life. Surely I would have hoped for a different ending, one in which the plot remains faithful to the truth of the matter. The truth that man is perpetually a slave of his madness, that man is forever beyond his cure. As pessimistic as it may sound, man is never liberated from his derangement by mere compassion from people around him; neither can he thrive in anybody’s affection for all time.

But on the brighter side we can always hope for the better. The simple fact that the plot culminated in one happy denouement, one in which all of the characters, however deranged and depressed they all seemed at the beginning, have finally found their dwelling place is something we can always thankfully consider.

There is no better way to put into words or into pictures everything that portrays the fragility of the human condition. There are no numbers to calculate the intensity of our happiness and our pain. Indeed there is no mathematics to love and letting go. But even in the world obscured by the vagueness of our existence, we can always look upon Charlie Fineman and remember: that even when life pounds its mighty fist upon us, smashing us until we’re all bruised and broken, we can always have that final moment to sing : “Reign o’er me.” ♪

Nothing beats the Pearl Jam cover.


[1] Freud, Sigmund (1915). Introductory Lectures in Psychoanalysis
[2] Foucault, Michel in one of his most significant work Discipline and Punish (1977) wrote: “Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons?”



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