By Tony Crescio
Mel Gibson stars as John Link in the 2016 film, Blood Father, the story of a down-and-out, ex-con father looking for his estranged 17 year old daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty). We first join John in a church where he is attending an AA meeting on his birthday. A happy occasion for most, John has had a rough go of it in life. He has spent the last several years in prison for his involvement in the activity of a biker gang which he had been a part of in what he will refer to throughout the movie as a “previous life.” The celebration of a birthday then, for John, is not so much a celebration, a time to reminisce on what goodness he has experienced in life, but on what he has lost to time. In John’s words, “I’m a real success story, been sober for two years, one inside the joint and one out here. Before that, I was never clean for very long…I got a kid I can’t find, except on a milk carton, an ex that won’t talk to me; every skill I ever had, every friend I ever knew is now a parole violation.” John lives in a run-down dustbowl of a trailer park where he runs “Missing Link” (an obvious allusion to his missing daughter), a tattoo parlor, right out of his trailer.
It is in this last detail that we begin to see John’s deeper and hidden meaning. He is a tattoo artist, an individual who, in a very concrete way, people walk away from encountering changed. But more than that, the name of his “tattoo parlor” gives something else away, John’s whole life revolves only around one thing, finding the daughter that he has lost.
When we join up with Lydia, we find that she has fallen in with a pretty tough crowd of drug dealers, the girlfriend of the nephew of a powerful Mexican drug lord. As it turns out, Lydia is not only the girlfriend of this wannabe drug kingpin named Jonah (Diego Luna), but he involves her in his work as well. When we first join Lydia she has just purchased a whole slew of bullets for Jonah and his gang, as they are about to go and bring some tenants, who have stolen from him, to “justice.” The situation quickly escalates and Jonah demands that Lydia prove her love to him by killing the thieving tenant, lifting up his shirt to remind her that she is his, as evidenced by her name tattooed on his stomach. When she hesitates, Jonah points a gun at her and demands even more adamantly, and as the situation spirals out of control, Lydia pulls the trigger and accidentally shoots Jonah before running off, thinking she has left him for dead.
This is the situation we find our two characters in; one, a single-minded father in desperate search of his daughter; the other, a 17 year old druggie, on the run from her boyfriend’s buddies as they try to hunt her down and kill her for what she has done to Jonah. Like many of us, it is when we find ourselves in the midst of deep crisis when we finally turn back from our broken ways and look again toward our Father as Lydia does. And, like many of us, when we first turn back to him, it is for an easy solution, a quick way out of a jam. Lydia calls John and tells him that she just needs some money to get far away from where she is. In other words, she doesn’t want to deal with her deeper problems, she wants to run away from them, but as she will soon find out, that is impossible.
John tells Lydia to stay put and he will come get her and get her the help she needs. He picks her up in the middle of Los Angeles he tells her “You’re okay, I gotcha now,” and as they drive back to his desert trailer she thanks him for picking her up and tells him she will pay him back everything that she owes him for his help. As John drives we see the tattooed image of his daughter on his left forearm, the image of an innocent girl who no longer seems to exist, the girl who John has been looking for all of these years, whose image he will try to restore.
In the spiritual life, reuniting with our Father isn’t the end of our being saved, it is just the beginning. This is exactly what we find in the case of Lydia. She has been reunited with her father, but she is still hooked on drugs, and worse, she has a group of men after her that want her back, not to have her, but to kill her. For all the danger Lydia is in she remains largely oblivious to the brokenness of the situation she was in; she still holds on to the belief that Jonah really did love her, and that she can simply run away from her situation as if nothing ever happened. Oftentimes we find ourselves in a similar situation, we believe the world really loves us, that it has something lasting to offer us, but trusting in the world we are fated to experience pain, shame, and emptiness. Moreover, as we see in Lydia’s case, we don’t just walk away from our previous misdeeds and bad habits, they remain scars on the very depths of our being, and they need time and the medicine of real love to heal.
John sets out to help his daughter get clean and start a new life, but the men who want her dead are relentless. At first, John and Lydia simply run as fast and as far away as they can get, but ultimately, the men who want Lydia capture her, forcing John into an impossible situation. John sets up an exchange with the drug dealers in the middle of the desert, and tells them that he only wants to see his daughter one last time, after that, they can kill him.
This is where John Link unmistakably becomes the Christ figure. The scene can be read as an allegory of both the Passion and the harrowing of hell. Just as Jesus went to the edge of God-forsakenness to bring the lost human family back to life, so John goes straight into hell to save his once lost daughter. As he does battle he is wounded several times, just as the innocent Jesus took on all the scars and fallenness of the human family in his sojourn upon earth. And as John dispels the last enemy, he takes a mortal wound to the chest. He has given his life to the full to save the daughter only he knew, the innocent girl tattooed on his arm, whose image only he had the courage to save, whose life only he loved enough to give his whole life for. As John sits up against a vehicle dying he looks at his daughter one last time and says “You sure are a good girl, you sure are.” As the dying John falls into the arms of his daughter we see a second tattoo on the shoulder of the same arm that bears the image of his daughter that reads “lost soul.”
In this last sequence we are able to note various theories of how our salvation was won. For instance, the way John carries the image of his daughter on his arm and gives his life for her saying ‘you sure are a good girl,’ call to mind the works of Irenaeus and Athanasius who incorporated the idea that it was fitting that the One in whose image fallen human had been created would come to restore that image, which in effect would restore their dignity by bringing them back into relationship with their source of life, God himself. Additionally, we see a strong hint of what, since the time of Anselm, has come to be known as the penal substitution theory of salvation, remaining so especially within the Protestant tradition following the influence of Calvin and Barth. This theory of salvation tells us that we couldn’t save ourselves, that the brokenness of the human family due to original sin was so great that the only thing that could save us was a pure and sinless victim, the Incarnate Son of God, whose death alone would be sufficient to redeem the fallen human family from sin and death. Lydia’s situation parallels this almost exactly. She had gotten herself into a situation that she couldn’t save herself from, and she was completely helpless until the one who had given her life came to save her. Lastly, in the works of the Fathers of the Church; most famously Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa; we find opposing claims come into play when it comes to our lives; on one side stands the devil, making the claim that he is owed our death, and on the other stands our true Father, whose love is so deep that he is willing to pay the debt we owe in the hopes that we may once again experience the love we were made for. We can see at play in the opposing claims of Jonah and John, who each vie for the right to Lydia’s life.
The great amount of violence and vulgar language makes Blood Father a difficult movie to see such beauty in (and thus, inappropriate for young viewers), but for those who are of an appropriate age to view it, the film dramatically captures both the price that our lives were bought with, and the love that compelled our salvation. Even those elements of the movie which might distract us from such a profound message serve as a means of perfecting the allegory. For in the ugliness and dysfunction of the world that surrounds Lydia and into which John enters, we see the severely broken state of the human family into which Christ entered to bring us salvation. Scarred by the fall of our first parents, we find ourselves in a situation that requires more than human strength to overcome, for it requires overcoming the powers of sin and death, powers we continually make ourselves liable to due to our enfeebled state. However, we, as Lydia, have a Creator who loved us so much that no price was too high to pay for our happiness. Thus, in John Link’s determination we see a lover that is willing to go straight into hell in order to give the one loved a chance to live life to its full in freedom. If we are able to see the echo of Christ’s love in this film, it makes our time well worth it; for it serves as a perfect modern day allegory of the apex of beauty, which in a world so broken can only be found in a perfect sacrifice of love.
The movie ends where it began, within the confines of a small desert church. Lydia is inside at an AA meeting, where her words to the group beautifully capture the response we must continually call to mind if we are to make the most of the life-saving work of Christ in our life: “I’ve been sober a year, but I miss my dad so much that sometimes I can’t sleep at night, but I tell myself that he’s watching over me. Sometimes there’s this shame that almost breaks my back but I tell myself when you owe your life to someone, you better live it, so I just say, thank you.” This type of response is exactly what the Church calls us to exercise in the celebration of the Eucharist (taken from the Greek for thanksgiving); we are asked to recall the sacrifice made for us (as it is made present to us) in order that we might give thanks for the love so completely given, and live life emulating such love. For a life lived in imitation of the love which sought us ought is not merely the only fitting response, it is the only response our God desires in return.
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.