Movie Review: Grand Canyon – Staring Into a Canyon of Despair, Looking for Hope (June 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Movie Review: Grand Canyon

by Larry James
June, 1992

As the twentieth century rushes to its surprising conclusion, post-modern men and women live with an ever-increasing awareness that no one controls life’s uncertain future. The desire and inability to control what life delivers; a sense of the utter smallness, insignificance, and yet, inherent value of each person; the increasing intensity of human suffering; and an ongoing, desperate search for meaning, belonging and purpose in life, perovide the thematic structure for Lawrence Kasdan’s gripping flm, “Grand Canyon.”

Kasdan paints a mural of urban life in the 1990s. Set in Los Angeles, the story opens with scense movng quickly from a ghetto game of pickup basketball to front row at the Forum where two old friends take in a lakers’ game. Leaving the arena, Davis, a Hollywood producer of violent movies (played by Steve Martin), comments to his best friend Mack (Kevin Kline), “We live in chaos … everyone is trying to control their fear.”

Mack discovers quickly just how true and personal his friends words can become. Trying to avoid an after-game traffic jam, Mack gets lost in one of the most dangerous sections of the city. While attempting to find his way out of the unfamiliar neighborhood, his brand new Lexus, as well as his high-tech car phone, fails him. After calling for a wrecker from a pay phone, mack returns to his car only to be mugged by a gang of street-wise thugs all under the age of 20. Enter Simon, the wrecker driver who undoubtedly saves Mack’s life in good Kasdan style (i.e. “The Big Chill”). The film introduces several characters who struggle with what have become the “typical” problems of living in the chaos of our day. By the end of the film, all share a connection to one another forged by their common search for meaning and purpose in life. Apart from its artistic appeal, “Grand Caynon” provides a crash course in identifying and understanding the gut issues faced by ordinary, secular men and women today.

First, life feels out of control. In spite of our best efforts at controlling what happens to us, no one succeeds. Throughout the film, L.A. Police Department helicopters fly overhead, patrolling the unfolding scenes below, yet incapable of intervening in any meaningful or appropriate manner to improve the quality of the life observed from above. These helicopters symbolize both the desire and the inability of people to control the events of life.

Every character tires to gain some control over life. The young gang leader who faces Simon carries a handgun. When Simon asks the young thief the favor of letting him do his job by hauling Mack’s car away, the angry youth replies he will grant the favor, but first simon must answer his questions, “Are you askin me a favor as a sign of respect or are you asking me the favor because I got the gun?” Simon respondes, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be … everything’s supposed to be different from what it is … You don’t have the gun, we ain’t having this conversation.” With a cynical smile the young thief fires back, “That’s what I thought. No gun, no respect. That’s why I always got the gun.”

The families and friends of Simon and Mack fill the screen with example after example of the fear and the futility of attempting to live in a world seemingly out of control. Each example argues convincingly that modern life promises no control.

Second, due to a growing awareness of helplessness, people live today with a sense of their own smallness and personal insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Simon turns philosopher when he asks Mack if he has ever been to the Grand Canyon. The canyon, from Simon’s perspective, makes people seem so small. “What a joke we ppeople are … Those rocks are laughing at me and my worries,” Simon muses. What we do just doesn’t seem to matter of this timeless hole in the ground.

Third, in spite of all of the negatives they face, people spend their lives searching for meaning, purpose, and belonging. For teenaged Otis, life’s purpose is found in gang membership until firsthand experience with a violent death pulls him up short. Clare, Mack’s wife, discovers meaning in mothering her soon-to-be-gone teenaged son, Roberto, and an abandoned infant she finds while jogging in her neighborhood. Simon’s family, racked by violene, physical handicaps, and divorce, provides him reason for living; though at times he wonders, like his eighty-two-year old father before him, abou the power of “habit” to keep a person going. Career drives and defines Davis. Mack searches for the meaning behind the strange, seemingly random occurrences that link as well as rescue, people from life’s tragic moments.

A real hunger for God lurks just beneath the surface throughout the movie. Simon’s preoccupation with the Grand Canyon reveals an almost universal human longing for spiritual experience. At a crticial moment in Clare’s search for direction, she cries out to Mack, “There are babies lying around in the streets. There are people living in boxes. There are people ready to shoot you if you look at them. And we are getting used to it. The world is so nuts it makes me wonder about all the choices we’ve made.” The passion of her call for some sort of shift in basic values makes this rather typical, upper-middle class mother sound like an ancient prophet of justice. Later she argues with Mack about why they should adopt the infant she found beside the road, “I believe there is a reason I found her … You can dismiss it all you want, but I’ll always believe that … What if there are miracles, Mack? maybe we don’t have any experience with miracles, so we’re slow to recognize them?”

“Grand Canyon” accurately portrays most of the fears, questions, longings, and battles confronting our contemporaries. The film provides excellent cultural “source material” for anyone concerned to better understand the secular mindset of millions of “unchurched” Americans. Through its horror and bleak nihilism, “Grand Canyon” offers Christians quite a challenge. How do we respond to a culture so gripped by fear and hopelessness? What word should today’s church speak to people like Mack and Simon? The tired slogans fo sectarian religion will not gain us a hearing from pepole living in an out-of-control world. Neither will the naive efforts of some sort of “do-gooder” social activism. The questions posed by “Grand Canyon” cut to the heart of human existence.

As I watched the movie, I thought of how Jesus talked to people caught up in the struggles of life. I remembered what he did with and for those same people. Even more, the film caused me to reflect on how hopeless my life would be without Jesus. People today live with great, gaping holes in their hearts and souls, some as large as the canyon Simon keeps calling his friend to consider. As I watched the brave little band of unlikely friends stare off into the awesome beauty of the amazing canyon at the conclusion of the film, I saw Jesus looking back. For every question this really fine movie raises, Jesus remains the only viable answer. Those of us who know the Answer personally must become more adept at developing meaningful relationships with peopple who daily ask these contemporary and relevant questions.
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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