One of my favorite film scenes of all time is this one in The Legend of Bagger Vance, a Robert Redford film critically panned for the most part but one of which I love almost every minute.
The film follows Captain Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), a young man who is cripplingly haunted by his experience as a solider in World War I. He’s isolated himself from his former friends and girlfriend, spending most of him time drunk and playing cards. Then the townsfolk (and his former girlfriend) call on him to represent Savannah in a professional golf tournament already including the legendary Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. A promising professional golfer before the war, Junuh flat out refuses because he’s “lost his swing” (in more ways than one)—but that night the mysterious Bagger Vance (Will Smith) walks out of the darkness and begins guiding Junuh not only in finding his swing but in starting the walk towards healing and returning to life.
My favorite scene comes near the end of the film and the golf tournament, in which Junuh has (under Bagger’s guidance) become a serious competitor with a chance of winning. But by this point (as a result of his own pride and choices) he’s off his game. He’s thwacked the ball into a patch of woods and suddenly his whole past crushes down upon him. It is a turning point for Junuh—and it is an incredibly moving and beautiful image of repentance and redemption.
Bagger follows the distraught Junuh into the woods and discovers him bent over, his hands on his knees. Confronted with his past and his own glaring weaknesses and flaws, an at-the-end-of-his-rope Junuh tells Bagger, “I can’t do this.”
“Well,” Bagger tells him, “why don’t you just loose your grip up a smidge? A man’s grip ‘n his club is—”
“That’s not what I’m talking’ about,” Junuh interrupts.
“I know,” says Bagger.
Junah looks over at Bagger, “No, you don’t.”
Bagger looks at him. “What I’m talkin’ about is a game,” says Bagger. “Game that can’t be won. Only played.”
Junuh tells Bagger he just doesn’t get it, that he can’t understand.
Bagger starts to walk slowly around Junuh. He tells him, “I don’t need to understand. Ain’t a soul on this entire earth ain’t got a burden to carry he don’t understand. You ain’t alone in that. But you been carryin’ this one long enough. Time to go on. Lay it down.”
Junuh looks at him. “I don’t know how.”
“You got a choice,” Bagger tells him. “You can stop. Or you can start.”
“Start what?” Juhuh straightens up, staring down at the ball.
“Right back to where you always been. And then stand there. Still. Real still.” Bagger stops in front of Junuh. “And remember.”
“It’s too long ago,” Junuh says, feeling the distance and weight of everything that’s happened in his life.
“Oh, no, sir,” says Bagger. “It was just a moment ago.”
Junuh looks at Bagger, stunned, in part because those were the very words that his former girlfriend had spoken to him earlier in the day, words Bagger could never have overheard.
Bagger gets to the point: “Time for you to come on out of the shadows, Junuh. Time for you to choose.”
Junuh looks towards the light (framed like a doorway) shinning through the woods from the fairway. “I can’t,” he says.
“Yes, you can,” says Bagger. “But you ain’t alone. I’m right here with you. I been here all along.”
Then Bagger holds out a club for Junuh, not only inviting him to finish the golf game but inviting him back into life—a game, Bagger’s told him, that “can’t be won, only played”—and to be the person he was created and designed to be.
And Junuh swings—oh my, does he swing.
And it’s here that I get it. While I’ve known for ages that repentance is the act of confronting sin, admiting we’re going the wrong way, laying down burdens and turning away from it all, for a good portion of my life I must confess that I’ve experienced the concept driven by fear (mostly of hell) and guilt and a heavy sense of condemnation. But here, watching the joy and freedom with which Junuh swings that club, I see a much larger, fuller and beautiful image of the act. Repentance isn’t only about laying it all down and turning away, but about turning and walking into something incomprehensibly more: Life, Love, Forgiveness, Freedom, Grace, Beauty, Joy and all those things the Kingdom is filled and brimming over with. It’s about walking out of darkness, yes, but it’s oh so much more about walking into Light—a place that overwhelms and swallows anything that came before it. Here I get it: repentance is actually an act of pure joy and incredible, undeniable, beautiful life.
And behold, Jesus has been there all along. We don’t need to walk anywhere, cross any bridges or distances. He’s right there, right beside us no matter where we are, asking us to choose him and Life beyond our dreams.
It should be noted that the spirituality in The Legend of Bagger Vance (much more so in the novel than the film) is mostly Eastern in nature, but nonetheless this scene really resonates with me as a follower of Jesus, giving me an image to understand the beauty and power of repentance and new life. And that is in large part why this film--which brings God-talk into open spaces--is one of my favorites
(Images: Dreamworks/2oth Century Fox)