Grief, as Explained by John Wick

I am very fortunate to have never experienced personal grief. I haven’t lost any close relatives or friends yet, although there are many living people who are dead to me. I’ve had a morbid curiosity about the experience of grief, because it’s known to be a significant part of humanity. Even the robots on Westworld know what it feels like, it being referred to as the “cornerstone” of their realistic demeanor. I felt like I was missing out on a special kind of sadness, like there was a blank space in my collection of depressing memories, until I watched the movie John Wick. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a man who returns to his past criminal life to exact revenge on a guy who stole his car and killed his puppy. But to me, it’s about a man struggling with enormous grief after his wife’s passing.

First, I need to share that I strongly relate to John for his ability to hold a grudge. I, too, have invested hours of my time and energy into exacting revenge against a person or group who slighted me. Given the lengths to which John goes throughout the movie to make the car thief pay for his crime, I feel pretty confident that John is a Scorpio, like me. There is no other sign in the zodiac with the drive to relentlessly fight, shoot, and chase people down, even after the main target was eliminated. Our pettiness is unmatched, do not @ me. For the bulk of the film, John’s grief manifests as a controlled fury. He is a collision of commercial masculinity and hurt feelings, firing a bullet for every tear he couldn’t shed for his wife or the puppy she gifted him posthumously. His default setting is cool stoicism, having previously lived as the baddest bitch in an underworld of assassins before retiring to live as a taxpayer with the woman he loved. As a side note, it’s kind of hard to imagine how a man devoid of emotion managed to maintain a happy relationship for 5 years, but maybe his wife preferred guys that she could project her own emotions on. We’ll never know because she’s dead and also not real.

Since sadness is so foreign to John, he spends the earliest scenes in the movie careening between the first 3 stages of the Kübler-Ross model, alternating between looking stunned (denial), quietly negotiating both this new loneliness and puppy to care for (bargaining), and recklessly driving his car around an empty tarmac and screaming his rage at the unfairness of his wife’s death (anger). That moment on the tarmac is the only time he allows himself to unwind the tight bundle that his emotions are wrapped in. The intrusion of the Russian gangsters in his home is a gift: the man who distanced himself from his feelings now has an outlet for the monstrous grief living within him. That scene when he smashes the concrete floor of his basement to unearth the components of his old life was also him ripping the lid off of his feelings, a gun-wielding sorcerer summoning his favorite demon. I bet John was singing the lyrics “You must not know ’bout me / You must know ’bout me” from Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” as he was working, knowing that he would even surprise himself with his newfound obsession with punishing the young man and his friends. The young mobsters weren’t the reason his wife was gone, but they may as well have been. John doesn’t know what to do with the range of emotions he’s living with now, but he does have something to focus them on.

John exhibits extraordinary strength throughout the film, but allows himself to be fully consumed in his rampage. He doesn’t seem to experience depression, the fourth stage of grief, but as someone who doesn’t smile often, I can attest that it is pretty easy to mask it. In one of the final scenes of the film, he re-watches his favorite video of his wife as he lies in an unknown parking lot, badly wounded. He’s accomplished his mission, nearly dying in the process, and all that’s left is the truth: None of it brought his wife back. When he stumbles into a veterinary clinic to patch himself up, he notices a dog in one of the kennels. His wife wanted him to have a companion, and he honors her by taking one home. Plus, he gets to have a cool-ass pit bull instead of the weak-ass beagle she picked out for him. He walks on with his new friend, accepting the loss of his wife and the uncertainty of what lies ahead of him. Stage 5: acceptance. Credits roll.

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