Theme: The Tower of Self
"But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless. It was like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere."
The title, About Schmidt, says it all. Yes, this is a movie about a man named Schmidt, but more than that, Warren Schmidt is a man all about himself. This film is simply the story of one lost man and his deliverance from the tower of self.
The first scenes set the stage for the story that follows. The opening camera shot is of a mid-size American city, which could be almost anywhere. That is the point; this is "every man's" town. As the camera moves in, it focuses on one dominant tower, capturing it from different angles - especially from the bottom looking up. This is the Woodmen Life Insurance Building, and its name has been carefully selected. The implication being that to insure one's life, this is the tower you must climb, and by the time you get to the top, you will have become a "wood-man."
This is exactly what the next scene reveals as the camera moves inside1 to find Warren Schmidt sitting like a bump on a log in his empty office, silently waiting for the end of his career (life). The next few scenes reveal that Warren's life is as empty as his office. With his dreams and passions long gone, all he has left is a dead marriage and a superficial relationship with his only child. The journey to the room at the top has led only to discarded boxes at the bottom, a powerful metaphor for the man himself. At his retirement dinner, a picture of a prize bull is juxtaposed with Schmidt's own portrait. Herein lies the subtle theme of the move, "A man without life2 is nothing more than a beast of the field."
God will go to any length to reach an empty, lost man like Warren Schmidt. So, it is no surprise that He uses an orphan child in Tanzania to open the door to Warren's heart. Channel surfing, Warren stumbles across a television promotion for "Child Reach". Again, the name has a double meaning. Warren believes that by sending in his $22 per month, he will save Ndugu Umbo from disease, dysentery, and death. However, it will be this child that reaches Warren and touches him with unconditional love.
The letters that Warren begins to write to Ndugu are like a breach in a dam, slowly releasing the pent up waters of Warren Schmidt's life. The first letter reveals that Warren is no different than any other person. As a child he believed he was special, had a destiny, and was meant to be significant3. Somewhere all of that was lost, and he became just like a head of cattle, just a part of the herd.
Once a dam is breached, whole chunks start to break away. This happens to Warren when his wife, Helen, suddenly dies. The cattle motif is subtly inserted at her funeral, when Warren looks up and sees a cattle trailer being hosed down. Leaving his wife and his mixed emotions about her behind him, Warren now shifts to his only daughter, Jeanie. Still lost in himself, he is searching for someone to cling to.
Rebuffed by Jeanie, Warren makes a detour from his trip to Colorado. He decides to take a "road trip" back in time. Visiting his first home on Locust Avenue, he hears the happy voices of childhood. Moving onto his college fraternity, he finds his old composite picture; it is a picture of life before the fall. Through these scenes his heart is steadily being softened. Now, he talks with people (the Indian)4 and even buys the Hummels, which he so recently mocked.
All of this is the preparation for the real surgery that must be done on his heart. The sins of anger, fear, and unforgiveness must be dealt with. The surgical scalpel is given to Vicki Rusk in the motor home scene. It is important to notice the contrast of the two motor homes that precede this scene. It is a contrast of two very different lives. Warren's motor home is the super deluxe model, but it is cold, dark, and empty. John Rusk's smaller home is warm, cozy, and filled with light. The Rusk's are on an adventure together; they have intimacy, they have life, and they have family. Warren who doesn't even have a wallet photo of Jeanie, is more like the lonely cattle he has passed on the road, silently peering out of their trailers while on their way to the slaughterhouse. It is no wonder that Vicki Rusk can see through the grief and despair to an angry, fearful, and lonely heart.
The scene that follows Warren's ejection from the Rusk motor home is the very heart of the film. Fleeing and overcome with truth, Warren has to pull over his motor home. Notice how he walks to an unpaved road and then bends over. This is a place he has never traveled to before, the uncharted land of soul searching (phone call to Ray) and forgiveness (to Helen). Sitting on top of this motor home that night, it is as if he has entered a sanctuary. Before him is a small altar with three candles5 and four Hummels. Warren is broken, humble, and seeking forgiveness. The shooting star is the answer to his question6 and he receives it by faith (crossing himself). His next letter to Ndugu tells how he woke from his night in the wilderness a new man. Having had his epiphany, he sets out to "save" his daughter.
The truth is that, "The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Warren will not be able to save Jeanie in any sense of the word. Jeanie has grown up to become just like her parents - angry, fearful, lonely, bitter. Her father's sudden interest in her life is too little too late. The final cattle picture seems to underscore this - a giant piece of fattened beef being carved at her wedding reception.
On his way home, Warren muses in another letter to Ndugu that his own journey seems very insignificant when compared to others. Still seeing things from a worldly perspective, Warren returns home, weak and defeated. He still struggles with one question, "What difference has my life made?".
The answer comes not from the world or from his family, but from a six-year old orphan in Tanzania. Now, it is Warren's turn to receive a letter. Too young to read or write, Ndugu has painted Warren a picture. The stick figures holding hands under the bright sun convey with childish simplicity the message, "You are loved; your life has made a difference." The movie ends; Warren Schmidt's empty heart is now filled with joy.
Scripture: Matthew 18:1-6
1. The building is a metaphor for the man. When the camera moves inside, the office becomes a picture of his
2. The New Testament has two words that refer to "life": Bios which is the body and soul in union which
produces natural life, and ZoŽ which is the soul/spirit in union with God which produces eternal life
(John 1:1-5). Warren has Bios, but not ZoŽ.
3. In Genesis 1:26, God gives human kind dominion over the zoological kingdom. In other words, human beings
had great significance, as they were created to govern the earth. All of this was lost in "The Fall"
(Genesis 3), but we still retain a memory of Eden.
4. In contrast to how silent Warren was in the beginning.
5. Three lights for the Trinity.
6. He is asking forgiveness from Helen, but ultimately from God.