I recently re-watched the cinematic masterpiece Varsity Blues on a flight from Boston to Chicago. According to IMDB the film is considered a Comedy/Drama/Romance. This is surprising, as I considered it more of a thriller/horror film, more in line with The Good Son than The Longest Yard. I need to ask - how is this movie so profoundly misunderstood?
For the record, here is the IMDB description of the movie:
"A back-up quarterback is chosen to lead a Texas football team to victory after the star quarterback is injured."
That's it??? Reading the simple tagline you'd think this was a simple man vs. self tale of a scrappy, well-intentioned young man finding external successes - and himself in the process - in a wholesome coming-of-age story. Some of you may have even watched the movie and come away with the same conclusion. Perhaps you were too distracted by the soulful eyes of James Van Der Beek to realize what was really going on in the film. Because I'm here to tell you we got it dead wrong.
Fact of the matter is this ain't Dawson's Creek and JvdB's character Johnny "Mox" Moxson is a terrifying, opportunistic sociopath who manipulates and connives to tear apart a bucolic rural community that rallies around him in a time of strife.
For those of you who haven't seen the film in question, let's set the table: as the film begins, we're introduced to the true hero of the story, aging coach (and reluctant hero) Bud Kilmer. Immediately, we learn that the man is a true master of his craft: Kilmer has an impeccable record of winning in the ultracompetitive state of Texas by molding scrawny farmboys into the formidable men of tomorrow. So successful is the old ball coach that the townsfolk have erected a statue to honor the living legend. Men from town regularly attend practices, ostensibly to pay tribute to a hero who literally and metaphorically holds the fabric of the community together, one generation after the next.
Something rots in Denmark, however; storms are brewing that will test - and ultimately break - the venerable legend. The new dangers are embodied by a pack of bold, lawless youth (likely symbolic of the proto-millenial generation's "me first" disposition) who are hellbent on attacking Kilmer's timeless methods of teaching discipline and selflessness. The leaders of this rebellion are younger, stronger and attack Kilmer's kingdom from within, fighting the house of Kilmer with one-liners and self indulgent drunken orgies.
The cancer behind this group of malcontents is Johnny "Mox" Moxson - a brash, overconfident youth who is initially portrayed as a charming, if innocuous, paradox. Mox (if this is his real name) believes himself above the pettiness of the West Texas hillbillies from which he's sprung (and upon whom he will soon turn), but also revels in the hooliganism of the sport whenever opportunity strikes. The young rebel's illogical, immature world view is a study in contrasts for the viewer: despite caring not a whit for football, Mox has played the game for years. Moreover, Mox actively derides the team structure for the sake of his so-called individuality at every opportunity. This argument is clearly specious, as van der Beek plays the character as a generic teen, save for his nefarious ambitions to sew havoc. Instead, the paradox is symbolic of greater character issues - Mox is a fractured, damaged soul that seeks to drag down all he touches. This last point is evident when one sees Mox's closest friends, an alcoholic teenage hooligan so typecast that the guy who played Stifler in American Pie turned down the role and an obese self-loathing stereotype named Billy Bob.
The film's simmering divide is stoked to full flame when Kilmer's stalwart, old guard quarterback Lance Harbor is maimed in an ill-timed hit. While the accident is ostensibly caused by the literal collapse of previously mentioned Mox stoolie Billy Bob, the true cause of Harbor's collapse is, unsurprisingly, the opportunist Moxon, who ignores obvious signs of a concussion in his friend. Kilmer, the true hero of the story, makes a small but fatal flaw in the heat of battle, giving Moxon the opportunity to pounce.
Seeing opportunity, Moxon strikes. Seeing weakness in Billy Bob, Moxon allows him to return to action, where BB's physical (some might say mental) collapse allows a devastating hit that removes Moxon's chief rival from the picture. Clearly, Moxon is behind the events that cripple Kilmer's perfect football engine as part of the minor's bid for small town power. Because one thing is constant in this otherwise fractured and discordant film: despite protestations to the contrary, Mox wants the reigns of the team and if you're in his way (as Kilmer now is), you will be dealt with harshly.
In one swoop, the opportunist has removed the superior man and has become the center of attention for the narcissistic journey that is to follow. With new scrutiny as the center of the town's besieged team, pressure reveals Moxon as a pretender to the throne who goes full Trump to protect the truth of what he truly is. Mox's true character as a flim-flam man comes fully into focus later in the film, when he blames Kilmer for Billy Bob's collapse. This might be more plausible, had Mox not ignored the more obvious signs of infirmity among his friend, namely morbid obesity, mild mental retardation, and strong evidence of juvenile alcoholism. In fact, Moxon subsequently fails to report BB's suicidal behavior (a sign of how much the simpleton Billy Bob regrets his deal with the devil). In addition to being more evidence of his uncaring nature, Mox may actually be hoping that Billy Bob ties up a loose end by offing himself. A true sociopath.
Shoveling away responsibility is a recurring trait for the young athlete, as this behavior intensifies as the film proceeds. Having taken the reigns of the team through despicable means, Moxon openly defies the coach and begins his unending war in destroying the man who now seeks only to bestow character and discipline on a man-child who has neither.
Good fails to trump evil, as Moxon's erratic, undisciplined behavior erodes the group's performance. Losses mount as the team-first attitude instilled by Kilmer is undermined by Moxon's devil-may-care attitude. The abuses, small at first, grow as Mox becomes emboldened by early successes in turning his peers to his lascivious ways. Unstable, often violent behavior of Mox and his goons quickly spreads off the confines of the football fields, negatively affecting all in Moxon's path.
Among the damaging actions taken by Moxon:
- Moxon undermines Kilmer's proven system with plays designed wither on whim (including something called the "oopty-oop", which he clearly just made up) or plays designed to help his friends bump up their stats. This behavior begins in practices, but quickly spreads to game situations.
- Commits two assaults - (1) Like many serial killers who start with small acts of torture, Moxon begins by "accidentally" hurling a football into his father's nose during a lighthearted William Tell situation at a cookout. (2) This was so enjoyable, Moxon pulls it again, this time during a game when he assaults a defenseless mascot with a fastball to the head.
- Unsurprisingly, Moxon's weaknesses as a man extend to the sexual arena. Immediately catching a whiff of expanding his sexual conquests, Mox reaches the verge of philandery with his best friend's girlfriend mere hours after Harbor's maiming. Mox's despicable character is solidified when he forces his younger sibling to buy prophylactics for him, possibly as a preamble t the molestation of a family member (fortunately, this story line advances off-screen).
- Engages in (and organizes) illegal drinking parties on the eve of games, resulting in the impairment of key players. In one instance, the group openly mocks a teacher who is forced to work as a sex worker in order to make ends meet.
There are more of these, but you get the point. Kilmer is left in perpetual damage control mode, struggling to cope with this wholly unfamiliar assault on the organization he's worked his entire life to build. Moxon strikes a death blow during their final game when he leads a halftime coup. The rot spread throughout the team is apparent as the other boys turn on their coach. Watching this pivotal scene, I was brought back to the scene from Lord of the Flies where the other children savagely turn on Piggy, killing their own innocence in the process.
With Kilmer's fall complete, the usurper is left to sit on the bloody throne. In a twist ending, the now-morally-bankrupt team ekes out a victory, although the new game plan (executed by a Moxon crony instilled after the child-monster struck his final blow) works so poorly that what would have been a comfortable Kilmer win becomes a nail-biter. Moxon concludes his reign of terror with a "fuck it - I'm done with ya'll" moment, riding away to leave a devastated team with no leader. As George Bush once said, "mission complete".
The final lines of the movie reference the decrepit statue of Kilmer that sits abandoned, a clear nod to the Shelley poem Ozymandias, a dark homage to a once-great leader brought down by a pack of lessers.
As viewers, we have certain obligations to critically evaluate films with complex, nuanced messages. Many people missed that Top Gun was about a man's struggle with his own homosexuality. Likewise, too few of us failed to realize that Daniel Caruso character was the real bully in the beloved Karate Kid films. We all must do better to accurately understand the message the director wishes to communicate, lest it be misunderstood or, worse, dismissed as a simple romp of a football coach's lifelong legacy being destroyed by a minor child. This detestable, unsatisfying end to such a complex masterpiece leaves me to ask whether I've taken all there is from this film. Could Varsity Blues be considered, as TS Eliot once said of Hamlet, an artistic failure that's collapsed under its own weighty message? Or is the film simply ahead of its time with a deeper meaning that is realized only gradually, like the satiric critiques of unrestrained militarism in Starship Troopers? Perhaps only time will tell.
Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.