This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst then not be false to any man.
These words still resonate today but it is interesting to note that the context of that first line has changed since Shakespeare’s day. When Polonius advised his son to remain frank with himself, it was not because he saw self-deception as inherently wrong but rather because if you bullshit yourself it is difficult not to wind up bullshitting other people. Thus, honesty with one-self was simply a means to the end of greater honesty with other people. However, since Shakespeare’s day, self-deception has moved from tactical error to absolute moral failing. Some even say that the hardest thing in the world is to remain honest with oneself, but what drives the morality of this injunction? Why should we remain honest with ourselves at all times?
Setting aside the somewhat nebulous and melodramatic idea that some truths are simply too hard to bear, self-deception has value in so far as it makes it less likely that people will catch us in a lie. Indeed, if we are trying to convince someone of something we know to be false then our capacity to mislead them is largely a question of skill; we need to be able to minimalise physical tells, keep stories straight in our heads and know when to play down certain elements of the story lest our interlocutor realise that we are trying too hard to convince them. However, if we internalise the fiction then our skill at lying simply ceases to factor into the equation. There are no physical tells to detect because we ourselves believe the story that we are pushing. Based on this analysis, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Trivers has argued that a capacity for self-deception can be a real evolutionary advantage.
The problem with Trivers analysis is that, like many evolutionary psychologists, he not only reduces human nature to a series of tactical cost-benefit analyses, he also assumes that these cost-benefit analyses are made in good faith and with reasonable access to the facts. In other words, when explaining how self-deception works, Trivers assumes that there is such a thing as the self and that the boundary between honesty and deception is both clear and distinct. However, when you remove self-deception from the idealised realm of Homo Economicus and place it in the context of an actual human life, the boundaries around both the self and the truth become a good deal more fluid. D.R. Hood’s first film Wreckers suggests that truth counts for very little when weighed against the many other things that make up a life and that self-deception is really just another term for living a tolerable life.
Dawn (Claire Foy) and David (Benedict Cumberbatch) moved to the village of David’s youth in the hopes of raising a family. Initially, the pair’s life seems idyllic as their jobs as schoolteachers and charismatically run-down cottage on the edge of a wood allow them to live the middle-class dream of escaping the rat race without compromising on quality of life. However, However, this dream is rapidly disrupted by the unexpected arrival of David’s long-lost brother Nick. Though living with Nick provides its own unique set of challenges, the real source of the disruption are the questions posed by the differences between David and his brother. Indeed, while David is every inch the sophisticated middle-class teacher, Nick’s status as a former squaddie along with his fondness for cheap jewellery and roll-up cigarettes locate him well within the boundaries of the traditional rural working class.
Hood handles Dawn’s sense of social slippage with admirable grace by having David turn up and embrace Nick with a passion that he never once displays towards her. The love evident in the brothers’ embrace suggests a dam bursting, as though David has suddenly allowed his true self to surface. Worried about how little she seems to know about her husband, Dawn begins experiencing strange dreams born of fear at the prospect of social and psychological partitioning. The idea of social partitioning is useful to understanding the film as Wreckers is all about the tension between different levels of society:
The outermost skin of the onion is occupied by Dawn, whose deportment and intelligence make her the very model of a modern, accomplished middle-class woman. However, because an older couple that have since passed away adopted her, there is a sense that Dawn is rootless beyond her relationship with David. If she has outside friends and family, they are never mentioned.
Nick, whose working-class status is neither challenged nor denied, occupies the innermost skin of the onion. Indeed, Nick has no interest in the trappings of middle-class success, as long as he has booze, fags and the occasional fumble, he is happy enough.
Hood initially presents the distance between Dawn and Nick as entirely social, but the longer Nick stays with the couple, the more we learn about his troubled past. Nick’s past is troubled not only by virtue of the horrible things he saw in Afghanistan but also by virtue of the brutal upbringing he shared with David in the village where the couple now reside. By allowing the social distance between Dawn and Nick to transition into a distance measured in terms of sanity, Hood raises interesting questions about the role of class in determining a person’s true nature.
Much of the plot of Wreckers hinges upon the question of whether or not Dawn and David’s marriage is based upon a lie. However, in order to answer this question we must first establish what is David’s ‘real self’ and what forms of re-invention are deemed acceptable. For example, David’s decision to abandon his working-class roots in favour of a middle-class identity does quite clearly constitute a lie as the childhood implied by David’s middle-class persona is very different to the working-class childhood he shared with his brother Nick. However, while this kind of re-invention is (technically speaking) a lie, it is the kind of lie that people have come to expect. When you move from one social environment to another, it is expected of you that you should assume the values and mores of that new environment and this expectation is even larger when the person in question moves from a working-class background to a middle-class lifestyle. Though Dawn is clearly disturbed by the revelation that her husband had quite a rough upbringing, her willingness to cast middle-class propriety to the winds and enjoy a boozy night out at the pub suggests that she is not too bothered about this facet of David’s past.
However, while Dawn quickly comes to terms with David’s working-class roots, she seems a lot less comfortable with many of the more unpleasant aspects of his upbringing. For example, having initially presented David as a survivor of a hideously violent upbringing, Hood eventually pulls the rug from beneath these assumptions by suggesting that David may have actually been the source of the family’s unremitting violence. As Nick so wonderfully puts it, David did not just love Nick as a brother… he owned him.
This suggestion casts an interesting light on Dawn’s social anxieties. Indeed, while we are quite happy for people with humble origins to re-invent themselves in order to fit into middle-class society, we tend to be a lot less forgiving when it comes to people who conceal a history of violence and manipulation. Our willingness to champion working-class-lads-done-good while feeling distinctly uncomfortable around psychopathic-lads-done-good reveals a double standard surrounding what does and does not constitute an acceptable attempt at re-invention. As socially progressive people, we are quite comfortable with the idea of a working-class lad-done-good, but what of a psychotic lad-done-good? The reason for this double standard is that while some traits are considered to be more fundamental to a person than others, which traits are considered fundamental is largely socially constructed.
While both Foy and Evans turn in strong performances, Wreckers is undeniable Cumberbatch’s film. The strength of his performance lies in his capacity to inhabit a character whose mercurial nature constitutes a real challenge to the idea that there are traits that are fundamental to our identities. Indeed, every time Hood’s script reveals a truth about David, Cumberbatch undermines it by playing against it and every time some damning piece of evidence is revealed, Hood’s script ensures that we have our reasons for shooting the messenger and reverting to the fact that David seems a perfectly normal middle-class man. Working together, Hood and Cumberbatch create a final act that constitutes an absolute master class in ambiguous characterisation as one can quite comfortably interpret David both as a normal person struggling to cope with a disturbed relative and as a barely-controlled psychopath who will stop at nothing to defend his hard-won middle-class lifestyle.
Consumed by the fear that David may not be the man she married, Dawn becomes increasingly obsessed with getting pregnant. His minor lie to a fertility doctor takes the couple to the brink of divorce because that lie suddenly becomes a focus for Dawn’s concern about all the other lies David may or may not be telling both her and himself. The film ends with Dawn and David happily re-united thanks to the birth of a son. However, Hood not only makes it quite clear that the child is not David’s, she also suggests that David knows that the boy is not his but he is content to live the lie because living that lie is more pleasant than living through an honest divorce. With absolute grace and absolute elegance, Hood and Cumberbatch created a mercurial character whose many mysteries positively cry out for resolution: Was David really all that violent as a child? Was that violence morally justified? Is David still capable of violence as an adult? However, having raised all of these questions, the film concludes by presenting us with a happily married couple. The couple are happily married because they did not seek answers to these questions and because they decided to build a life on a convenient lie. As David, Dawn and their son walk towards the camera and the credits begin to roll, we can reflect upon the words of Polonius:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
This maxim relies upon the assumption that honesty is always the best policy but what of those times when self-deception results in a happier and more enjoyable life than one lived in the shadow of oppressive truth? This maxim also assumes that there is a single self to which we can be true but the reality of every life is that, like hermit crabs, people habitually outgrow their old identities and abandon them in favour of selves more in keeping with the realities of their new lives. As Dawn’s arc suggests, we like the idea that we must be perpetually honest with ourselves because we like the idea that there is a real self to which we can be true. However, the truth of the matter is that on both a pragmatic and a philosophical level, we deceive ourselves because there is no fundamental truth about who we are. There is no secret to our inner lives; there is only self-deception, convenient fiction and palliative myth. We need these things because to do without them is to wind up like Nick, honest but crushed by the sheer weight of historical horror.