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A Painted Face and a Shadow’s Smile

The Journey to Hell and Back in The Crow

Brandon Lee in 'The Crow' | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

“I wish the rain would stop, just once.”
“It can’t rain all the time.”

A city in flames, a mother abandons her child, a pair of lovers are torn apart. A lingering cloud of smoke and ash weighs down upon the city; the sun doesn’t seem to shine here. There is no one in the streets; entire blocks of buildings look abandoned and decrepit. Devil’s Night isn’t a time for families or for happiness. “Fire it up!” the Motor City motherfuckers yell. Burn the place to the ground. Take no prisoners. Leave no one alive. 

The Crow was a film made infamous by the tragic death of its star, Brandon Lee, during production. It was already a cult classic by the time I saw it in the summer between sixth and seventh grade. We didn’t have cable when I was young, so I watched it on either UPN or the WB, one of those now-gone channels that devoted their Saturday afternoons to back-to-back, edited-for-TV movies. My dad was probably mowing the lawn. My mom was probably working overtime. My brother was probably reading a book. And I was hiding away in my parents’ bedroom—where there was a blocky 8-inch TV molded out of white plastic—soaking up the immense violence and intense sadness of The Crow

A lot of people say this, but middle school was hellish. I was overweight; I didn’t shave my legs or bleach my mustache or wear stylish clothes; my Iranian lunches were easy fodder for bullying classmates who thought the food was smelly and so I must be smelly, too. I suppose everything about me was easy fodder, really. I was either too quiet or too loud. I read a lot and liked to brag about it. My parents loved me, but they didn’t exactly understand why their daughter had stopped wearing colors and now blasted loud music and seemed to willingly exist in a melancholic fog. I hadn’t quite settled on who I wanted to be yet, but what I remember knowing is that I was deeply sad a lot of the time and palpably lonely nearly all the time. 

Not quite unlike Sarah (Rochelle Davis) in The Crow, who wishes that the rain would stop, just once. Who wishes that her murdered friends would come back. And who thinks, on Devil’s Night, that she’s seen a ghost. In Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, a character asks: “What is a ghost? A tragedy condemned to repeat itself time and again? An instant of pain, perhaps. Something dead which still seems to be alive. An emotion suspended in time.” The same is true in The Crow. A man rises from his grave to avenge his murdered lover. A victim recreates his own death to right a horrendous wrong. A ghost tries to break free of the heartbreak that created it. An opportunity, maybe just once, for the rain to stop falling. 

*

Not to be overly dramatic, but: The Crow seems cursed. The comic book by James O’Barr was inspired by the lingering rage he felt after a drunk driver killed his fiancée when they were 18 years old; a widely circulated quote attributed to Barr that I can’t find a source for claims: “There is pure anger on each page.” Published in 1989 and then adapted as a film a few years later, The Crow then became defined by the death of Lee—the only son of the legendary Bruce Lee—on set on March 31, 1993. 

There’s an eerie quality to the whole story, the sense that no amount of factual detail will ever really capture what happened that day. The scene being filmed was the death of Lee’s character, Eric Draven. The gun that actor Michael Massee used still had a bullet inside. Lee died after six hours of surgery. His stunt double Chad Stahelski, who would later direct the John Wick films, stepped in so that The Crow could be finished; it was released nearly a year later, on May 13, 1994. Director Alex Proyas dedicated the film to Lee and Eliza Hutton, the fiancée he left behind.

I didn’t know any of this mournful backstory when I watched The Crow for the first time. I learned it later, while browsing on my family’s newly acquired internet and reading Roger Ebert’s review (3.5 out of 4 stars!). Later on, I would populate my AIM Messenger profile with The Cure and Joy Division and Rage Against the Machine lyrics in neon pink Comic Sans; pop into Yahoo message boards to try and find other fans; ask my father to drive me to Michaels, the art supply store, so I could buy fabric markers and iron-on letters and make my own T-shirts with quotes from the movie on them. My obsession grew so well-known to classmates that many years later, as a high school graduation gift, my then best friend swiped a copy of The Crow from our local Blockbuster Video and gave it to me as a present. This was the extent of our youthful rebellion: stealing VHS copies of decades-old films from a failing rental chain. In the immortal words of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs, we were uncool. 

But my love of Almost Famous is a topic for another time. The Crow preceded it in my cinematic education, after I broke my parents’ VCR watching Hook on repeat for an entire weekend and after experiencing Titanic in Iran, gleefully watching a bootleg copy, squealing with my cousins when Rose’s hand pressed up against that sweaty window. The Crow punctured the veil of my adolescent misery and fine-tuned it, molded the stormy clouds into something bearing the slightest hint of a silver lining. I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t know exactly why, but Eric Draven could make it to hell and back. He could find something worth living for after dying. Why couldn’t I? 

*

The Crow (1994) | Miramax Films
Miramax Films

The universe of The Crow is defined by chaos. Proyas immediately introduces us to a world defined by extremes, shadowy corridors and burnt buildings juxtaposed with fiery oranges and violent reds. The flames throughout Proyas’ Detroit are like wounds, like blooms of blood spreading past expected barriers. When the film begins on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween that mob boss Top Dollar (Michael Wincott) has claimed, all of the street gangs he controls are out wreaking havoc. There are 143 fires going, and there will be more, and a few murders, too: Those of musician Eric Draven (Lee) and his fiancée, Shelly Webster (Sofia Shinas). Eric played in a band called Hangman’s Joke and Shelly was a community activist who was trying to fight against unsafe and illegal building and leasing practices. In a city defined by the bad, they were trying to do good.

A year after their deaths—a year after Shelly is beaten and raped by the members of one of Top Dollar’s gangs and Eric is stabbed and shot by those same men before being thrown out a window—a crow lands on Eric’s tombstone. It pecks at the marble, its beak carving out chips. The soil on top of Eric’s coffin convulses, buckles, and roils. We see from inside Eric’s coffin as he’s pushed upward and outward, as his fingers clutch the muddy ground while climbing out, as he stumbles into the rainy night. The opening notes of The Cure’s “Burn” wail as we watch Draven come back to life, as we hear his scream of pain, as we see the crow land beside him, as we understand the desire for vengeance and the overwhelming love that has brought him back from the dead. 

From this very first glimpse of Eric, Proyas builds an oppositional dynamic between the supernatural forces that enacted his return and the industrialized, corrupt ones that attempt to thwart his revenge. The magical crow communicates its purpose to Eric in that graveyard, a place defined by natural decay and organic decomposition, and then Proyas cuts to the metal Thunderbird logo on street gang leader T-Bird’s (David Patrick Kelly) muscle car. The brawniness of that car and the flat masculinity of it are in stark contrast to the sensuality and intention Lee brings to Draven. 

This is a man in touch with every atom comprising his body because it’s all he has left; a being whose invincibility gives him swagger and verve. How is it that he can expel bullets, that his stab wounds immediately heal, that he can look through a hole shot into the palm of his hand and laugh maniacally as the skin stitches back together? There is no logical explanation for any of it, not really. The reasoning for whatever this resurrection is aligns more with that graveyard, with the possibility of second chances provided by a karmic balance aware of a wrong, than with the muscle car and how it represents an understanding of masculinity as domination and violence. 

But, to be sure: violence is Draven’s only option, and one he takes to with great joy. This is a man who returns to the scene of his murder, recreates it, and draws power from the fact that the damage has already been done. What could be worse than death? When Eric heaves himself out of the window, nearly reenacting the fall that previously killed him, he doesn’t reach the ground this time. He feels the glass in his palms as he heaves himself upward, flips himself around in midair, and then he lands back inside his and Shelly’s old apartment. He sees the blood on his palms magically disappear, and realizes the power he’s been given. All of this is without meaningful dialogue—but in the hazy, nightmarish flashbacks to Eric and Shelly’s horrendous murders, in the positioning of Draven’s body, in how he remembers his stabbing and shooting and adopts Shelly’s point of view in re-experiencing her beating and rape, we understand that Eric has had enough. Whatever he endured a year ago was enough. What matters is now, and the pursuit of revenge is now

*

Crows are scavengers, and they prey on the weak. A year ago I saw a crow spear another smaller bird—still alive, but just barely—through its breastbone and then fly away with it. It never had a chance, and neither do the men Draven is hunting on this long night. As Devil’s Night moves smoothly into Halloween, the 24 hours Eric has been given to complete his task pass in darkness. The sun neither seems to rise nor set in this hellish version of Detroit. The absence of light is omnipresent, and Draven moves easily within it, silhouetted often by himself: playing guitar on the rooftop of the building where he died, eavesdropping on the men he’s hunting while perched on a fire escape, caressing the top of his head against a solitary light bulb in a filthy drug den. His hero’s journey may be fueled by love, but it’s a solitary undertaking. 

One by one, T-Bird’s gang falls to the man they remember killing a year ago, and each time, Draven delivers a pithy remark to let us know he likes this. He enjoys the fear and pain he’s responsible for on this night that ended his life; his smug “Victims, aren’t we all?” is a declaration of war. Evading the daggers thrown at him by Laurence Mason’s Tin-Tin, Draven laughs. “Try harder,” he urges, before taking all the knives, stabbing Tin-Tin in the chest, and drawing the outline of a gigantic crow with his blood. 

The same symbol comes up again, carved into Funboy’s chest when Eric shoots him and injects him full of morphine. Again, the crow outline appears when he straps T-Bird into his own car and drives him off a pier, this time a gigantic tableau on fire. And through it all, he ironically quotes Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” He enjoys mocking the pawn-shop owner who gladly took Shelly’s stolen engagement ring (“Don’t you know this game?” he asks while torturing the man). When police officer Sgt. Albrecht (Ernie Hudson), who remembers the murders from the preceding year, asks if Draven is a ghost, he cheekily puffs out a “Boo!” He doesn’t quite understand the mechanics of how he has come back from the dead, but he’s not doing all this without a sense of humor. The only difference between a tragedy and a comedy, after all, is the ending.

Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994) | Miramax Films

So while Trent Reznor sings a cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” about “a duel of personalities/that stretch all realities,” Draven lives it. Tied to the crow, whose perspective we see in fragmented black and white, he reconnects with Sarah, the wayward young woman who loved him and Shelly so much. “They’re all dead, they just don’t know it yet,” he’d told Albrecht, and he makes that promise real. 

He hunts down Shelly’s last living killer, taking on an entire room of gangsters and criminals in the process: Guns, daggers, broken alcohol bottles, samurai swords, the weapons don’t matter. “A goddamn vigilante killer,” “a cartoon character with a painted face,” “some weirdo”—no description can truly capture the horrifying image Draven makes cutting his way through that crowd of enemies. Illuminated intermittently by a pulsing strobe light, a clear predecessor of the first club-set fight scene in John Wick, Draven has no equal. His vengeance has no match. The emotion he carries, the weight of it, has no comparison. He is a nightmare, and he is beautiful in the purity of his feeling. 

The Crow is full of Gothic signifiers, and they’re particularly noticeable in the final confrontation between Draven and Top Dollar. They stand on top of a burnt-out old church, dressed in costume designer Arianne Phillip’s all-black leather outfits, and surrounded by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski’s hellish depiction of Detroit. Amid stone gargoyles and metal crosses, in pouring rain that never seems to pause, the men fight in a duel for Draven’s eternal soul. Just when it seems as if Draven’s time has run out, Top Dollar is exultant, and notes that the happiness with which Draven killed his own men was infectious. “If it’s any consolation to you, you have put a smile on my face,” he says after stabbing Draven in the back. But Top Dollar’s joy is corrupted, has always been corrupted, by his greed and his avarice and his lust. So Draven returns it all to him: “I have something to give you. I don’t want it anymore. Thirty hours of pain, all at once, all for you,” he says, and with the makeup no longer on his face, no longer wearing Tin-Tin’s leather duster coat, looking more like his old self than ever, Draven clasps the sides of Top Dollar’s head and transmits to him everything Shelly endured. The brutality inflicted upon her body, the grief of losing Eric, the trauma of her death. Overcome by emotion, Top Dollar dies, his body mimicking the fall Eric’s had taken the preceding year. “What you kept…saved me,” Eric tells Sgt. Albrecht. The pain was useful. It had a purpose. “Nothing is trivial.”

*

Before his death at Eric’s hands, T-Bird realizes that all of his choices have led to this moment, and his resulting grip on reality is tenuous at best. “There ain’t no coming back,” he swears to Draven, but T-Bird is an unimaginative man. He turns, surprisingly, to classic literature to try and understand this, quoting John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Abashed the devil stood, and felt how awful goodness is.” Because for all of his violent acts, for all of the murders he commits, Eric Draven is more like a warrior angel than a demon. He is righting a wrong, not creating one. When his task is done, he lays against Shelly’s gravestone, reaffirming his love for her, and when she approaches him—not in her wedding dress, but in another white gown, symbolizing her ascendance above this mortal coil—Draven’s body smokes and shivers. In her embrace, in one last kiss, Draven disappears. His coffin closes. Soil covers it again. Sarah delivers the film’s final words—“Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever”—and receives the crow’s final memento: Shelly’s engagement ring, the representation of the bond Eric and Shelly had vowed to make. 

My adolescent suburban life had nothing in common with The Crow, with its stylized gore and its depiction of eternal love. But what I carried forward from that first viewing into dozens more over the years, and what gave shape to my depression, was the understanding that terrible things happen, that we can experience profound loss, that we can be the recipients of the cruelest twists of fate, but that there might be the slimmest chance of making it right. That the universe might acknowledge our pain and do its best to avenge it, maybe over one night, maybe over a year, maybe over a lifetime. That to remember the bad stuff goes hand in hand with honoring the good stuff, and that the power of love can be real, if we let it. Twenty-five years after the release of The Crow, that is this haunted film’s legacy: That being lost in the darkness means finding the light.