When, in Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov dreams of throwing his arms around a horse that has been beaten to death by its master, his reaction to the violence indicates his morality. One hundred fifty years later, there is still no more effective yardstick of a character’s humanity than his or her treatment of animals. When one character kills another human being, the possibility of his redemption is debatable. But if a character kills an animal, all bets are off. We know Glenn Close is a little wacko even before she boils Michael Douglas’s daughter’s bunny in Fatal Attraction, but once the rabbit hits the pot, justice demands Close not live to see the final credits.
In the film Disgrace, based on the book by J. M. Coetzee, violence against animals plays a more complicated role. Lucy, who is white, lives alone on a farm in South Africa, and while her father, David, is visiting, three young black men rob the farm. They rape Lucy and set David on fire while, outside, Lucy’s dogs howl in their kennel. The rape takes place offscreen, and the flames burn only momentarily before David extinguishes them with water from the toilet. But the scenes of the dogs seem to go on and on. Excited by the commotion, they throw themselves against their chain-link cage, barking and whining. Their helplessness is difficult enough to witness. Then the boys appear with the guns. At this point I covered my eyes, so I have to believe director Steve Jacobs when he claims the audience sees no animals actually being shot.
Disgrace raises intriguing questions about the artistic tradition of using animals to serve as proxies for human depravity. Often in movies, scenes of animals being harmed are a lazy way of shocking audiences inured to scenes of violence against humans, while at the same time reassuring us that our morality is still intact when we react with horror or grief. But Disgrace refuses to let us off so easily. Coetzee is an animal-rights activist who has written about animal cruelty in several of his novels, and in Disgrace he implies that the lack of compassion that lets us allow a dog to starve is the same lack of empathy that enabled systemic injustices like apartheid to exist. We are not reassured of our humanity because we are moved to tears over a dead dog; rather, the film makes us question the roots of all violence—a far more complicated task than feeling sorry for a beaten horse.