The ex-CIA set-up is kind of worn out, but that element really isn’t necessary to what the movie is about. You can disregard the CIA thing, really, because the important thing is that Ashby has baggage. Guilt. He needs to make amends. This movie is about redemption.
“Redemption” means rescue or deliverance. It therefore implies that there is something to be rescued or delivered from. Christian belief is that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, therefore all are in need of redemption. Further, that God redeems; we don’t redeem ourselves.
Redemption is a process of atoning for guilt. One “atones,” or makes amends, because of consciousness of moral wrong. In this movie, Ashby comes to grips with having been made party to a moral wrong, in his career as an assassin. Because he is particularly aware of his approaching death, he attempts to make it right by more of the same.
The trouble is that this path does not lead to redemption. Ashby can’t make amends for his own wrong, and he certainly can’t do it by forcing others to make amends for theirs. His moral compass in this is provided by the high school student, Ed Wallis, who has been repeatedly wronged by his feckless divorced parents, but repeatedly forgives. He doesn’t punish them so as to try to force them to make amends with him.
Ashby learns this lesson from Ed. Ashby can’t fix the wrong by trying to mop up the mess. It only gets messier. He can’t make amends by trying to force the wrong-doers to make amends. We don’t earn redemption. It must come from the One who is offended, and it is freely given.
Ashby and Ed spend a lot of time in Ashby’s 1966 Olds Cutlass. You’ll see a lot of head-on footage of the two of them talking, Ed driving and Ashby in the passenger seat. What you can’t help but notice is the crucifix swinging from the rear-view mirror, between the two of them. It is a recurring visual motif.
Early on, Ed takes the lord’s name in vain. “Don’t blaspheme, Ed,” Ashby tells him. So Ed substitutes a scatological reference. “That’s better,” Ashby says. The exchange is funny, but it’s serious, too. Ashby is a believer. He goes to his priest, who, it appears, is not. The priest is soft. He hasn’t wrestled with the gritty wrong-ness of this world, and so doesn’t have an essential point of understanding: that we all of us are sinners, and all equally in need of redemption. It’s not just CIA assassins who need forgiveness.
We get the priest’s limp participation in a couple of interactions. In Ashby’s first visit to the young priest, we hear the priest’s vacuous pseudo-theology, which tells us that he sees his vocation more as a therapeutic exercise, than one involving gritty reality and a just God.
Ed asks Ashby “How do you know you’re going to heaven? You could be going down, not up,” whereupon Ashby makes his next visit to the priest. Ashby has to prompt the priest to at least put on his collar to hear Ashby’s confession. As mitigation for what Ashby is about to tell the priest, Ashby remarks “I believed in something I thought was right.” The priest looks thoughtful, and replies, “me too.” And then, what is the priest’s basis for absolution of sin? “In your heart do you think you’re a good man?”
The priest cannot be redeemed, but the assassin can. This story has been told before, and it’s more than just a story.