When I saw John Wick 4 in theaters, I was reminded of the myth of Sysiphus. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) loses his wife. And then his dog. Is thrown back into the world of bounty hunters and safe haven hotels and places value on man’s life. As the movie (franchise?) concludes, John Wick must face one final task: defeat Caine (Donnie Yen) in a duel to the death. In doing so, he will be freed from his commitment to the High Table Council, from his past as a hitman, and from the pain of losing both his wife and dog.
The battle begins promptly at sunrise at Paris’ Sacre-Coeur church. First, John Wick must fight off hoards of men in a city-wide hunt. Of course, he does. Then, he must scale the hilly terrain leading up to the church. That’s 222 stairs - or 100m - up the Rue Foyatier. But when John Wick reaches the top of the stairs, he is pushed back down by one of Marquis’ (Bill Skarsgard) henchmen. Back to the start. Down 222 stairs and up again.
According to myth, Sysiphus cheated death twice. (There are different versions that can be dissected for meaning and purpose, but how he died is less important). As punishment for his trickery, the gods gave Sysiphus an eternal task: he would push a boulder to the top of a mountain, but before reaching its peak, the boulder would roll back down. He must begin again and again and again, never achieving the task but always pushing forward.
Like Sysiphus, John Wick must repeat the same daunting task with only the hope that he will achieve his goal the next time around. But why? There are various interpretations of the myth of Sisyphus. Perhaps it’s a lesson for the figure to never give up. Maybe it’s meant to portray the life of man, the boulder a symbol of our hopes and dreams that never quite play out the way we plan. That this life itself is meaningless; we labor away and it gets us nowhere.
What is John Wick’s purpose? Is scaling the stairs twice over worth the labor? Does he achieve this goal?
Philosopher Albert Camus offers an alternative perspective in The Myth of Sisyphus. The 1942 essay provides commentary on absurdity and existentialism which derives from the contemplation of suicide. Camus ends the piece by stating, “The struggle itself ... is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
In other words, Sysiphus spends his days climbing up that mountain with purpose. No matter how hard the task or absurd the action, reaching the peak is enough to motivate and inspire the fictional character. He has a purpose (whatever that means). And so the image of a man rising to the top of whatever he aims to achieve - only to fall fall fall back to the start again - is forever aligned with Sisyphus’s struggle. And he, too, shall be happy enduring the struggle as it is a means to the end.
Could the same be said for John Wick?