I’ve been talking about how the modern storytelling of movies has given us archetypes that are also uniquely modern. Modern they may be but they still tend to follow classic Hero journeys. A Rogue Cop is still our good guy and must still defeat the bad guys. The Nobody will travel on a journey of discovery and emerge changed in the third act, hopefully for the better. But there is a modern archetype whose story arc goes backwards.
The Retiree. The Retiree as his name implies is at the end of his career or no longer in the line of work. Whatever this line of work was it was dangerous or illegal or both. The Retiree has probably enjoyed great success in theline of work even if that success is simply measured by the fact that he’s still alive. The Retiree in many cases probably never thought he’d make it this far but now that he has he wants to get out of the field. Older, wiser, past his prime and fully aware of it he dreams of different life. A safe, normal life where he can forget about his past and grow old like everyone else. At this point one of two things happens. Either The Retiree has ‘just one more job’ before he can realize his dream or his retirement is interrupted because he gets ‘pulled back in’.
We might as well get right to Shane since it’s one of the first, one of the best, and pretty much the template. There were definitely men in the Old West who made their entire living with their gun. They were just as definitey not somebody you would run into all over the place. Most people had real jobs. But in the mythic West of the movies the gunslinger becomes a man of adventure and danger. He lives by the gun and dies by the gun. He lives by a code and dies by that code too. Shane gets a chance to live a normal life when he’s taken in by a farmer and his family. He works on the farm as a hired hand and seems like he has a chance at happiness and a normal life.
Of course it’s never that easy. The nefarious ranchers hate the farmers and their plowed fields and fences. Shane backs the farmer who’s courageous but not a fighter. When the ranchers hire a gunslinger to enforce their will there’s only one way to beat him. Shane must strap on his peacemaker and become a gunslinger again. The template is repeated in plenty of movies. Pale Rider, another Western, is pretty much the same story but so is Soldier a sci-fi flick with Kurt Russel. You can substitute any job that’s not 9-5 and the story will work. He could be a car thief (Gone in 60 Seconds), he could be a mountain rescuer (Cliffhanger), or he could even be a ping pong player (Balls of Fury).
There’s a couple of things that make this archetype modern. One is the simple idea of retirement. Heroes of ancient myth didn’t really retire. They fought monsters and wars then they died and their death was usually a big part of their story. They rarely got old. Being a hero wasn’t really a job anyway which brings us to the second thing. The modern idea that you can choose (or at least try to) who you are. The fates of ancient heroes were set down before they were born. The Retiree, whatever his life was until now, has a choice to be something different, something better. Like The Assassin story a good Retiree story has redemption at it’s core. Shane chose to face his fate as a gunslinger. He gave up that life to protect it and that final sacrifice is usually the emotional punch in the best of these stories.