Crime and Punishment and Irrational Man, a film by Woody Allen (This essay discusses the film in its entirety. It thus contains spoilers.)

The commentary and criticism I’ve read about Allen’s film, Irrational Man, make some mention of Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, but don’t really seem to connect to how closely Allen imitates the arc of that Russian 19th Century novel with his tale of a contemporary American murderer. If observers miss that similarity, then the film’s departure from Dostoyevsky loses its significance. We miss, I believe, what Allen is saying about our world today.

Like the novel’s killer, Raskolnikov, Allen’s Abe Lucas reveals himself to be a troubled soul. He’s despairing, dysfunctional, impulsively suicidal. Both killers form their motive for murder from overhearing strangers talk of a person who may have treated others badly. The desire to rid the world of these particular perpetrators of human suffering seizes their imaginations.

While the particulars of the actual murders diverge, with Raskolnikov using an axe (so unnecessarily bloody and involved), Lucas poisons his victim (so clean and contemporary, like lethal injection). Both are planned, deliberate affairs. The storytellers depict the murders with chilling clarity.

Neither tells anyone about their crime. Initially, the two men exhibit different reactions. Raskolnikov breaks down. He’s nursed back to health over months by his devoted friend. Lucas’ deed liberates him. He can write again. His love interest now offers, “he’s an animal” in bed. He resists at first the advances of a student, but then succumbs to her. All seems well with our modern murderer.

Yet both become hunted men. They seek to evade being captured and held accountable. Here the stories begin to diverge, which points to a different point I believe Allen wishes to make about his view of our current world.

Raskolnikov’s love, Sonya, becomes aware of his crime, seeks to convince him to turn himself in. He responds with a seemingly rational motive for the murder, asserting, “I killed a louse.” She screams at him, “A human being is not a louse!” She and the detective who pursues him succeed eventually in persuading Raskolnikov to confess. He’s sent to prison, where Sonya visits him frequently. The reader has a sense, at the end of the novel, that her love will prevail in helping him fully feel the remorse for his crime.

Dostoyevsky’s novel thus becomes an examination of someone developing a true moral conscience. The detective, in one of his conversations with Raskolnikov, claims “…you’ll decide to embrace suffering… Because suffering … is a great thing…. There is an idea in suffering.” There’s much hope in this portrait of a criminal who slowly, painfully, allows himself to feel sorrow for taking the life of another human being. The worst sinner can achieve redemption.

Lucas’ student lover, Jill, reacts in horror when he acknowledges that he killed. In contrast with Raskolnikov’s lover Sonya, she isn’t able to engage Lucas towards any remorse. All he wishes to do is escape. The film ends with him trying to kill her. She fights him off. he slips and falls into the elevator shaft he had prepared for her death and silence.