Jack Reacher does not exist.
That’s not to say there is no “Jack Reacher” in the movie’s world but the real story behind Jack Reacher is that the character portrayed by Tom Cruise never actually comes to town or solves any crime. To be fair, this theory has come about from refusing to believe that I could have just invested two hours of my life into a movie so frustratingly devoid of depth. So instead, I’ve made some up.
Unfortunately, without the application of an extra, hidden story, Jack Reacher is simply popcorn fuel. It’s an uneven sort of entertainment where one minute, we are expected to respect the tragedy of anonymous murder but the next we are asked to laugh at the slapstick antics of two hoodlums trying to beat a man to death with a crowbar in a small bathroom. Occasionally funny but only sparsely exciting, there’s just not enough sizzle to make you forget there’s supposed to be steak.
Hence my ridiculous theory that Tom Cruise’s Jack is actually a fantasy inside the mind of Rosamund Pike’s character, defense attorney Helen Rodin.
Before we get into why Reacher is a fantasy of Helen’s, we need to explore why he doesn’t exist. Looking at what we know about Jack Reacher, we can describe him as a man, who is
- universally good-looking (as evidenced by the sex eyes that every female character he meets sends his way)
- articulate and witty (he out-banters anyone who dares challenge him, and participates in dialogue that is meant to only amuse himself)
- in peak physical condition (as evidenced when he takes off his shirt)
- an amazing marksman (which we see when he outshoots every person in the history of a gun range, including two professional snipers, despite his own specialization being military policework)
- intelligent (he is generally two steps ahead of everyone and even concludes that a detective must be corrupt since he finds evidence in a way that “even [Reacher]” wouldn’t have thought to look)
- skilled in hand-to-hand combat (choosing to engage in a physical fight with a man who had already surrendered)
- a great driver
- compassionate (sympathizing with victims and trying to protect innocent auto parts store employees).
Faced with all of these factors, I have two possible explanations for the character Jack Reacher. One is that, whether by genetic modification, holy grace, or magic, a person has come into being who, aside from his charming hubris, is literally superhuman. Since the film offers no other suggestions of bionics, divine intervention or the supernatural, the Reacher as ubermensch theory seems far-fetched. If the military did have ahold of such a man, I doubt they’d let him go. It is far more likely that he actually doesn’t exist. He is an ideal person created within the mind of Helen Rodin to provide her a fantasy that allows her to escape from all of the conflicts in her life.
The first fantasy Reacher helps Helen explore is her struggle with her father. Helen’s father is the District Attorney, and as such, they are at professional odds with each other, working on opposite sides of the courtroom. Deeper than that, DA Rodin has an impeccable record of conviction. He is so successful that Helen has concerns about the validity of his methods; she worries that innocent people are being sentenced due to the DA’s skill rather than the truth of the case. Lastly, they have unresolved issues with regards to their feelings of affectation toward each other. Reacher provides Rodin with a person to whom she can discuss these concerns openly. Early on, at a diner, Rodin establishes a safe manner of discourse with her fantastical demigod by deciding that any discussion between them is “privileged,” as it relates to her case. By legally binding herself to Reacher, she feels safe in voicing her concerns. He is able to feed into those concerns until they reach a point where Rodin has no choice but to confront her father. Whether or not Rodin and the DA actually hash things out, like we see in the movie, doesn’t matter. For her, by the time she has let go of the fantasy, she has decided that her dad is A-OK because they love each other.
A second purpose of the Reacher fantasy is escapism. Rodin lives alone and is never seen talking to anyone about anything except work. The back seat of her car is filled with boxes of paperwork. She does not have a life outside of her career. On a personal level, Jack is a person with whom she can talk, banter, and flirt, giving her a chance to experience a little bit of life outside of her relentless defense of the accused.
Reacher also allows Rodin to escape from the bureaucracy of her chosen profession. While she never actively complains about the nature of her work, she does acknowledge that cases are sometimes won by factors other than truth. At the end of the movie, the accused, James Barr describes Jack Reacher (the real Jack Reacher for him, but Rodin is imagining her version) by saying “He doesn’t care about the law. He doesn’t care about proof. He only cares about what’s right.” Her only response to this description, and the last time we see her is a shot of Rodin smiling, in a rare moment of contentment. Despite her respect for the legal system, sometimes it must be nice to just get out there and do the right thing, especially when your own father is the source of so much administrative stress.
The last benefit of the Reacher fantasy is a similarly fantastical resolution to an unwinnable case. Rodin is tasked with defending a man who seems undoubtedly guilty. Her client, Barr, is arrested based on an incredible amount of evidence. Through “Reacher,” she concocts an elaborate, fictional, alternate reality, filled with meth dealers, high-stakes business shenanigans, and an unnamed, underdeveloped European Bond-esque villain at the peak of it all. The case is so open-and-shut that it takes a movie’s worth of mental concoction to create a narrative wherein her client is not guilty. To cope with her impossible situation, she gets help from her impossible, imaginary best friend.
Considering how little resolution and satisfaction Rodin faces in her personal and professional life, it’s small wonder that she benefits from the creation of Jack “born Jack, not John, no middle name” Reacher. Reacher’s “life” begins with a scribble on a piece of paper from a desperate, doomed client but he eventually becomes a companion, foil, and catharsis for lonely, trapped Helen Rodin.
Maybe it’s a crazy theory. Maybe not every movie needs to be Fight Club. Maybe Jack Reacher is just a Tom Cruise vehicle meant to appeal to fans of the book series, stringing you along an elongated procedural TV cop drama. But maybe it really does have something going on under the surface.
Then again, probably not.