Through a Year Darkly November 13, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
The paths taken by Hollywood films this year have caused even my half-charcoal heart to skip a few beats. I usually relish a trip to the seediest parts of tinseltown, but 2007 has been unrelenting in its explorations of evil. This isn’t about the foolish “torture porn” that’s swept in and out of theaters and teenage boys’ heads these past few years. I’m talking about the serious and acclaimed R-rated adult fare. You only need to have one eye opened halfway to see the mess and frustration in the United States so the starting point is a bit obvious. The depths, though, are unexpectedly dark and unforgiving. Week after week these past couple of months, a new, incredibly well-made and horrifically depressing movie seems to open.
Obviously, these types of films are far from new. Just last year, Martin Scorsese’s violent, even nihilistic, film The Departed cleaned up at the box office and won Best Picture at the Oscars. But it’s the frequency of the downbeat and deadened that has gotten my attention lately. I believe the first 2007 film I saw was David Fincher’s serial killer procedural Zodiac, a terrifically engrossing look at the depths of obsession and the unresolved strands it often leaves behind. Even for Fincher’s head-in-a-box reputation, Zodiac is decidedly upsetting and without comfort. A vicious murderer terrorizes a city without facing punishment while lives are ruined trying to pursue him. No resolution, no smiles leaving the theater. Fincher’s insistence on making the audience share the uncomfortable and frustrating process of trying to catch a serial killer who shouldn’t reasonably possess the intelligence to elude everyone involved resulted in a 158-minute exercise in endurance that most audiences declined.
Cut to a few months and numerous blockbuster sequels later. Jodie Foster took justice into her own hands in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One. A crowd-pleasing vigilante justice/female empowerment picture or a hamfisted attempt to shed light on a nation’s post 9/11 fears towards a phantom enemy? Next, Jesse James was assassinated to great reviews, but, again, no one came (though Warner Bros. can partially blame themselves here). Released the same day, a young man of upper middle-class wealth and privilege abandons his charmed life for a quixotic (and doomed) life in the wild. More death. At least a trio of films critical of the current administration and the United States’ involvement in the middle east also foundered at the box office. I’ll hold judgment on their merits and their messages until I’ve seen them (if I do at all). I’m pretty confident that uplifting would not describe In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, or Lions for Lambs though.
For sheer unfiltered violence, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises probably takes the blood-stained cake. The much-ballyhooed bathhouse sequence left me literally nauseous, a combination of sustained struggle leaving us nowhere to escape and visceral stabbings that shatter the safety glass usually enjoyed by the audience. It has a semi-happy ending, but the ultimate message is far from consoling for the thoughtful viewer. Mouthbreathing Videodrome nerds struggle with the idea that a 64-year-old Cronenberg has forked off into studio-financed “mainstream” efforts back-to-back now, but Eastern Promises feels about as uncompromising in its ideas on the saturation of violence as anything I’ve seen this year, save for maybe a masterpiece of a film that I’ll get to in a bit.
There are three more “dark” films that I’m anxious to see, but haven’t made time for just yet. Michael Clayton, which might be downright saccharine compared to the other films I’ve discussed, We Own the Night and Before the Devil Knows Your Dead all appear to be decidedly black tales of greed, circumstance, and the perils of criminal behavior. A film I have seen and one I enjoyed a whole lot, Gone Baby Gone is another excellent peek behind a corner Hollywood has long avoided. Ben Affleck made a conscious decision to utilize the harsh faces and alcohol-bruised bodies of a tough Boston neighborhood for his directorial debut. His star and brother, Casey Affleck, is a green private investigator treading water in a kidnapping case. He refuses to sacrifice his ideals, but, as always, at a cost. There’s a scene of harrowing realism that deserves its own award, in some undetermined and likely undervalued category.
Darkly pretending to belong to my invented criteria is Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Audiences are eating up the cop versus drug lord “true” story, but it’s an empty film with a gossamer-thin impact. There’s the deplorable glamorization of Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas character, given a child safety cap flipside by depicting a stray scene of heroin abuse here and there to, you know, show that the guy who’s built up as cool and rich is really hurting his community. It’s also a film that, despite running over 2 1/2 hours, manages to feel incomplete in characterization and plot. Incredibly messy, disingenuous, and damaging, American Gangster is only depressing if you look at its giant box office take.
Deceptively darker is Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Though no one else in their right mind would probably throw Baumbach’s film in the cage with these other bloodthirsty beasts, it’s actually quite violent emotionally, only made less so by the realization that most viewers will find difficulty relating to any of the characters on screen despite their actions at least feeling plausible. Like his New Wave heroes, Baumbach makes films about upper-middle class white people with damaging problems and populates them with characters you want to wash off your skin immediately after the credits. Nicole Kidman’s Margot is a malignant disease of a woman, brought to life in a brave, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard performance that’s a career highlight. Despite the artificiality of Baumbach’s situations, his characters are brilliantly-sketched train wrecks and Margot is the queen.
And what was that masterpiece mentioned earlier? The Coen Brothers’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men. It’s far and away the most disheartening and pessimistic film I’ve seen this year, on par with anything else I can think of, and the best of this dark bunch. Javier Bardem’s dead eyes seem to represent evil personified. The film argues persuasively for the idea that darkness, evil, whatever you want to call it, is undeniable and a harrowing fact of life. Death is inevitable and, echoing themes explored repeatedly in film noir, fate can be cruel and unsparing. Whatever life has in store for us will happen, whether it involves a gesture of kindness or an act motivated by greed. One thing need not follow the next. I keep reading that this film will be looked upon favorably at awards time, and I hope that’s the case. I’m skeptical for now, though, because it’s highly unsettling and a crowd pleaser only in the sense that it’s a great film that keeps you riveted throughout. A minor spoiler, but the suddenness of the ending will leave many viewers cold as well, at least on a first viewing.
There are at least a couple more defiantly bleak films still on the horizon, both ready to strike right around Christmas. Hopefully I’ll have recovered a bit from all this cinematic rot and ruin by the time Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd film hit theaters. The former stars Daniel Day-Lewis as a turn-of-the-century oil man who, judging from the brutal trailer, is far from a nice guy. Early reviews have been near-unanimous in praise and in mentioning how difficult and downbeat the film is. Burton’s movie stars Johnny Depp as a serial killer barber and it’s at least partially a musical. Most of Burton’s film have that macabre, but shallow flair that I still enjoy. They’re usually more shiny black than starkly so. Then again, Burton may deliver a depressing bloodbath to keep ahead of the curve.
I’m sure I’m leaving a few things out and this is not my way of making a statement against these films, nor am I claiming to be the only one noticing the trend. There’s just so much I can watch before slowly taking a step back and wondering what’s going on. When nearly every movie I walk out of the theater from has managed to suck the marrow from my bones and inspire a heightened sense of unease, it starts to take a toll. Without going too far, I have to wonder if this borderline apocalyptic view of the world repeatedly being reflected from the screen is a fitting interpretation of our times or just a wrinkle that will be ironed out with a new year and a new crop of films. Are we getting what we deserve, or have things gotten off-kilter? These days, these days.