The Cinema of Misery

Doesn’t the world feel exceptionally shitty these days? Would you like to watch a movie that will lift your spirits? Well, that’s not this list. When I originally planned this list, COVID-19 cases were going down, and it seemed like the BLM uprisings were pushing back at power semi-successfully. As I publish this, we have soaring case numbers and now federal stormtroopers acting in outright violation of the Constitution in Portland, Oregon. Just yesterday, political commentator Michael Brooks passed away suddenly at the age of 37. Brooks was in my home every day through his work on The Majority Report and his own podcast. Add to this anxiety surrounding schools opening back up soon while the virus rages, and I can safely say my head is not in a good space these days. Seems like the perfect time for such a list.

Oldboy (2003, directed by Chan-wook Park)

Oh Dae-su is a belligerent drunk asshole hauled into a police station one night. His best friend bails him out but then immediately loses him. Dae-su comes to in a hotel room, locked inside with no windows. A television is his only conduit to the outside world. He remains inside for fifteen years, losing his mind and regaining it, training himself to fight against some unknown force behind this all. Then, without warning, he’s gassed asleep and wakes up on a rooftop. Dae-su begins his campaign of revenge to uncover who did this to him and why.

Oldboy is a movie that tricked the audience into thinking it was merely a revenge movie, but I think it is much darker than that. This is an anti-revenge film, a story that, by its third act, reveals that getting revenge is a pointless task. This is reflected in the antagonist’s reasoning for going after Dae-su in the first place, a twisted and disturbing motivation that leads to a bleak outcome. The ending of Oldboy is framed almost like a fairy tale with the snow-covered forest and the characters becoming lost in a hazy dream. They go off to live happily ever after only because they have had part of their memories wilfully destroyed.

Dogville (2003, directed by Lars von Trier)

Grace is a woman in the Depression on the run from gangsters who have shot her. She ends up in Dogville, an Applachian mining town where the poor residents protect her. As time passes, Grace tries to gain the people’s trust by doing work and chores for them, but things turn sour. The men of the town become sexually aggressive towards her while the women start to resent Grace through violence. Even the children become deviants in the way they treat their guest. 

Lars von Trier is no stranger to depressing films, but Dogville is genuinely a hopeless descent into his own perspective on human nature. This is a virulently anti-American film, which I have no problem with because it undercuts the idea of folksy friendly rural people. Von Trier is adamant on his theme that evil can arise anywhere out of anyone. A closer examination of the picture reveals how important perceived class roles are in the way characters behave and their inevitable comeuppance in the final scenes.

No Country For Old Men (2007, directed by Ethan & Joel Coen)

In Texas, 1980, a cold murderous hitman named Anton Chigurh cuts a path of violence across the landscape. His trail crosses with Llewelyn Moss, a man who comes across a drug deal gone wrong and absconds with the cash. The two pursue each other along the Texas border, bringing other parties into the conflict by accident. One of these is Sherriff Ed Tom Bell, who finds himself becoming increasingly unsettled at the type of violence Chigurh exudes and that this is something permeating the entire world.

No Country For Old Men is by far the darkest Coen Brothers film ever made, really digging into the roots of the cultural nihilism that overtook American society over the decades, pointing subtly at the Vietnam War as one of those sparks. Sheriff Bell stands in as the representation of old ways of thinking about Justice, that there is a clear divide between good and evil. Chigurh’s presence challenges this ultimately, and even the hitman himself repeatedly tries to push his actions off as the whim of Fate, actually uncomfortable with accepting that these are his action. You cannot feel well when the screen fades to black and stepping out into that violent, angry world.

Blue Valentine (2010, directed by Derek Cianfrance)

Dean and Cindy meet through happenstance, and it’s not love right away. However, over time the love blooms, and they end up crazy about each other. The film cuts between these early days of love to the present day, where the couple’s relationship is on the ropes. Their daughter Frankie is about the only thing that keeps them together, and even that is fraying. Dean is an alcoholic who doesn’t strive to make anything of his life. He loves Cindy, but because he can’t love himself, it’s just not going to work.

Some of the most significant pain we will ever feel in our lives comes from the orbit of Love or perceiving we are in love. Derek Cianfrance captures the pain of this situation, making it cut even deeper by juxtaposing the end with the beginning. The picture concludes by cutting between the elopement of the couple, and when Cindy tells Dean, she is leaving him. There is messiness as to why the relationship falls apart, but it is the reality of the situation. Can anyone autopsy their own relationship and clearly identify the cause of death? It’s this uncertainty that makes Blue Valentine hit so hard and sit so roughly in your stomach.

Krisha (2015, directed by Trey Edward Shults)

Krisha is reuniting with her family after a long period of estrangement due to addiction. It’s Thanksgiving, and she arrives ready to take the lead in cooking dinner for everyone, especially her now-adult son Trey. Krisha wants to aggressively reconcile and get everything out of the way, but these mountains of history are not that easy to get rid of. Trey resists her, and other family members try to explain that Krisha needs to back off. Things descend from there into a psychological nightmare where we see an older person succumb to the need for self-medication.

This film’s events are based on Trey Edward Shults’s own experiences growing up with a father who was an addict. Because it’s so personal to Shults that intimacy informs the picture and causes it to sting so much harder. Krisha is a doomed figure from the start, that sort of desperate need to fill the room to compensate for the emptiness inside her. When things finally fall apart for Krisha and her family pulls away from her, we feel both an understanding of why they have to do that but utter devastation as Krisha crumbles. Nothing about this film makes for an easy watch, and that familial tension is taught from the opening scene.

First Reformed (2017, directed by Paul Schraeder)

Ernst Toller is a pastor at the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. The Church has been around for 250 years, and its attendance is dwindling as the modern world subsumes people and diminishes spirituality. Toller is struggling personally with alcoholism and a crisis of faith that’s only worsened after a visit to a local environmental activist. Toller begins to see the world through the lens of this man, who points out how the world is being destroyed by influential people. Toller becomes consumed by this cause to the point that it feels like it will ruin his life.

First Reformed manages to frame the existential horror of climate change as an issue of spiritual urgency and personal fear. This is aided by one of the strongest performances I’ve ever seen from Ethan Hawke, who comfortably takes on the role of an aging and broken man. My favorite aspect is how manic and unplanned Toller’s actions become. He is fully aware he should do something, but because he’s just now becoming aware of what is happening in the world, he’s not sure what that should be. The ambiguity of the ending adds to the tragedy, leaving the audience to wonder what is real and what is a delusion happening in a moment of crisis.

Loveless (2017. directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)

Aloysha is a young boy living in modern-day Leningrad whose parents, Zhenya and Boris, are still living together amid a divorce. They spit pure venom at each other while stalking around their apartment before heading out to their respective lovers. Aloysha is left on his own, crying and emotional over the aura of hate that makes up his life. One day, Aloysha never comes home from school, and his parents contact the authorities. A search ensues that leads them down several worthless paths, all the while the hate growing between Zhenya and Boris.

Andrey Zvyagintsev has made his film career about how miserable Putin-era Russia is. Loveless is his latest picture and probably his most hopeless, and he means it that way. The parents’ negligence caught up in their hatred for each other is an obvious metaphor for the collapse of leadership in the nation. They lose this innocent child and are upset, for a bit, but get over it disturbingly quickly. There are no people to root for in this movie, we just observe the nightmare of contemporary Russia in a blasted industrial landscape that doesn’t seem too different from many places in our own country. You walk away from Loveless without any sense of optimism about the future of humanity, thinking extinction might just be a blessing.

The Nightingale (2018, directed by Jennifer Kent)

19th century Tasmania was a violent and dangerous landscape where the British Army rules with brutality. Caught up in the conflict are Clare Caroll and her family. She’s an Irish convict sent to work her sentence off as slave labor. She’s married a carpenter and has a child, but one British officer wants her. Clare is assaulted and raped, which her husband finds out about. The two men end up at each other’s throats, but the officer has his men to defend him, and they kill both Clare’s husband and her infant son. They believe they have left Clare for dead, but she lives and sets out from her house to hunt them down and kill them. Along the way, she hires Aboriginal tracker Billy and keeps her real mission of revenge secret from him.

Throughout its runtime, The Nightingale never tries to hide that it is a destructive narrative that isn’t going to end on a hopeful note. It’s interesting how so many of these movies are revenge pictures, highlighting how hopeless that mindset is, seeking a blood debt. That doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with these protagonists, we most certainly understand why they are doing this. But because of our outside perspective, we can see that this won’t end well for these characters. However, the events feel inevitable because what else can these people do when they have lost everything?

One thought on “The Cinema of Misery”

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