What is it about the cloying darkness that always manages to grab our attention?
Over the last couple of years, the dark, angsty, gritty tone of film has managed to comprise its own unique esoteric genre. Particularly, this year’s new brand of film (and literature and music, for that matter).
Each tends to follow the consummate hero on his or her anti-heroic journey, not to self-discovery, but self-retrieval. It doesn’t matter who they are or who they will be. These iconic figures often resemble more of a silhouette than a self-actualized character. They’re rough around the edges, underdeveloped in their detail but boundless in their depth. They are not the people next door, or anyone you would ever care to know, as much as you may want to from the other side of the silver screen.
Like the old-fashioned Superman-like protagonist of traditional dramas, these people are damaged, broken, and while they may seek to help others or remember who they used to be, they are forever lost. Essentially darker, nightmarish versions of Peter Pan, they will never grow up, lost in their own Neverlands.
Each film explores a different form of grit and darkness to an extended degree. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive uses extreme violence, Sean Durkin uses cult behavior in Martha Marcy May Marlene, David Fincher uses sex in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Lynn Ramsay uses family in We Need To Talk About Kevin.
In purveying pain and distended forms of pleasure within those growing pains, each film has gathered incredible critical love. And it’s these films that seem to be increasingly gathering that admiration all in their own little pool.
While the more moralistic and ethical film fare may always be a forefront for Academy love, for example, Crash, The King’s Speech, or this past year’s The Help, it’s films that are not afraid to explore the darkness that are starting to make a heavier impact.
Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In explores an incredible pathos through perversion and abuse. Steve McQueen’s Shame explores every dark and lingering corner of sexual addiction, from which the camera does not stray; we see every pained and regretful orgasm flit across Michael Fassbender’s face. The nudity was not gratuitous, rather telling, a detail in all the gathered sadness surrounding the horrifying picture like a cloud.
This visceral exploration of what is real and human is dynamic and long overdue.
Fincher’s own start to a beloved trilogy was surprisingly jarring. Taking from author Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed series, which itself was far grittier than Fincher’s own adaptation, the director managed to convey an unable to look away from picture. But matters of abuse, rape and sexual deviance are not situations the majority of audiences prefer to be exposed to. Films like The Help or The King’s Speech are the ones which often gather far more international acclaim from wider audiences, because they are much easier to love. They are heartwarming, moral and the endings are happy. Happy endings will always be far more accessible than pain and its sorted pleasures (which may not necessarily be something to complain about).
And that is why films like Shame are often permanently relegated to independent feature status. Production companies don’t want to risk millions of dollars on films they know will not fill theatres. But with more directors, writers and actors who choose to explore, more audiences will become comfortable with these elements. Watching a film which elaborates on a much more twisted character’s life and nuances can be a unique experience, and within that character’s darkness is a hand reaching out to the viewer. These films make us uncomfortable. They’re not the kind of films we can just pop in on a Friday night; they’re an acquired taste. We feel discomfort, because that cinematic darkness that dares us to watch touches a part of ourselves that we don’t normally visit. And what happens if we like it?
Nudity is a thing of the past, and yet it still remains the greatest fear in cinema. Violence, on the other hand, is easy—it’s glamorous, and when it’s a spectacle, it’s fun. But when venturing outside of action thrillers and mind-bending psychological dramas, it can be far more chilling and unreal—and yet, very real within unflinching portrayals. The sight of Ryan Gosling repeatedly kicking and crushing a man’s skull in an elevator as blood spurts onto his face and he doesn’t blink away is true terror. Watching Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander struggle while being sexually violated in a dark room by an authority figure is horror.
Sex and violence are the ultimate marriage in film. They are real, but cinema over the years has allowed us to forget this, and instead expected us to absorb ourselves inside surface level depictions, which are for more comforting than they are terrorizing.
But with the countless provocative features we saw in 2011—and the impressive upcoming 2012 slate—choosing to pull back that curtain and hold an unflinching lens up against the far more real and dangerous scope of abuse, the deeper and darker cinema has yet to go is exhilarating. How much more real can it get?