Bleak Is Chic: How Low Will Hollywood Go?

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 30, 2008

The first big film of the year was about a monster who tramples a group of friends as they stagger through New York, which is on fire. Skyscrapers explode. The monster unleashes spawn that scamper through the subway, infecting survivors with an Ebola-like illness.

"Cloverfield" is 85 minutes of efficient grimness. Morgan Freeman does not offer comforting narration, as he did at the end of "War of the Worlds" three years ago. "For neither do men live nor die in vain," Freeman soothes in that Steven Spielberg remake. Amid the ashes: Affirmation!

Not this year. The message from Hollywood increasingly seems to be -- to glibify it to a tag line -- bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.

The penultimate shot in "Cloverfield" is of the remaining characters getting crushed under a bridge in Central Park. No reason is given for the monster's massacre. Death, randomness, mercilessness. These things just happen. Here today, gone tomorrow.


"Cloverfield" had the biggest-ever January opening at the box office, eclipsing the 1997 rerelease of "Star Wars."

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In February, the Oscar for Best Picture went to "No Country for Old Men," a highbrow slasher movie, the bleakest contender to take the top prize since -- well, since the year before, when "The Departed" won. Further cementing the notion that bleak movies get made in order to strike gold, three out of four acting Oscars were given to people who played villains: Daniel Day-Lewis as the monstrous oilman in the nihilistic "There Will Be Blood"; Tilda Swinton as the sniveling attorney in "Michael Clayton," a movie in which every person has mortgaged his soul; and Javier Bardem as the dead-eyed killer Anton Chigurh, who cattle-gunned the entire cast of "No Country" save for Tommy Lee Jones, whose character ended the movie on a note of despair, not death.

This year, that might count as a happy ending.

Big movies have tent-poled 2008 with a tarp of cruelty. No resolution, no absolution. Just the raw misery of the human condition. Buh-leak. We expect this of fringe foreign films, the confounding subgenre of torture porn, and most documentaries, but not the biggest hits and highest-praised movies of the year.

What does it mean that Pixar set its latest family-friendly movie, "WALL E," on a dead planet Earth, trashed and abandoned by the human race?

The Batman franchise, which started as a kitschy carnival, morphed this summer into a dystopian nightmare in "The Dark Knight." The Joker's metier is large-scale terror and chaos. The movie is a series of agonizing moral dilemmas, capped by the conclusion that, for order to be maintained, people must view the hero as a villain. "The Dark Knight" is the highest-grossing movie of the year, and one of the best-reviewed.

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