No Country for Upbeat Films

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.

Boom.

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

* * *

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.

Even James Bond has a case of the bleaks. In "Quantum of Solace," he has hardened into a morose assassin "blinded by inconsolable rage." Bond's jesterlike tech guru Q does not make an appearance. He is no doubt busy designing a smile for 007.

* * *

What's causing this spike in bleakness, and why are we eating it up? Is it just a reflection of the real world and its Big Problems (global warming, war, an economy gone mad, blah blah)? Or is it that Hollywood sees bleak and apocalyptic movies as easy to market (simply wind up the clucking Chicken Little again)?

We could, perhaps, blame Cormac McCarthy, who has become the muse of A-list directors and producers. McCarthy is the celebrated novelist whose scalpel-sharp prose carves out any hope from his somber yarns, which usually end with some kind of violent judgment day. He was at the Oscars in February, applauding as the film adaptation of his book won Best Picture. He may be doing that again in the next couple of years. Two more McCarthy adaptations are in development. A third, "The Road," is being prepped for a 2009 release. The plot?

The end of the world. A father and son hack their way through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Whee!

* * *

An Australian man sits in a dim room, curtains closed, looking at bleak photography on his laptop.

Soggy, gutted homes in New Orleans. Click.

A Russian slum boy. Click.

Malibu on fire. Click.

Blood-smeared killing floors in Bosnia. Click.

Greenish-red toxic runoff in Sudbury, Canada. Click.

These photos were references for "The Road," a movie with post-apocalyptic scenery inspired by Earth circa 2008. It's a cute irony if you think about it for two seconds; any longer and it becomes a drag.

Apocalypse now? Yep.

"Talk about reality," marvels director John Hillcoat, his eyes darting through the greatest hits of natural and man-made devastation. "People are living the apocalypse. The homeless, in every city in the world now. The underclass. And that, to me, is in Cormac's book."

This was in August, before he had to lay down his preterm baby at the altar of the Test Audience, America's oracle for divining a movie's marketability. Test audiences make Hillcoat jittery. Talking with him, you can imagine a worst-case scenario:

How would you describe the movie to your friends?

"Uh. Bleak."

Would you recommend it to them?

"Only if they want to watch, for two hours, a father and son encounter every horror on the road to hell."

Allow us to be presumptuous: The book is repetitively bleak. Ash, cold, starvation, repeat. The story "is bleak, but it's actually about what makes us human in the most bleak situation," says Hillcoat. "So it actually amplifies humanity because it's a love story between a father and son. . . . It's set in this extreme world, but all that does is amplify that basic human drama."

Maybe that's why we're weirdly attracted to bleakness. It gives us a strong hit of humanity. It strips away the banal. It raises our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights. At least that's what directors might have us believe.

"This was definitely going to be a genre piece," "Cloverfield" producer Bryan Burk told critic Emanuel Levy in an interview, "but we really wanted it to be about the people going through this experience, to make it an emotional movie."

And a depressing one.

"Yeah, it is grim," acknowledged "Dark Knight" director Christopher Nolan in Newsweek. "But Batman is a grim character. It's a grim world. And that's part of the fun of it -- it's operatic. It's exciting."

And . . . depressing.

What is it that people want from Batman these days? Or from Anton Chigurh, who lacks the charisma that makes villains palatable? Do we want a fictional taste of our world, in which faceless, random terrorism has jumbled the narrative rule book, in which we can't tell our friends from our enemies, to paraphrase Judi Dench in "Quantum of Solace"?

The films rolling out through the end of the year have a similar void at the center. In "Synecdoche, New York," writer-director Charlie Kaufman seems to conclude that we are in control of nothing. "Defiance" and "The Reader" are about the unstoppable machinery of the Holocaust. In "Doubt," a nun leads a crusade against a priest whom she suspects of pedophilia and arrives not at a verdict but a moral abyss. "Frost/Nixon" is about the ultimate executive betrayal. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet wallow in domestic turmoil in "Revolutionary Road." Then there's the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still," updating Cold War paranoia to ecological paranoia; the trailer shows Manhattan going dark and infrastructure being vaporized by an ominous cloud.

Add "ominous cloud" to the list of things that make on-screen New York -- and us -- miserable.

* * *

The recession might actually save us from the horror.

After this season, we may see bleakness retreat back to smaller films, says movie industry columnist David Poland. His rationale: During a recession, major studios will bankroll only surefire hits. In the end, Poland says, people want inoffensive commercial films -- like this summer's "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" and "Mamma Mia!" -- not somber movies in which directors and actors push themselves and their audiences toward despair. Like "Changeling," in which Clint Eastwood and Angelina Jolie do exactly that.

"Dark, difficult movies tend to be made in part for the ego stroke," Poland says. "Now, a lot fewer places and people can afford those ego strokes."

But rumor has it that "Blood Meridian" and "Cities of the Plain," two more Cormac McCarthy adaptations, are being developed by directors Todd Field (of the grief-riddled "In the Bedroom") and Andrew Dominik (of the saga of dread "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"). Graham King, producer of "The Departed," is on location with "Edge of Darkness," about a detective investigating the murder of his daughter. Scott Rudin, producer of "No Country," is behind this season's "Doubt," "The Reader" and "Revolutionary Road" and is working on "Blood Meridian" and "Goat," based on a memoir about the savagery of fraternity hazing.

These movies will not be billed as "The Most Depressing Movie You Will Ever See." We don't go to the movies to be depressed. We do go to movies that have A-list casts, are an "official selection of the Cannes Film Festival," or ask us, cutely and ironically, "Why So Seriousss?" ("The Dark Knight" teaser poster). There's a bit of mutual deception going on among us, the filmmakers and their publicity machines.

See it for the pedigree, they say. This one looks amazing, we say. We see it, and shiver all the way home.

* * *

How long will we be stuck in this malaise-saturated market?

"It seems it's no coincidence that this trend is hitting in films now," says the Oscar guru Tom O'Neil, a blogger for TheEnvelope.com, a Los Angeles Times awards site, who thinks we're seeing a delayed rush of films inspired by the mood of the Bush years. "Right now, the money is on 'Benjamin Button' winning Best Picture. If that happens, we're seeing a return to the traditional Oscar formula. But if we see 'The Dark Knight' win, that's going to tell us this thing is going to last longer."

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," while harrowing in parts, is a lush, emotional epic starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Another bright contender is "Slumdog Millionaire." Director Danny Boyle, who made "28 Days Later" (infection kills humanity) and "Sunshine" (solar burnout threatens Earth), brings a film with this message: Love is destiny. Because of its sheer joy, everyone expects it to succeed.

The mainstreaming of bleakness has caused a bit of retaliation from Mike Leigh, the rogue British director whose first film, in 1971, was titled "Bleak Moments," and whose movies since have been stark set pieces of life's little brutalities. He has just released a relentlessly upbeat film. "Happy-Go-Lucky" is about a woman who skips like a cheery pebble over the murk of the world.

"I wanted to make what I've come to call an 'anti-miserablist movie,' " Leigh told an audience at the Telluride Film Festival in September. "We're in tough times. We're destroying the planet and each other, and there's a great deal to lament. But there are people out there who are getting on with it and being positive."

Miserablism. That's the word. It's artful. It's attractive. And perhaps that's the key to the chic of bleak. Why else do we click through photo galleries of shell-shocked stock traders, and California wildfires, and the latest unrests from abroad? Why else do studios cheerlead Oscar campaigns for titles as darkly blunt as "Doubt"? There's something majestic about watching the suffering of people (especially when portrayed by great actors). And there's something self-satisfying about sitting through a movie, however bleak, and enduring it, and declaring it beautiful and important.

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