While lions and sharks go into frenzy at the smell of blood, at the sight of blood, moviegoers seem to experience a heightening of all emotions, sometimes recoiling from the horror, but more often anticipating the danger to follow. Violence and blood on the screen, even more than naked people coupling, grabs our attention and makes us perk up our ears and feel our own vulnerability, like rabbits sensing danger.
Makers of schlock films for stoned adolescents have long known the power of blood and guts to arouse kids from their torpor. However, beginning in the 1960s, filmmakers began to discover that graphic violence on the screen can be used for more artistic purposes. One landmark in the expansion of the language of film came in 1967, when the machine-gun massacre in Bonnie and Clyde turned the film’s finale into an unforgettably beautiful and devastating dance of death. Then in The Wild Bunch in 1969, the aging band of outlaws went to their deaths together in an orgy of violence, with each hyperrealistic bullet hitting in slow motion, making us viscerally experience their fate and indelibly reminding us that humanity is a blood brotherhood, bonded by that blood.
The most brilliant, most ambitious films of the past year—No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Sweeney Todd—each revolved around a different way of using the power of violence to seize our attention and reveal both how vulnerable and how capable of evil we humans are.
Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway opera Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is surely the most gruesome musical ever made. As a play, its ironic tale of mass murder and cannibalism was brought to life by stage magic and alternately playful and romantic music. It’s now a movie, made by horrormeister Tim (Beetle Juice) Burton. Eternally weird Johnny Depp, who was directed by Burton in Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands, is Sweeney.
The story tells of “a barber and his wife, and she was beautiful.” She was lusted after by a ruthless judge who, after sending Sweeney off to prison for life, forces himself on her. Years later, Sweeney returns to find her presumed dead and their teenaged daughter being forced into marriage to the judge. Sweeney’s despair and resultant hatred of the human race makes him see all people as unfit to live. He slits their throats and his comic sidekick Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) bakes their bodies into meat pies, “the worst pies in London.”
There’s no room for humanity in the world Sweeney comes to inhabit: dog eat dog, human eat human. He sees the evil around him, and in his rage, joins in. The tragedy is this: as Sweeney rages at the human race, he stops noticing whom he’s killing and ends up dispatching those he’d most wanted to save. He justifies his impersonality with: “They all deserve to die.”
Sweeney Todd is about a man who, having been deprived of love, falls into hate, which is as engulfing as falling in love—and ultimately, even more suicidal. On stage, the play’s magic was its music, having more life, beauty, and wit than even Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. But Depp has no resonance in his voice. We hear only hoarse whisperings that spoil our sense of Sweeney as a tragic lover. He can’t rise above the squalor of London through the music. On screen, the sets are too realistic and those slit throats and pools of blood don’t feel like a metaphor. We’re too close to the slaughter, and we miss the stage magic that reminded us this was a cautionary fairy tale.
There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) Anderson’s tense study of a joylessly competitive California oil baron in 1927. It’s based on Upton Sinclair’s novel about the Teapot Dome Scandal, Oil!
The movie’s director is a protege of Robert Altman, whose thickly populated films brought whole communities to life, displaying everyone’s relationships with everyone else. Anderson does that part well. He creates a community and keeps the focus tight and the range small as he tells the tragic story of a proud man who, like Alberich in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, brought the world and the gods to an end by sacrificing human love for the riches beneath his feet.
Daniel (My Left Foot) Day-Lewis—the Greta Garbo of our day—plays Daniel Plainview, who strikes oil in 1911. He creates a family for himself by finding an orphaned baby in a basket. In the name of his new family, he then sets forth to buy up (or steal) all the oil land in California. As Plainview gets greedier and lonelier, his son is deafened in an explosion, unable to hear his own father’s voice.
Plainview’s competition and nemesis is the preacher-boy, Paul (Little Miss Sunshine) Dano, who claims to have the power to cast out demons, but proves unable to cure Plainview’s son. In his growing isolation, Plainview gets crazier and crazier.
The loud classical music, punctuated with drilling, digging, and pumping noises, is compelling. The photography is deep, stark, and eye-popping. The screenplay is guarded, often as wordless as the deaf son. As we await the blood promised in the title, the film is dominated less by actual violence than by the expectation of it. Anderson understands that the anticipation of bloody business can be as riveting as the reality of it.
While Anderson knows how to ration violence, he hasn’t yet learned how to end a movie. (Remember those damned frogs in the otherwise magnificent Magnolia?) His ending abandons realism and substitutes shock and metaphor, leaving us all, on screen and off, with our heads swimming. Still, the film is a searing portrait of a man who always wants more, and can’t love as long as there are things not yet under his control. No movie since Citizen Kane has succeeded so well in showing what happens when competition becomes inseparable from rage and paranoia.
In my favorite movie of the year, Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, Tommy Lee (The Fugitive, Men in Black) Jones is a burnt-out Western sheriff, narrating a tale of blood and guts centered on a drug deal gone bad. Throughout the story, he tells us what he’s learned about evil in the world, and what he’d learned from his father and grandfather, both of whom were sheriffs before him. The film also focuses on an enigmatic killer named Anton Chigurh (pronounced “sugar”), played by Javier (The Sea Inside) Bardem, who emerges from the desert after a bloody shootout in search of a cocky loser, Josh (American Gangster) Brolin, who’s made off with $2 million he found after the carnage of the failed drug deal.
The film doesn’t just slap us awake with violence: it brings violence to life and personifies it. The violence captures our attention and creates such anxiety we don’t dare drop our guard. We come to feel what Jones has felt all these years as he dealt with the relentlessness and inescapability of human evil.
Taken from a Cormac McCarthy novel, the movie comes from the Coen Brothers, and is, therefore, brilliantly surprising and quirkily funny. It isn’t even clear whether Chigurh is intended to be real or the embodiment of all the pointless evil the old sheriff has seen. The Coens, literally, shock us with violence, reminding us of the greed and evil of which we’re capable.
In sharp contrast to these violent films about people who spill the blood of others without compassion or remorse because they’re vengeful or greedy, is one about people who unwittingly kill the things they love. In the award-winning novel Atonement, Ian McEwan tells a story of great love ruined by a confused child’s lie, thus changing everyone’s life forever.
Joe (Pride and Prejudice) Wright has made Atonement into a grand film of love and war, akin to The English Patient or War and Peace. Keira (Pride and Prejudice) Knightley is Cecilia Tallis, the princess of a grand English country house. James (Last King of Scotland) McAvoy is the housekeeper’s son, Robbie Turner, who loves her. Knightley’s little sister, Briony, is played successively by Saoirse Ronan as a romantically intoxicated child at 13, Romola Garai as a nurse at 18, and Vanessa Redgrave as a successful novelist in old age.
Briony, misunderstanding everything around her, falsely accuses Robbie of a crime that sends him to prison for many years. He’s released when he agrees to enlist in the war and ends up at Dunkirk, where the retreating British and French troops wait on the beach to be rescued or killed. Both Cecilia and Briony have become nurses and hear the stories of the wounded and dying. Briony yearns for a way of atoning for her offense, and finds to her grief that there is none, except perhaps by writing a novel about it—a novel in which she restores to the young lovers the lives of which she deprived them in her childhood.
The film has a literary delicacy, a distance from the horrors of rape and war, which lets us enter it calmly and reflect on it as we would on a novel. Instead of trying to shock us into alertness, it makes us think, discreetly pulling away from the sight of blood. Its most prominent “special effect” is a gigantic close-up of a single, typewritten vulgarity.
The last portion of the film is at Dunkirk, where the army waits and dies on the beach. A tracking shot observes the beach from above crowded with dead and dying soldiers for five or six minutes. We’re allowed some reflective distance as Robbie experiences war and as, across the channel, the sisters/nurses witness many of the same horrors he sees. All three mature with compassion.
The performances are profoundly touching, especially young Saoirse’s Briony, as she witnesses the complexity of human relationships and finds them confusing and terrifying, the ideal preparation for an adult life as a novelist. When we meet the late-life Briony played by Redgrave, we can’t perform a maneuver as cheap as forgiving her, any more than she can forgive herself. But we can get inside the aged Briony and work up charity and tenderness.
Directors have many ways of capturing and holding our attention—violence being only the most visceral. Another way, the one chosen by McEwan and Wright, is to bring us gently into the ambience of other people’s lives, where we gradually learn to feel safely at home in some other time and place, and ultimately gain compassion for the ups and downs of life there. Few films have done this so well as Atonement. And we can get into and through it with many tears, but no blood or sweat.
Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.