A long time ago, my brother and I went to a second-run arthouse movie theater near his college, GW, and saw the most depressing double feature ever: Lord of the Flies and The Iceman Cometh. We referred to it as the slash-your-wrist film festival and still shudder at the cumulative, unrelieved darkness of that sunny afternoon spent at the movies.
An unrivaled event, until now, some forty years later. Seeing this year’s five live action Oscar nominees makes the Golding-O’Neill outing seem like deft, light comedy.
Madre. Fauve. Marguerite. Detainment. Skin. Bleak, blunt, brusque. Cold. Hopeless.
I think it’s more elucidating to look at the five together rather than assess them individually, beyond noting that, unlike in previous years, I did not find any of these to be momentous. In large part, this may be that one or more of them are thumbnails for larger films.
All but one center around little (white) boys. If these are our future, God help us. Operating singly, as the unseen six-year-old in Madre does, they are a source of stress and heartache, a country away, abandoned, threatened, and surrounded by mysterious forces. Or, like the son in Skin, they absorb and reflect the poisonous values around them. When operating in prepubescent pairs, as in Fauve and Detainment, they wreak havoc on their surroundings, each other, and ultimately, inevitably, lead to death.
But what really struck me about these five pieces is their total absence of a larger context. These are tiny chamber pieces, which is not surprising, given the format. But more than in any other year, I was struck by the absolute lack in so many of these of any authority. The eponymous protagonist of Madre appeals to a remote and indifferent bureaucracy to help her locate her son, only to be told to come in to fill out papers. The police are called toward the end of Skin in seemingly sufficient time to avert the deadly climax, but they don’t arrive. And Marguerite, an old woman nearing death, is only touched — literally and figuratively — by a home health aid; she has no larger support system. And yes, Detainment takes place in a police station, but these authority figures are only to varying degrees successful in helping to ferret out the facts — and certainly not successful at all in preventing the crime.
It is a dark, hopeless world that these five filmmakers present. It is beyond dystopic, because there is no society here. There are only individuals making by and large terrible choices based on limited knowledge and experience with huge and irrevocable consequences. The one milder and more graceful film, Marguerite, centers on lost opportunities, loneliness, isolation, and encroaching death: not really a hopeful message either.
As a lit major, I know that children always symbolize hope and promise. What then to make of a set of five films where children are either absent (one), killed (two), sent to jail (two), or kill (one)? Nothing good, I fear. Maybe next year’s filmmakers will have more to take heart from… I hope so.