Violence isn’t always evil. What’s evil is the infatuation with violence. — Jim Morrison
Freddie DeBoer, writing about Watchmen:
I can’t imagine what movie makers and critics would do these days if you couldn’t make a movie with (artistic! balletic! profound!) violence. Every movie that is critically lauded, it seems, needs to be about a remorseless oilman or a remorseless assasin or a remorseless serial killer or some other unstoppable misanthrope who demonstrates, in piling violence on top of violence, that this is a Serious Film. And you can shoot in a minimalist style, or a maximalist style, you can have a single handicam take a five-minute shot, or you can do an effects-drench whip cam deal, and you can punch it up with incredible sound effects and a racing score, or you can really get arty and have no score at all. One way or another, though, you’ve made art.
This seems a little overblown to me. Look back at this year’s Best Picture nominees: You’ve got Frost/Nixon, which only features verbal confrontation, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which is intended as an epic love story — the only kind of violence it features of the “set against the backdrop of…” kind. Last year, we had Juno; the year before that we had Little Miss Sunshine and The Queen (a brilliant movie, which, sadly, has been largely forgotten). Prior to that, I see Good Night, and Good Luck, Shakespeare in Love, Erin Brockovich, As Good as it Gets, and Lost in Translation, among others. As you go through the list, ever year seems to elevate several films that don’t rely much on violence of any kind, much less on grim, remorseless violence.You’d see a slightly different bunch if you looked only at critics’ lists, but even then you’d end up with plenty of indie relationship dramas.
Still, he’s got something of a point: Popular storytellers do tend to rely on violence, and popular storytellers who want to be taken seriously tend to adopt a serious tone — or at least what popular culture widely agrees counts as one — when dealing with violence. Usually, that means a somber tone, graphic and semi-realistic gore, and characters meditating on the nature of death and existence — films like No Country for Old Men, L.A. Confidential, Gangs of New York, Mystic River, and Munich, all of which were nominated for Best Picture.
But why shouldn’t this be the case? Death is a pivotal human experience; so is the experience of evil. One of the primary functions of stories is break individuals out of their own skulls — to help humans understand why other humans do what they do. Stories are a solution to the problem that humans can only truly ever access their own minds and experiences. So doesn’t it seem rather natural for many popular stories to deal with the problem that many humans do things that are inexplicable, that seem terrifying and evil? And given that, doesn’t it further make sense that many of those stories, if they strive to be honest, would confront inexplicable evil and not have an answer except that there isn’t one, that often enough evil is mysterious and unknowable — dare I say “remorseless” — and that coming to such an understanding might make the world seem rather bleak at times?
Another option, of course, would be to treat violence carelessly, to celebrate its expressive, aesthetic properties. In that mode, you get movies like Sin City and Kill Bill, and, diving further into the lowbrow, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal quickies. But I can’t imagine Freddie would prefer that sort of treatment of violence.
You could also make movies that don’t feature much violence at all. These generally tend to focus on sex and the emotional and social rituals that surround it: Most romantic comedies and their Apatowian male-targeted counterparts count here. Others tell stories about family life, coming of age, and cultural anxieties. Hollywood has made some great movies in this mode, but I don’t see why a medium that excels at displaying motion should shy away from a subject — an important and universal subject at that — as naturally kinetic as violence.
That doesn’t mean that the story of evil’s terrifying mystery is the only story Hollywood should tell, and perhaps our popular storytellers focus on it too much. It’s also true that many films seem to obsess over their violence in ways that are morally questionable, which helps explain why I’m quite fond of Watchmen the book but didn’t care for the movie. Jeffrey Overstreet put it rather succinctly when he wrote that while Watchmen‘s “antiheroes lament human depravity, the film celebrates it with lascivious glee.” I’m sure Freddie would disagree with me, but I think the book actually worried over its violence. In adapting the book to the big screen, Snyder, like many of the book’s fans, worried about the violence too — but only about how cool it looked.