This Is Indeed a Disturbing Universe: Movies for Our Troubled Times
A common phrase heard (most commonly repeated by the same type of people who love to spout off about "perspective") when someone complains about the state of the world today is: “Well, actually, things have never been better.” To be fair, there are many things that are better today than they were even fifty years ago but to say that things have never been better is a half truth that focuses narrowly on things like statistics for violent crime. The other side of that equation is a world that teeters on the cusp of chaos as we face threats not known to past generations such as mass shootings, irreparable climate change, and widely distributed revenge porn. Spitting back trite responses of how random muggings are down but ignoring this whole new slew of danger is patronizing at best, and willfully ignorant at worst.
The bright spot in all of this is that beautiful things come out of terrifying times, and the present is no exception. With rising tension and justified paranoia as their backdrop, these movies highlight and explore the fear of the changing world, as well as the despair that comes from feeling helpless. Whether concerned about the environment, domestic terrorism, or the exploitation of workers, there’s a movie for you to help ease you into the void. Trust me, it’s fun in here.
Ethan Hawke is getting a lot of praise for his performance in Paul Scharder's First Reformed (2018), and it’s not hard to see why. Aside from the fact that he is on-screen in almost every shot, his portrayal of a pastor trying to maintain his health and his faith (but not putting much effort into either) is harrowing. The movie starts with Toller (Hawke) being asked by one of his church attendees, Mary (Amanda Seyfried who deserves roles with more meat in general), to have a chat with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is a radical environmental activist who is giving into a strange mixture of extremism and despondency at the state of the earth, as well as at the recent announcement of Mary’s pregnancy. Discussing what the future holds for mankind, Michael asks Toller what he’s supposed to say to his unborn child who will comes of age in a destroyed world; “When she looks at me and says ‘you knew all along,’” he says to Toller in one of the most powerful scenes in the movie. Toller, a man who came to the faith after his son was killed in Iraq, gives an eloquent but ultimately fatalistic answer. He is not one to comfort with empty platitudes; he himself struggles to find the good or the beautiful in life.
Throughout the movie, Toller keeps a journal of his thoughts which are relayed to us via voiceover. There is an uncomfortable honesty in his words, and we begin to see a man who wants not only a reason for living but a reason to drive him forward. Mary discovers a suicide vest made by Michael, which Toller takes for the purpose of disposal though it’s obvious to us that it’s a rifle on the mantle. Michael does complete suicide but not with vest, and Toller takes his computer and files then disappears down the same rabbit hole. He becomes obsessed with the cause, finding connections between a polluting paper plant and the megachurch that helps keep his congregation afloat. Toller drinks heavily despite the possibility that he might have stomach cancer. One night, he stands in his nearly empty room with Michael's suicide vest on. It’s clear that he’s been revitalized; that this has given him a sense of purpose and therefore a chance for a noble sacrifice.
The real power in First Reformed is that we are both sympathetic and wary of Toller. He blames himself for the death of his son, pushing him into a war that had no clear purpose. He seems to think he doesn’t deserve love or happiness, harshly pushing people away and approaching everything with the black-and-white view of a fanatic. As the movie progresses, we understand this odd brand of faith-starved nihilism, yet struggle to condone the actions Toller takes. In some regards, Michael being part of a suicide mission feels like the path of a true believer, no matter the viewers opinion on such acts. With Toller, it feels empty, a newly minted disciple eager to be drastic.
Taking a few steps back chronologically while staying in the same vein brings us to Arlington Road (1999), a movie released only two years before the September 11th attacks. Watching Arlington Road in 2018 is a bit of a trip because of the shift in public concerns. In the nineties, there were several high profile bombings in America, including two that were done by white men born and raised in the U.S. It’s inside this mania that Arlington Road takes place, as opposed to the mass-shooting fear in which this country currently resides.
Jeff Bridges plays Michael, a professor at George Washington that teaches about domestic terrorism. His late wife was an FBI agent who was killed in the line of duty. Driving home from work one day, Michael sees a neighborhood child stumbling around with intense injuries to his hand. He assists the child and meets the parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack), whom he slowly begins to suspect of being involved in terrorists plots. Due to the nature of his work and the loss of his wife, the people in Michael’s life react with skepticism. Some go so far as to tell him that he’s being straight-up paranoid. Naturally, since this is a thriller, Michael is correct in his suspicions and is subsequently set up by the Langs to look like a “lone wolf” bomber who takes himself out with his own plot. The movie ends with Michael’s son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) being taken in by relatives, believing that his father is guilty, while the Langs move on to their next plot unnoticed.
Though hardly a flawless movie, and one that feels more dated than it should, Arlington Road is a time capsule of dread. Like the “watch the neighbors” delusions of the Red Scare, the idea of terrorism coming from a peaceful suburb works with the feeling of insecurity and distrust that permeated throughout the nineties. Made prior to Columbine and 9/11 (two horrific acts that would shape American anxieties for an unforeseen amount of time), Arlington Road focuses on a specific time and place in recent history. If made today, one has to wonder what type of terrorism Michael would be facing down, and if the choices of weapons would be guns rather than homemade bombs.
Among the violence we hear about on so daily a basis is also the rumblings of economic struggle. Cost of living continues to climb while wages sit stagnant. People working forty hours or more weekly can’t afford to enjoy their lives. Sadly, this is nothing new nor is it specifically American as illustrated by the final movie In the Intense Now (2017).
In the Intense Now is a documentary about class revolutions in China, France, Czechoslovakia, and Brazil. While its primary focal point is the strikes and protests of May 1968 in Paris, the movie uses footage from a personal trip to China that happened to take place during the Cultural Revolution. Narrated by the director João Moreira Salles, whose mother’s filmed the China footage, the documentary waxes philosophical about the nature of revolt and about what anyone is able to accomplish from outside a system.
May 1968 in France is known as both a success and failure. General strikes and protests across the country effectively brought the economy to a halt as students and workers banded together to demand a better quality of life. The movie takes time to show us all sides of the events by using newsreels and televised debates from the time. While the strikes accomplished some impressive feats, they were not embraced by all, and in the end, when a new vote was brought to the public, the Gaullist government of the time was voted in stronger than before. The leaders of the movement, despite the fact they claimed it was leaderless, were brought to the sad realization that some people prefer the familiarity of being told what to do rather than engaging in the effort it would take to change things.
It can be hard, as a semi-aware creature, to press on in the modern world. There are moments when it truly does seem like we’re living in the end times. Whether these movies will help or hurt is up to the individual. However, if I may make a suggestion, staring into the realm of existential horror can actually be quite liberating, and there’s no surer cure for deep-rooted anxiety than fully embracing nihilism and toasting the end of the world.