A Case For Watching Depressing Movies

The best performance of last year was Tilda Swinton’s cold yet heartbreaking turn in We Need to Talk About Kevin. The film itself quickly became a personal favorite of mine. It’s not an easy film to watch, and that’s exactly why I loved it. When I went to see it during its unfortunately futile Oscar qualifying run at The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, I brought along a handful of friends. When the end credits rolled I was left speechless and devastated. As we left the theater, my friend Lorenzo went on and on about what we had just seen. Finally he concluded “I think I hate this film.” The conversation continued and eventually, without prompting him, Lorenzo reversed himself, “I think I love this film.”After all what’s not to love about a film feature teen violence, pregnancy anxiety, dead pets, and ocular cavity hygiene?

We Need to Talk About Kevin is The Bad Seed on crack. But the reason it is so horrific is that it addresses a question every future parent might ask themselves in a moment of fear: What if my child hates me? Or even worse, what if I hate my child? That’s where the horror of this film comes from. Clearly, it’s not the most digestible of themes. I’d imagine this film could traumatize an expectant mother to the point of inducing labor. Now that’s the film I want to see. The one that actually makes you give birth right in the aisle of the theater! The film that makes you question the very idea of wanting to have children.

To me, that’s why I go to the movies, to be shaken to my very core. Give me Dogtooth, where the threat of incest creeps over every frame. Give me Teeth, so I can squirm in my seat wondering when the manhood severing bite is going to happen. I want to feel uncomfortable. I want to be depressed. Just make me feel an emotion. One of my favorite movie going experiences was when a group of friends and I went to see Requiem for a Dream. The last twenty minutes of that film are so relentlessly draining. When the credits rolled my friends and I said nothing. The lights came up and still not a word was spoken. It wasn’t until we were actually driving home when we began to very slowly speak. We were emotionally destroyed, and I loved it.

I’m probably preaching to the choir on this website. This is a site devoted to people who think outside the mainstream. People who are more excited for the new Todd Solondz film than Battleship. But we have a problem in cinema viewing and it’s up to people like us to fix it. The public doesn’t seem to understand that the only truly depressing film is a bad film. Seeing a whole bunch of children die in The Sweet Hereafter is far less depressing than seeing Rob Schneider in, well, anything.

Sure there’s a place for popcorn pictures, but I want the public to be able to respond to both. They shouldn’t be afraid to “feel” something from art. Too many close friends of mine avoid seeing a film because they think the subject matter will be too “difficult.” In my self-righteous opinion it’s not that mainstream audiences don’t want to experience upsetting emotional art; it’s just that they need a proper guide. I’ve known many people who have said “I will never see that holocaust/ cancer/pedophile/drug addict/9-11/AIDS movie” only to have me force it down their throats. And you know what? Nine times out of ten, they love it. They are moved beyond words. They discover new actors. New filmmakers. They might even realize that despite the fact the main character has AIDS and has to raise two children on her own, those kids’ lives will be better than her. And that actually constituted a happy ending.

Here is what I propose. It’s something I have been doing over the past year. Organize a weekly depressing/upsetting movie night for your friends. Be their guide as you navigate through the bleak works of filmmakers like Michael Haneke. Show them the most bizarre of Buñuel and Herzog. Let them experience a documentary about the real life murder of children. Think of it as your civic duty as a cinephile. You might not believe it but it’s up to you to make sure people experience these things. If not us who? Do you really want to live in a world where the latest Gaspar Noe film only plays on demand because no one is adventurous enough to pay to see it in a theater? The only way to change that is to expose the people to what is good. Or at the very least what’s interesting. Come on, you know that we know better than them.

Although I do think organizing a weekly upsetting film night is a good idea, admittedly I tend to be hyperbolic about it. Maybe even obnoxious. However let me end with a more mainstream example. One of the most powerful films I have ever seen was Paul Greengrass’s United 93. The film got up-close putting you in the airplane on 9-11. The viewer had to confront if they would have been that brave on that morning. How would you have reacted? This is arguably the most upsetting day in American history, something most people don’t want to be forced to think about in their entertainment. Obviously there weren’t lines around the block to see it. Me? I saw it twice. Then I bought it on DVD. And I bought it on DVD to show others. I sat them down and sometimes had to really bargain with them to watch. They resisted. “Why do I want to see something that I know will upset me?” But every one of the people I’ve shown it to have been moved. Have felt they have seen not just a great film but an important one. No regrets that they watched it. People really do want to see these emotionally draining films. They just don’t know it. It’s up to us to show them.


Will Link is one hosts of the weekly film and pop culture podcast, Will. Sean. Podcast? Check out new episodes every weekend, each featuring a different guest. 

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