Carrots, Jaguar Sharks & Beige Lunatics: The Collaborations of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray
by Neil Fox
The mythology of the clown: beneath the perma-smile lies darkness, melancholy. A lifetime expended at the demands to provide others joy leaves a deep stain, a coldness, a loneliness inside that the make-up hides. This mythology has passed from the clown to the comic—despite examples of well-rounded, stable guys and gals making us laugh on stage and screen, we have come to expect tales of addiction, illness and troubled lives in connection with our comic idols. Think of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman and John Belushi. The last tragic figure on that short list was a friend and collaborator of Bill Murray, a beloved comedian and film star who has remained largely disconnected from this idea that comedians inherently have a Jekyll & Hyde persona.
Despite occasional reports of marital and parental impropriety, I’ve always loved and held to the Bill that is out there on the edge like his old friend Hunter S. Thompson—foiling bank robberies, crashing karaoke parties, calling Mitch Glazer every time Road House is on TV, taking film roles by mistake, drunkenly crashing golf carts. He has a commitment to wild living and mischief that thankfully never boils over into fully-blown mania, so I could largely ignore the signs that have emerged throughout his filmography pointing to a darkness lurking underneath. I took his survival as a signifier that he wasn’t troubled like those others, now departed, that I mention above. But then something happened that I couldn’t ignore any more.
I think in the work of Wes Anderson, a fascinating collaboration that has spanned six films and counting, Murray bares a part of his soul that is exactly in line with this idea of the tragic comic, the downcast clown. Bill is sad. He’s really sad. For me, Wes Anderson is the great contemporary filmic interpreter of sadness. At the heart of his films lies an almost unbearable sadness that completely dispels any criticism that his films lack heart or humanity. His characters are adrift, searching for love, meaning and/or connection. He captures alienation and melancholy as powerfully as Bergman, and in Bill Murray he has the perfect cipher. Bill is a star we expect to make us laugh, and he certainly fulfills that role in Anderson’s films, but there’s more—much more—and it’s hard to watch and it’s hard to take, because we love him and we want him to be okay, to keep on making us laugh. While other films might feed into a serious side of Bill—Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers, say—the Anderson films go deeper, into the potential soul of an enigmatic star.
I’ve been teaching Bill Murray movies for Film Studies a lot this term, and started the year with screenings of Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom. For the topic of stardom I screened Groundhog Day, and we discussed theorist Christine Geraghty’s categories of “star”: celebrity, performer and professional. According to Geraghty’s categories, Murray could be placed in the ‘celebrity’ camp, as he is a star that we relate to and have a relationship with in terms of his celebrity. His general, common persona is not one we associate with forwarding the craft of acting—which is the criteria for the “performer” category. Often, Murray emulates the “professional,” an actor whose onscreen portrayals viewers believe to be extensions of his or her off-screen life. This definitely holds true for many Murray characters—Peter Venkman, Phil Connors, maybe Ernie McCracken in Kingpin—but the Anderson performances are different; I think these are the yang to the yin of those classic comic roles. I don’t believe we can have one without the other. Of course there are hints of the “Anderson” Murray in other films, and there are films where he plays straight wonderfully. Who could deny the masterpiece that is Groundhog Day, where Murray balances balls-out humour with serious emotional depth? But Phil Connors feels a universe away from the men I’m looking at here, men I truly believe connect us to another side of Bill—these sad, bitterly funny but eerily bitter men, tired and longing for an escape from the life they are trapped in.
I don’t even think it’s a stretch to suggest that Bill’s roles in Wes’s films are all variations of the same character, even his Badger. Bill always plays professionally successful men—businessmen, a lawyer, a writer and neurologist, a famed explorer—all seemingly at different stages of one vast mental breakdown. He imbues them all with the same delicate sadness that makes them human.
‘Havin’ some carrots?’ - Harold Blume (Rushmore)
That line alone, which belongs in the line reading hall of fame, is enough to warrant an essay on Bill and Wes. It’s simultaneously hilarious and utterly depressing in its unease and awkwardness. Much like Harold Blume, I remember the first time I saw Rushmore. It was the first Wes Anderson film I saw, and I knew instantly that he was a director I was going to adore. Furthermore, here was a star I knew so well, doing something I’d never seen him do, even in his more serious turns. He was brazenly uncomfortable, silly and abject, all at once. Bill Murray: fearlessly melancholy, reaching deep into himself for some dark humour and wonderful oddness. It was like seeing Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, or Jim Carrey in The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—only, not quite. Those feel like one-offs, whereas Rushmore felt like the start of something, the opening of a door, and so it has proved. In an interview with Wes Anderson after the film was released, Bill is incredibly effusive about the writing and the character—it’s clear that he loved and felt committed to the script. He wanted to go all out. Interestingly, Wes wanted Murray for his first film, Bottle Rocket, which would have made it a full house for the pair. I remember feeling incredibly empathetic watching Murray stand, barely, in a hospital lift with Max, disheveled, two cigarettes simultaneously lit, miniature booze bottles being stashed beneath clean towels, delivering an eternal pause before uttering the blackest of lines—‘Ummmm. I’m a little bit lonely these days.’
From there, we go to the imitable Raleigh St. Clair.
‘You’ve made a cuckold of me’ —Raleigh St. Clair (The Royal Tenenbaums)
I could watch this movie constantly (and for a while, after it came out, I did). I waded into this film in a big way and I think it’s still my favourite Wes Anderson film. I adore it. So painful, and so funny. So beautiful. It’s also my favourite Murray performance in one of Wes’s films. His Raleigh is utterly adrift. He has one expression and one tone of voice—for work and his utterly awful private life. He is omnipresent, but completely invisible, as a character and as a husband. His is a spectral presence in the film. He is humiliated by his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow’s broken Margot. Even then he cannot leave this family—turning up at the subsequent wedding and funeral. He represents the fascination with these people who are flawed, selfish, broken, pained. His scenes with Dudley, his latest subject, are brilliant comic relief, and it’s here that he shows off his incredible comic delivery. For me, it’s in two moments—when he assesses Dudley’s block building performance, and when he quietly dictates notes on Dudley—that the Murray genius, and the genius of Anderson in casting him, is most clear and joyous to behold.
How does Raleigh fit in with my idea of the sad men? Well, easier than most. This is a man so devastatingly sad that each time he is on screen—usually on the edge of it, in danger of falling completely from view, wearing the same rusty corduroy jacket and purple polo neck combo—I just want to hug him and tell him “it’s going to be okay.” But I know it will do no good. He’s too sad. It’s a more somber sadness than Harold Blume’s, whose grief is aloof—different, too, from Walt Bishop’s sadness, which is bitter. And Raleigh’s not crazy with it, not like the most prominent character he has played for Wes, the mad Steve Zissou.
‘I wonder if it remembers me’ —Steve Zissou (The Life Aquatic)
Captain Steve Zissou utters this line at the end of a crazy movie, as the sounds of Staralfur by Sigur Ros rise up from the ocean floor, as he comes face to face with his white whale (in the form of the elusive Jaguar Shark). The sadness is as black as the deepest ocean cavern and almost unbearable.
The Life Aquatic is perhaps Anderson’s most divisive, incoherent and rambunctious work. It’s sprawling and crazed and tangential but for me it’s rich in wonder, ambition and a desire to dive head first into its mission, despite the seeming disaster-laden outcome. I love that he took such a leap when he did, which is why I feel this film has so much in common with Moby Dick, even if there is a lack of refinement in its execution. I said to fellow BWDRer Andrew that I felt the experience of reading this essay may be akin to watching this film—ambitious, sprawling, possibly incoherent but profoundly necessary. I digress.
Lack of refinement? Good I say. Zissou is not a refined character. He is embarking on a selfish mission, dangerous to those he knows worship him, but his rage, sadness and bitterness is all-consuming. That emotional cocktail also means he doesn’t really know what he is doing or where he is going. And so the film follows those messy human character traits. And veers and stalls and squirms and frustrates—but also delights, with its black gallows humour and cinematic ambition. I love it when films do that. It’s alive, driving down towards the blackness, aching, needing to see the shark again, to bring the proof of existence to the surface. More films should be as unrefined. And I feel this way about it mainly because of Bill Murray’s performance in the title role, which is gorgeous and pitch-perfect.
He’s let off the leash here, and in his moments with Seymour Cassel’s departed Esteban particularly, the mischievous and improvisatory Bill is plain for all to see. We also get glimpses of the dark Bill mentioned earlier—marital and patriarchal Bill—and it’s not an easy watch as he attempts to philander, then deny, then control his newly-arrived maybe-son:
“This is probably my son Ned,” he proclaims.
The film is unhinged and unconfined. It’s not safe, and this is how Murray plays it. You are never sure where he is coming from emotionally, but he delivers the reflective moments with such deep poignancy it’s hard to really hate him, despite Murray’s challenges to the contrary:
“What happened to me? Did I lose my talent? Am I ever gonna be good again?” He’s narcissistic, vain and borderline horrid—but he’s also funny, and in his zeal and ambition he echoes great figures of lore. He’s a paradox. Through charm and empathy, Murray wins us over to Zissou—a slim margin of victory, as always in the Wes Anderson universe. Here is a man grappling with his mortality and his legacy. Ten years on from Groundhog Day, the high point of the comic/serious tightrope walk in Murray’s career, and it’s as though Murray is asking the same questions of himself that Zissou asks. His Anderson roles are all variations on this theme: men struggling to understand their place, what they have done, what they really have and will leave behind—all save Badger.
“Demolitions expert. Explosions, flames, burning things.” —Badger (The Fantastic Mr. Fox)
In the Murray-Anderson oeuvre, Badger is the anomaly. He provides the moral conscience of the protagonist, and is head of a loving, close family. He is a lawyer and his wife is a doctor and he is mostly together. In the parallel universes of Wes’s Murrays he is the happiest one, but even here, darkness lurks beneath the surface, not only when he exclaims his adeptness with explosives with barely containable glee, but also in the way he constantly challenges George Clooney’s Foxy, undermining, picking at him. They are good friends but there is a clear rivalry, something just shy of jealousy. Even as a Claymation animal he cannot be without a hint of discontent.
“I’ll be out back. I’m gonna find a tree to chop down.” —Walt Bishop (Moonrise Kingdom)
If Harold Blume and Raleigh St. Clair were sad, they’ve got nothing on the bitterness conjured by Walt Bishop, a man so disconnected from his daughter he is addressed in brackets in a note she leaves for her brother. Bishop wears the most incredible trousers, but throws his shoes at a local scoutmaster. He is a lawyer who has lost the ability to communicate any other way—he sits opposite his entire family and utters legalese, “be advised.” His is the most vocally sad of Wes’s Murrays. There is a scene with his wife, each in their separate beds, that to my mind is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing about fractured matrimonial reflection ever written.
Laura: I’m sorry, Walt.
Walt: It’s not your fault. Which injuries are you apologising for? Specifically.
Laura: Specifically? Whichever ones still hurt.
Walt: Half of those were self-inflicted. (pause) I hope the roof flies off and I get sucked into space. You’ll be better off without me.
Laura: Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Laura: We’re all they’ve got, Walt.
Walt: It’s not enough.
Anyone who has faced the darkness of mental illness, or knows someone who has, can feel the realness in those exchanges, particularly the refusal to leave the darkness. For me, the scene clarifies my earlier claim regarding how perfectly Anderson captures sadness and alienation. Here, Murray again is the voice for that sadness and alienation. His Walt Bishop is married with children, like Badger in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but his lot is not a remotely happy one. Anderson seems to undermine the cherished rom-com categories of marriage and family, suggesting that it’s not enough to aim for those ideals as an end result. They, too, can breed unhappiness. Anderson instead asks us to fight for pure, unadulterated and brilliant love, like that of Sam and Suzy, constantly. If we feel it in the pit of our stomach, we shouldn’t allow it to vanish once marriage licenses are signed and children baptized. It should be stoked and kindled constantly. Even at the end of the film, after Bishop has used his only remaining skill (that of lawyer) to be a half-decent parent, and has returned to something resembling a family man, he is still at a distance, somewhat estranged from his wife and parenting by megaphone. At least they are distanced together. There is hope. If it all seems so unbearably sad, Moonrise Kingdom is further proof of Murray’s ability to plumb the darkest depths, fearlessly, without ego, yet still conjure moments of howling hilarity. The aforementioned shoe throwing, the aimless stumbling around throwing cat food and the canonical moment where he—shirtless (but with amazing trousers) and clutching a half empty bottle of booze—grabs an axe and proclaims to his young male offspring the line that opened this section.
Beyond the inherent sadness in Anderson’s films, his humour is a huge part of why I love them. They never sink into self-pity or navel gazing because there are so many vocal and visual moments of absurdity that lift them into something real and delightful. And this, to my mind, is why Bill Murray is so important to Anderson. This balance of sadness and light is a hard thing to do. It takes a genius. I don’t use that word lightly; the consistent evidence of genius is there in this sublime collaboration. A visionary director has given Murray the tools to conjure masterpiece upon masterpiece of performance, even with limited screen time. And none of his screen time is more limited than the final Anderson film, purposely discussed out of sequence.
The Darjeeling Limited’s Running Businessman
Murray’s appearance in The Darjeeling Limited is small. Out of the context of the collaborative oeuvre, it’s innocuous—kind of like Anderson’s saying, “it’s just cool to have Murray in your film even for a minute or two.” It also reminds me of Seinfeld. On the extra features of the brilliant DVD of the seminal series, Jason Alexander talks about the episode where Jerry and Elaine go to Florida, seemingly leaving no need for George (Alexander’s character) in the episode. Alexander was furious. He claimed that if his character wasn’t needed in every episode, even for one line, he was out. It may have been on the prima donna side at the time, but it created a now legendary legacy of a set of circumstances where you can’t imagine it any other way. You can’t imagine a Seinfeld episode without the masterful foursome all in attendance at some point—and so it is now with Bill Murray and Wes Anderson. He’s so integral to the thematic tone of Anderson’s films that we need to see him, even if he is just desperately chasing down a train and fleetingly glimpsed as one of the lost souls seeking love, meaning or connection.
And yet, when seen in connection with the other characters, this fleeting appearance feels the most unifying and symbolic of all. A clearly successful businessman races desperately to catch a train—first in a taxi where he nervously glances back over his shoulder, then on foot with luggage—and fails. He is trying to hold it all together, but alone, he just can’t. And he is passed by a younger, more athletic man. This aloneness is all-consuming, as evidenced by the other glimpse of Murray’s character, in the sweeping, weeping panoramic shot of the train carriages, real and imagined. He sits alone, adrift, nervously glancing back over his shoulder again, unable to let the past go and without the companionship that could ultimately save Messrs. Blume, St. Clair, Bishop, and Zissou—and has saved Badger. And could save us.
I now find it impossible to think of Murray without imagining his Anderson characters. I devour interviews and images of the pair working together, being interviewed together. It is tempting to see this relationship as the central one in Murray’s life, the one that supports and encourages him to show the world his incredible talent on a constant, consistent basis. The relationship that challenges him more than any other. Maybe he has found that true love, and we are all better off artistically, cinematically and emotionally because of it.
Neil Fox would like to be in Stevesy’s A-Squad and wants to front a garage rock band called The Beige Lunatics. He tumbls here.
The Swimmer (1968)
There’s No Water In The Pool: Swimming With Burt Lancaster
by Neil Fox
(illustrations by David Litchfield)
There is a river right there. But you can’t sit by it without a walk. The chance to grab five minutes by it in the middle of the day, to sit—to contemplate—is hard.
I grabbed five sunny minutes today, not by the river, but in a courtyard at work. Sporadic trees and greenery nearby. And the groggy thought came into my head, the same groggy thought I have had so frequently recently.
My life would be so much simpler and better if all I did was swim, every day.
You can’t swim in the part of the River Ouse that flows past my current workplace, but apparently there are parts where swimming is allowed. I love swimming. It’s one of my favourite things to do. Always has been. However, it was only really recently—a month ago, in fact—that I realised the specificity of that love.
It was about 11 a.m. on a Friday morning. I was walking across Fistral Beach in Newquay, Cornwall. I was with my wife, my dog, and a dear friend we were staying with. I was fresh and salty from a morning swim. I’d spent time (I can’t recall how long) swimming in the sea, being battered by the waves, bobbing along them, swimming along them, swimming out, gliding back. Sun-kissed and smiling. I wanted to carry that energy with me as I returned to the stressful urban world, and then it hit me. I don’t need to be by the sea. I just need to swim in the wild, in natural water. In nature.
Frank Perry’s film The Swimmer opens with scenes of deer, geese, hare and owls as the camera manoeuvres through forests, glades and tracks down a flowing river. From this idyllic, tranquil scene Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) emerges, striding, resplendent in navy blue swimming trunks. He is beaming, infallible. He has been swimming, and he wants to continue to swim. He soon realises that he can swim home, visualising before him a route of friends’ pools that he could traverse safely back.
There’s something about swimming that just makes me feel better, something about being in water, especially outside. I will likely spend twice as long in an outdoor spa as I will an indoor one. Swimming in natural water beats both those options.
I have clung, endlessly, to a dream that one day I will live near the sea, so I can swim naturally much more often; since this dream has yet to become a reality, I have finally taken the plunge and committed myself to wild swimming. Well, not immediately. But it starts soon.
Burt, with his iconic smile and ridiculous body for a 55-year-old, is captivating in this film. His Ned embraces the simplicity of the sky and water as his hungover friends, at the first house he visits, avert their eyes. He rejects their materialism—quite literally, as his bronzed body is covered by the most minimal amount of material possible, and at one point he even discards this gesture of clothing. It’s a rejection we later understand he has learned the hard way. En route between the pools, he runs barefoot, racing a horse at one point with a gleeful grin.
He wants to swim home. They all ask him: why?
Is this the great Western question? There seems to be an incessant need to clarify reasoning. There is no why sometimes. More and more I feel myself unable, unwilling, to justify my life choices. I don’t know why. I just know I want to, I think I will feel good, I need to. The constant whys in this film remind me of Phillipe Petit in Man On Wire, with his playful disdain for those who begged him to give reasons for his wire walking.
Ned believes that if he can just swim home, everything will be okay—as we slowly realise, things are not okay for him. As he gets closer to home the film gets stranger and darker. Burt picks up mysterious injuries and gets increasingly colder, and we learn that he is not only flawed, but also possibly mean: a philanderer, neglectful with his family, usurped at work, brash and arrogant, the recipient of an almighty fall from grace. Ned smiles as he declares:
“I’m a very special human being, noble and splendid.”
We know by now that he isn’t. He is confused and broken. And all he wants is to swim this brokenness away, but the world won’t leave him be. He must be confronted with the consequences of his life: the nearer he gets to home, the more clear it becomes that he was once surrounded by people he has now let down, including a woman who loved him and whom he treated abominably.
The film never tells us explicitly what has happened to Ned, because it’s not really about that.
It’s about how we are corrupted as we age. We cannot retain the simple pleasures easily. We add stuff to our nothing and think it helps. Sometimes, once we have forsaken the sacred things in life, we can never get them back. Maybe, I think as I watch, Ned would find peace if he swam away from home. If he plotted a new route. But that’s not possible, is it? We aren’t built that way. We are compelled to try to reclaim youth and glory instead of embracing the now. The idea Ned can just swim to happiness is absurd to us, but not to him. The other characters can’t understand him:
“Good Christ, Ned, will you ever grow up?”
That’s the problem. He did. He got a good job, a big house, a decent wife, two kids. And he couldn’t keep any of them. He belongs back in the woods with the deer.
Now, I’m not saying I’m Ned Merrill. And I am not saying I want to go live in the woods with the deer in my swimming trunks. But increasingly I have found myself, over the course of the last couple of years, trying to regress to a simple code, a silent (or at least quieter) inner voice. To engage with the natural world. My desire for this sort of quietness started with my wife’s dream of living by the sea; it gained pace when Bailey, our beloved dog, arrived; and it crystallised in the ocean off the coast of Cornwall.
I feel like if I could swim outside more, then I could get through this thing called life. I picked up and fondly pondered purchasing Leanne Shapton’s “Swimming Studies” just days before the Newquay revelation. I’ve long denied this integral part of my life. I’ve ignored it, like Ned did. It was too late for Ned. He couldn’t swim away from his troubles, from his pain, from his mistakes—and likely I can’t, either.
But that’s not why I want to swim. That’s not why I love swimming. I love being in the water. In the water you can’t think, you feel. You have to stay afloat. You have to work to enjoy it. Sand beneath your feet. Water around. Sky above. For too long I have ignored this.
As a determined, ailing, stubborn Ned declares,
“I’ve got to swim home.”
“For the love of God, why?”
“I’ve just got to.”
What happens to him, on his return home? It’s heartbreaking to watch. The film is aggressively downbeat as it progresses, forcing Ned to come out of this blissful swimming haze and face what he has done. The final images see him on land, collapsed against the ruins of his former life, as the rain beats down. Water is still present, but his relationship to it is no longer a happy one.
It’s the final unusual element of a very unusual film. A huge Hollywood star spends an entire film in a pair of trunks, swimming, stopping off for cryptic conversations that build with sinister hints, resulting in scathing revelations, and ends with the star finally flailing against his old material life—a life that has become reclaimed by nature.
It’s a powerful fable and it resonates with me in myriad ways. What of the choices I have made? What of this new choice? Am I really considering this? Everyone I have told about it laughs, or quizzes, or laughs quizzically. There is concern for my safety, questions about my swimming ability and queries about the geography and equipment involved. Sometimes I wonder if, like Ned, I am swimming to ignore the real issues. Swimming, unprepared for dangerous waters.
I am aware that it’s not a cure-all, that life on land will still have to be addressed. I have watched the film a number of times, and truly believe I can heed its warnings and engage positively with the elemental beauty involved.
There’s a famous Billy Wilder saying: Call yourself a writer, and you are a writer.
I always took that as providing a feeling of security for whoever utters it—an inner voice that can drive you on through the tests that come. I won’t get to undertake this new adventure until the spring, when the water is warmer. But just stating my desire out loud, just feeling that it is now a part of my life, has helped me these past weeks. I feel different, I feel better. I can’t wait for it. The thought of it alone has liberated me.
I am a swimmer.
You Can’t Stop What’s Coming: The Neon Nihilism Of The Departed, No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood
by Neil Fox
[Ed: Spoilers ahead!]
I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in my dissertation supervisor’s office explaining my idea. I’d already delivered essays on Irwin Allen as auteur, and Mean Streets as a teen melodrama sequel to Rebel Without A Cause, so my nutty ideas for essays were par for the course. My dissertation supervisor, bless him, said “But Hollywood isn’t a national cinema, it’s Hollywood.”
In a nutshell, I wanted to argue that between 1967 and 1980, Hollywood became a national cinema through the content it was releasing. I pestered and persisted and got my way; following the dissertation (which I mangled, thanks to my genius idea to co-found and manage a film festival that opened the day the dissertation was due) the central idea remained: sometimes the behemoth—the machine that is Hollywood—delivers work which reflects the American situation, or at least represents an alternative to the version we see abroad. So when The Departed (released in the UK October 2006), No Country For Old Men (released UK January 2008) and There Will Be Blood (released UK February 2008) were released within 18 months of each other, I seemed to be seeing my argument in action. There were clear links between these films, links that could be called “American.”
Sadly, the links were not positive, but bleak. Pitch black in fact, and rooted in a shared belief that mankind was doomed, as Man was beyond redemption in his quest to kill and destroy everything. I thought to myself, why am I seeing these links? Why are these films asking me to focus on the negative, believe the bleak? I didn’t have to look far for the answer.
One cursory glance at the news was all it took: Iraq, Afghanistan, oil prices, global warming. In the aftermath of 9/11, bloodlust was at an all time high. The hope that rational, diplomatic heads would prevail was a wish of Disney proportions. People across the world felt doomed—and many of us in England felt that America was leading us (with almost gleeful compliance from our own Prime Minister) into a shit-storm we couldn’t step back from, shackled by our own collective impotence (and this was pre-financial collapse).
For once, though, Hollywood was releasing smart, entertaining work that chimed with that feeling. There were war films dealing with the specific conflicts being waged, but these three films seemed to tap into the global psyche and the rational American’s feeling that things were out of control. And what was great was that not only were these films being made, but also that they were being made with grand budgets, epic casts, Oscar pushes and resulting awards.
The cherry on the futility cake? These films were being made by some of the most critically-acclaimed, highest-profile American filmmakers around: Scorsese, the Coens, PT Anderson.
Heavyweight names dealing heavyweight blows to masculinity, leaving no one spared and not a shred of hope in the place.
The easiest way to deal with the films, for me, is in the order they were released—and I think the stature of the films parallels this order, with The Departed at the lower end. I love The Departed, but I don’t think it will stand the test of time as well as the other two films. I also disagree with those who say it’s not a “Scorsese” film; it’s chock full of Scorsese’s signature movess and themes. But it’s also angrier, nastier. Take the bleakest of his 1970s works, the peerless Taxi Driver, a film full of paranoia and a scathing attack on America. Even this film has the ironic ending, the tongue-in-cheek commentary: even psychotic, would-be assassins who murder pimps can find fame in America, can have their Warholian fifteen minutes. This speck of dark humor is missing from The Departed. The Departed is an unrelenting black to Taxi Driver’s charcoal.
The best guy is thrown off a roof and the good guy can’t get through the day without medication, and he is killed anyway. The bad guy is impotent and gets killed. The baddest guy is a snitch and he gets killed. No one survives—even those who don’t physically die. It’s all lies and cover-ups, a world where men are poison. Where everyone dies, good and bad, and there is no pleasure.
This film is really devoid of pleasure—the sex is impotent or violent, and even the banter, in that great scene between Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg, is masturbatory rather than sexual. The banter climaxes in a good laugh, but in a flash the joy is gone, and there is no holding, no cuddling. Just the hollow shame of laughing, of the disguise. Men are weak, boorish and destructive.
I remember discussions after the film came out about how “stupid” the ending was, since everyone was killed. To me, this is where the nihilism is crystallised. There is an almost Monty Python-esque ludicrousness to the pile-up of deaths towards that led many people around me to laugh at the climax. It’s either laugh or face a brutal truth—so we laugh, because to not laugh is to accept the rotten, futile heart that beats at the heart of this film as real and true. A black, black heart, that pumps blood to the mouth of Jack Nicholson as he utters the iconic line (in response to a man who says his mother is “on the way out”):
“We all are. Act accordingly.”
What sort of world awaits Madolyn’s unborn child? We might ask the same question of Carla Jean’s unborn child in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. I use this film as an example in my undergraduate screenwriting class a lot. Each time I show a clip I want to scream at my students who generally sit staring blankly at it: “THIS IS A MASTERPIECE! YOU SHOULD BE CRYING IN AWE OF THIS!” But I don’t. I generally just say that I love it, and think it is a masterpiece, which I do. Wholeheartedly.
There’s much that places this in the camp of nihilism.There’s the character of Chigurh, a character purposely devoid of feeling and humanity, whose pseudo-zen belief in fate hides a cold-blooded compulsion to kill. There’s the death of Josh Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss, which happens off-screen. Like The Departed’s ending, this choice caused a lot of confusion among viewers, who thought it made the film underwhelming, or refused to accept how matter-of-fact it was, how it just … happened.
But this quiet matter-of-fact-ness is what terrified me. We’d spent all this time with Moss, wanting him to get away from Bardem with his wife, the money, and their imminent offspring, but no. He dies. How? Don’t really know, doesn’t really matter. We all die. The power of this—and the fury at the inevitable victory of the natural order—is etched on and in Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.
The scene where Bell visits his father contains one of the finest pieces of dialogue ever committed to celluloid. Bell’s face always carries the weight of the world, but here he is told the ultimate truth:
“You can’t stop what’s comin’. It aint all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.”
Wow. Punch me in the face with despair, why don’t you? And as we are reeling from that assault, the Coens follow it up with simple, unmistakable symbolism: the image of a casket disappearing six feet under. Hammer it home boys, really make us feel that it’s all utterly pointless. Again, a film without any joy or pleasure for its participants, but ripe with cinematic joy and pleasure for us. Oh, what masochists we are.
The Departed and No Country both won Best Picture at the Oscars, surely two of the bleakest films to ever take that honour. And back-to-back! Both of these films represent a darkness at the heart of America, served up by giants.
And they were followed up by another nihilistic vision—the greatest and most terrifying, in my opinion. PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood almost stands outside cinema for me. It’s a ridiculously magnificent piece of work, and also dark as night.
If The Departed and No Country seem bleak, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There Will Be Blood is so angry, so violent, It oozes destruction, menace and evil, and no one is safe. There’s no newborn here, and if the portrait of Daniel Plainview’s adopted child, H.W., seems positive at first, it doesn’t stay that way. Towards the end, H.W. seems to be succeeding. He has risen above his disability, he is married to his childhood sweetheart and he living his own life, free from the shadow of his poisonous father figure. Okay we think, there is hope. There is a chance.
Hang on! Just hang on a minute. The boy goes deaf because of oil and how does he choose live his “free” adult life? By digging for oil. This is not going to end well. When has the pursuit of oil ever ended well? Though H.W. looks like he really believes he can be happy, we know his fate is sealed. In the opening moments of the film, his father christens him with newly-discovered oil and then loses his life in a moment of purist violence. H.W. is born into a violent worth, one with no space for human empathy. From there, we know H.W. stands no chance. No one comes out of this clean. That blackness will seep into your pores just as it seeps out of the earth, just as the crazy craving for it seeps out of Daniel Plainview’s skin.
Like No Country, There Will Be Blood takes a moment to really hammer home its world-view. Its bleakness truly comes into focus as Daniel sits with his newly-arrived “brother” and tells him about himself. All that charm and admirable resolve we have grown to admire is stripped away, and the full weight of man’s historical pursuit for power comes crashing down:
“I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed.”
Here Anderson, like the Coens, delivers an image that is utterly lacking in subtlety. The camera draws in on Plainview and his red, oil-streaked face is exposed, hovering, body-less against the black. We are seeing the devil, and the devil is man.
And we shouldn’t be surprised. Like H.W., we are all born into a world of violent competition. Near the very end of the film, Plainview watches the sun shine on Eli. It shines through and on to him—it burns him, and Plainview knows the sun shines on the righteous. Though he knows Eli is not pure and innocent, Daniel is too far from righteousness to ever be saved. And so he retreats to darkness, to artificial light. As Daniel delivers his closing speech to the vile Eli, the bleakness is hammered home. It’s all as subtle as a brick. And powerful as a sledgehammer.
Have things changed? Well, Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture the following year. Obama got in, Osama got dead. But there is a power in this trio that makes me nervous and anxious, that makes me feel deep down like we are never too far from the horrors we are capable of.
I recently read The Grapes of Wrath, and from a naïve, foreign, comfy chair thought the American people would be better off if the Powers that Be—those in control—understood this book rather than misunderstood The Bible. I believe that if those powers could see themselves in these bleak, powerful works, they would be as scared as I am about the direction they are taking.
I’m not saying we aren’t all as bad, and God knows Britain feels like it’s on the verge of apocalypse (and that’s not just the weather)—but it’s rare for Hollywood to shine a light so directly on its own postal code, and such a message really shouldn’t be ignored.
Neil Fox is not a nihilist, though if you have ever been to his hometown you would forgive him were this so. Instead he believes in the power of cinema to shine light whilst bringing us the dark, in the dark. He tumbls here and tweets here.