We don’t always need a happy ending. In art, as in life, situations rarely play out perfectly, or painlessly, or fairly. Indeed, anguish makes up the very fabric of existence, and it’s a cloth few of us want to wear willingly. So when one imitates the other, it doesn’t always have to be pretty. Or enjoyable. Or cathartic. No, a modern, contemporary audience should be able to deal with the dark, the dour, or the depressing with relative ease. After all, it’s part of our individual make-up, the manner in which we typically trudge through everyday life.
But two current films are really pushing the limits of viable entertainment misery. Both are based on famous novels, and both feature brave individuals attempted to survive under the most heinous of conditions. A few weeks back, Lee Daniels drama of unholy urban blight, Precious, rocked viewers with its tale of child abuse and social disenfranchisement. In it, the title character suffers through horrific sexual, physical, and psychological abuse while trying to find a way out of her dead end situation. And this week, we see the arrival of John Hillcoat’s bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning tome The Road. Dealing with a nameless father and son who are traversing a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, it’s a journey through starvation, cannibalism, and the desperate will to survive.
While both of these films couldn’t be more different in setting and story, each shares a startling spiritual similarity with the other. Both begin in horrific ways, placing our leads in personality-defining peril. Each then moves them through more and more torment - for Precious, it’s beatings at the hands of her worthless welfare mother; for the duo in The Road it’s the threat of disease, violence, and death. Halfway through, a sort of sanctuary is discovered. For Precious, it’s Ms. Blu Rain’s special school. For The Road‘s Father and Son, it’s an abandoned fall out shelter loaded with supplies. In each circumstance, a small glimmer of hope is established, a chance for each one of these put-upon souls to finally breakout and live, if only for a little. Then, a last act a-bomb of illness drops. Precious is diagnosed with HIV. The Road’s patriarch appears to be suffering from some terminal lung ailment and grows weaker and weaker until…
By the time they end, each film using the status quo as a statement of austere, undeniable everyday realism, hope has been quashed and all we can wish for is a significantly less amount of pain before the characters pass - and even then, neither narrative offers a guarantee. It’s the starkness of each statement (Precious will be another grave government statistic, the Boy may find another to care for him, but there’s little optimism in this rapidly dying world) that renders both Precious and The Road into tough emotional rollercoasters. By their very nature, tragedies are supposed to provide catharsis, a chance for the audience, through the events and their depiction, to purge themselves of the feelings fostered by the stories. Instead, both Precious and The Road sink under your skin, bothering you with their lack of humanity and undying sense of futility. And it’s an effective approach that’s hard to shake.
Perhaps if they functioned as metaphor or allegory, maybe if they weren’t such onerous predictions of how people will de-evolve under the harshest of conditions, we’d find a way to make each film function as entertainment. Again, film doesn’t have to be all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but it doesn’t have to be all rape, human sacrifice, and mutilation either. Or worse, it doesn’t have to lack a valid point within its atrocity. We will easily accept the desolate and the pessimistic if the message behind the wretchedness is clear. But in both films, there’s no clear counterbalance. All they offer is crime without any possibility of punishment - and then they toss in more wrongs to up the level of loss.
Take Precious, for example. This overweight teen is already dealing with the terrifying social prejudices produced by a country that doesn’t care about minorities. Indeed, she is seen as wallowing through a system that offers some compassion but little resolve. The character of Ms. Weiss, expertly essayed by singer Mariah Carrey, can only be as helpful as the bureaucracy she’s saddled with. When Precious really needs a friend - or even better, a savior - there are none available, present or possible. She’s not just mandated to suffer - she’s preselected to do so.
The Road is no better. Father has done everything he can to teach his neophyte child (a kid born after Armageddon and therefore unaware of the true nature of people) about trust and defense, and yet at every step, said strictures are tested. During one incomprehensibly nasty scene, the duo come across a human slaughterhouse - people herded like cattle in a basement pit, parts of their bodies removed or missing for the “butchers” who keep them there as captives - and food supply. The child doesn’t get it. Later on, when Father confronts a black man who he believes has been following him (and did indeed steal from them), he strips him naked in the freezing nuclear winter weather and leaves him to the elements. While his son wants to help, all Dad can do is rear back like a caged animal and defend his “territory”.
In both cases, the message is clear: “Give up all Hope Ye Who Enter Here!” Thankfully, the acting in both films is so fantastic, so nuanced and intricate that we accept the deliberate dire straights and are thoroughly engaged. But then the sneaky suspicious that all this suffering has been for naught comes crawling back to the fore. It’s almost impossible to escape the conclusion. After all, what has Precious learned? That life sucks? That her mom hates her for “stealing” her man (how the woefully misguided matriarch rationalizes the several rapes of her child)? That even the system build to protect her, can’t? That she’ll eventually die from an STD that was forced upon her and her child? Or how about the pair from The Road? That they are a constant source of food for the rest of the dying world? That nowhere is safe and nothing should be taken for granted? That humanity will turn into vicious, amoral monsters the minute normal protocol breaks down? That the next war will be the last? That the world, like its population, is dying for the final time?
Again, no one needs these films to find a happy way of wrapping up their stories. No one is asking that Precious find a man who loves her, or a loving home to take her in, or even a cure for her progressive disease. No one is asking for her mother to be jailed, her father to be castrated, or her social workers to be chastised for not finding a solution to her sad dilemma in the first place. Similarly, we don’t want Father to live, to discover a new civilized community along the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, or raise his son to be the next President of the New United States. But what we don’t want - nay DEMAND - is a reason to go along with such suffering. We can gain enough torment from our own lives to create such a sour simulation. We don’t need an artform known for casting a reflection on the world to remind us of how unconscionably awful it is. Both Precious and The Road offer all pain and no gain. For some, that’s perfectly fine. Many will want a little more meaning in their misery.