For all the talk about the darkening mood in America, the aftershocks of a particularly nihilistic election season, an economic malaise that’s hanging around like a bad cold, and an ever-more divided electorate, the number one film at the box office in 2012 did not even remotely touch on any of these matters. The Avengers presented dangers, sure, but hardly the kinds of things that worry the average person. Rather, Joss Whedon’s film is a classic Saturday-morning-cartoon celebration of teamwork. It envisions a world where everybody from dead-eyed assassins to mutant scientists, Norse gods, and patriotic squares could settle their differences and band together against a common foe. The world of The Avengers is in essence a benign one, where threats come from the outside and can be vanquished… at least until the sequel.
This is not the universe inhabited by many of the year’s best films, which raised grimmer possibilities. Here the social contract is weakened to the point of invisibility and economic concerns trump human ones. These films explore such issues with a particular edge and verve, even when, like Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, the setting is nearly pastoral. Here, in an unnamed Midwestern state, diminished opportunities are the norm. Matt Damon and Frances McDormand play Steve and Sue, a pair of cocky advance team salespeople for a giant natural gas concern. Their job is to sweep into town, act like they belong there, and remind everyone there of precisely how limited his future looks. And then they offer a $5,000 check and a lottery ticket’s chances at getting a slice of the potential earnings in fracking.
What Sue and Steve are doing has a long history, recalling what the US government who first pushed Native Americans off their land. The gas company counts on its victims being ignorant and desperate, and so not notice either the bad deal it’s offering or the hideous environmental price tag attached. The point is underlined when one of the townspeople wonders out loud why, if hydraulic fracturing for natural gas was so safe and awesome, why weren’t they doing it in Manhattan? Because that’s where the money and the power is located.
Another take on how power works is provided by Compliance, 2012’s great bloodless horror film. A queasy little bell jar of a story, it is primarily about the powerless, with an unspoken undercurrent of financial anxiety. Sandra, the fast-food restaurant manager played by the incomparably infuriating Ann Dowd, is in the midst of another day full of bad choices and meager rewards when she gets a phone call from the police. She hears that one of her workers, boilerplate blonde teenager Becky (Dreama Walker), has been spotted stealing from a customer. Sandra is asked to take Becky into the back room and question her.
The rest of the film unfolds like a version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Sandra takes command after command from the voice on the phone, subjecting Becky to further and further humiliations. All of this is conducted under sallow fluorescent lighting, a corollary for Sandra and Becky’s unspoken fear: I’ll get in trouble if I disobey. If Becky is initially rebellious, she keeps going along with each of Sandra’s bizarre demands. Sandra herself is too eager to show how well she can get along and do what is expected of her.
It’s too much to say that Compliance would not be plausible in an America where unemployment was at three percent. But there is a reason that fascism flourishes in uncertain times. When people aren’t sure where the next paycheck is coming from, or if there will even be a next paycheck, moral concerns tend to be neglected. If the world outside the bleak eatery here wasn’t one of decimated industries without economic or social safety nets, Sandra and Becky’s ritualized dance of acquiescence might not hold quite so much resonance.
The Hunger Games
The first film version of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic Hunger Games books is also about the effects of poverty and hopelessness. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a Roman Coliseum-like death match put on by a tyrannical government. The film offers hints of an Avengers-like humanism, with some of the contestants inclined to generosity and even altruism. But they are the exceptions. In the main, people in this universe have the look of those who have seen the abyss and will descend to any depths to avoid it, or, if wealthy and privileged, to preserve their distance from it. The Running Man-like concept is worth repeating, as today’s televised sadism, faith in militarism, and class divisions are only expanding. The evolution hinted at in the conclusion is not fueled by anger over non-representative government or political differences, but by empty stomachs.
Another sort of dilemma grounds Looper. Here a time travel crisis is initiated when Joe, an assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in 2074 who’s paid to eliminate people shipped to him from the future is assigned to kill his older self (Bruce Willis). The story feels uncomfortably familiar. Certainly, the tech is imaginary, and in this future, solar panels are widespread. But when the hyper-capitalistic hero (he stashes his fee money beneath his apartment’s wooden floor) gets to Kansas, he finds a society less civilized than libertarian, a community where everybody takes the law into her own hands, leaving little room for peace or the common good. The very idea of a larger civilization appears to have collapsed under the related weights of gangsterism and vagrancy. It feels like the logical result of too many trendlines, a hollowed-out America where the only jobs left are those that involve taking from others.
Killing Them Softly
The year’s most brutal indictment of this system comes in Killing Them Softly. Andrew Dominick’s chilly, vaguely over-satisfied crime film is based on George V. Higgins’ profane novel of life and talk (and talk, and talk) amongst the underworld demimonde. Some hack crooks knock off a card game for what they think is easy money. Word gets back to the organization in charge of the game and Jackie (Brad Pitt), a hitman with a soft touch, is dispatched to relieve a few people of their lives. It’s a small nugget of a story, one that Higgins used as an excuse for his windy conversational exchanges that show that the crooks—for all their macho posturing and pie-in-the-sky dreaming—are utterly powerless.
The film is transplanted from the book’s Boston area setting to an unidentified nowhere that looks an awful lot like New Orleans. Amid the devastation, nobody seems to have a job and everybody looks exhausted. The crooks do anything for money, including kidnapping dogs, and the local mob bosses remain off screen, passing down their cruel but strangely vague directives via their well-dressed flunkie (Richard Jenkins).
The film’s steady march towards execution plays out against the sturm and drang of the 2008 US presidential election. A skittery title sequence jumbles up shots of a trash-strewn tunnel with audio of Obama’s soaring rhetoric—a road to nowhere. Asked whether he has room for friendships or loyalties, Jackie can only scoff, “Don’t make me laugh.” He nearly snarls the film’s last line, briefly agitated rather than utterly smoothly professional, as he’s been to this point. Now, he lays it out: “I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own.”
Does he speak truth or just easy cynicism, a theme imported into a rather shapeless crime narrative to give it weight? There’s an argument to be made both ways. You could even posit, quite effectively, that of course all people are on their own, and always have been, in every society. But with so much of the national conversation focused on what, if any, responsibility a government has towards its people—whether to heal them or protect them from automatic weapons—it’s hard to ignore the anxiety that Jackie assumes and articulates.
It’s worth noting that the only movie of 2012 that makes a strong case for America being a cohesive social body with moral purpose binding it together is Lincoln. For those keeping track, that film is set 147 years ago.