In the past year, the ongoing natural disasters, wars, scandals, and other dire facts of life became a deluge. The American public was left with talking heads stoking the partisan anger left over from 2004’s election, opening with Terri Schiavo and closing with the War on Christmas. As New Orleans flooded and President Bush’s poll numbers dropped, it looked like nobody could protect us.
Many films in 2005 dealt explicitly with the effects of fear, reflecting a world where outrage and terror have stewed into perpetual anxiety. Of course, fear is a recurring theme in storytelling, explicit in the physical threats of horror and the neuroses that power comedy. But the sources of fear are constantly shifting. This year, comedy and horror movies were in meager supply, and dread seeped into every other type of film, from indie drama to summer blockbuster.
It was a year when the Batman franchise was reconceived using a gray, dour palette, unleashing Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) on Gotham City and depicting the Caped Crusader’s birth as Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) struggle to harness his childhood phobias. Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) fulfilled Yoda’s warning that “Fear is the path to the dark side.” Steven Spielberg made two films about terrorism; the studios released two airplane thrillers. The paranoid political potboiler was strong in Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Constant Gardener. Small-scale dramas The Squid and the Whale, Brokeback Mountain, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and A History of Violence featured characters dealing with the fear of the self. Even if threats come from without, damage is internal and unavoidable.
On the political front, sources of fear were obvious: terrorism and the Bush administration. Good Night, and Good Luck detailed the suppression that comes from crudely effective scaremongers and corporate entanglements. The Constant Gardener dealt with the fear of what ungodly acts might be perpetuated in our name beyond our borders. Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith echoed Bush’s “You’re either with us or against us,” and if the line was a bit much, the film made clear the fear that, while turning from one threat (say, the Clones), we may run into the arms of another. The War of the Worlds tackled terrorist threats in a traditional sci-fi allegory and its depiction of panic in the midst of disaster was almost uncomfortably reminiscent of September 11th. In Munich, terrorism and state-sponsored assassination formed a dizzying cycle of revenge where the line between victim and perpetrator was blurred.
Overcoming fear is a common theme for children’s stories like the Harry Potters. It indicates a readiness to confront adulthood. The world becomes less scary when it seems more knowable. The past year’s obsessions with fear could either be read as unhealthy stagnation, abstraction into violence, or maybe, like children, efforts to define our fears before we face them.
None of this is especially surprising. For instance, the tangled oil industry politics of Syriana lack the shocking plot twists that would have been used in its ‘70s thriller counterparts, more George Packer than John le Carre. The conspiracy is never hidden, we’re just powerless to do anything about it. In fact, the year’s most disturbing portrait of helplessness, Kyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse, doesn’t have its ghosts killing anyone, only infusing victims with such an intense fear of loneliness that they disappear.
My two favorite films of the year directly address the intertwining of external and internal experiences. Both films are open-ended, and lace their stories with humor. Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale focuses on the Berkman family, each member existing in nervous, angry little spheres that bounce off one another’s screaming “fucks” like they’re afflicted with Tourette’s, lunge with weak armed slaps, then retreat to fumbling sexual diddlings. It was like watching depressed chimps in a poorly designed zoo. The mere intimation that teenaged Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) is willing to face long-suppressed issues instead of perpetuating his parents’ dysfunctional spiral seems like all the resolution you could ask for.
A History of Violence draws on an old fable, specifically harking back to noirs The Killers and Out of the Past, where a small-town citizen has to face his violent past. Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) exposes Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) by spitting out his former name “Joey” like the foulest curse. I didn’t know whether to worry for Tom or about the atrocities that curse implied. But the film moves beyond this initial shock into confrontation, reconciliation, and sordid acceptance, with Stall left a cipher, the danger that might emerge in any neighborhood, the threat we’d rather ignore. At the movie’s heart is David Cronenberg’s criticism of the feigned innocence of a violent America. A History of Violence could be horrifying or hilarious, depending on your point of view. But if there’s a gun on the mantle, it’s bound to go off. We’d better figure out a way to deal with it.