Sicario, alongside its sequel, Day of the Soldado, is essentially a horror film about American foreign policy – but it’s very much a film for white Americans. For obvious reasons, film critics in Mexico abhorred it: while it may (or may not?) deliver a devastating critique of U.S. involvement in the War on Drugs, it does so largely at the expense of its Mexican characters.
This is probably not by design: Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter, is a white American. Denis Villeneuve, the director, is a white French-Canadian. Such artists, like myself, have no idea what it’s like to be a Mexican citizen from the inside; we don’t know how that shapes you. Limitations of that sort affect the way that you portray such characters, and neither cartel members themselves or unrelated Mexican citizens are portrayed with any particular sympathy in either of the two films. They’re scarcely characters. They’re “stage dressing.”
Ghostland has been hailed as a spellbinding critique of misogyny in horror cinema, though mostly by male film critics. That’s high praise, but it’s by no means obvious. What does-and-does-not constitute misogyny is not always immediately obvious to those of us who live-and-move-and-have-our-being within the experience of maleness: It’s not at all uncommon to think or do or say something that appears harmless on first brush only to realize, by the time the sentence has left your mouth, that it was loaded with malignant stereotypes and assumptions (I speak from experience): western culture is broadly misogynistic, and – although things are getting better – that innate misogyny can take on a life of its own, so to speak, and work through us even without our express intention. That is, I am never sexist on purpose, but I am rarely not sexist. I mean well, as most folks do, but “I’ve only got one hand on the wheel,” so to speak. As a result, men like myself aren’t particularly reliable guides as to what constitutes misogyny itself and what constitutes a critique thereof.
Hence the importance of diversifying your reading list: film criticism, in general, is a “boy’s club,” and so is Grindhouse theology; while we have made attempts at bringing on more female writers, we remain overwhelmingly male. If we are your go-to website for “Christian analysis” on film and television, your pool of influence will be impoverished. I say this not out of some broad commitment to diversity, but because there really are limitations to the human experience. That’s no “post-modern innovation.” That’s paraphrasing Solomon, and Saint Paul, and the Gospel of Mark: we don’t see things comprehensively, or even particularly clearly, but “through a glass darkly.” And the particular glass through which we read films has a decidedly male gaze.
One fascinating consequence, at this particular juncture, is that vaguely conscientious male critics tend to seek out “feminist undertones” in everything we like: I badly want Blue Velvet to be “an affirmation of Dorothy Valens experience as a battered woman,” which, honestly, it might or might not be; I am sheepishly invested in the hope that Brawl in Cell Block 99 is “a visceral denunciation of the cyclical nature of violent machismo,” but director S. Craig Zahler’s next film, the Mel Gibson vehicle, Dragged Across Concrete, might render that interpretation unlikely; I love Takashi Miike, and would like to bolster his bona fides by reading Audition as “a clever inversion of expectations” – a kind of cinematic blacklight for which our nascent misogyny is an old couch, as we spend an hour watching our protagonist quietly prey on his mysterious young lover, only to be horrified as she turns his depredation back onto him in the final act. But Miike knows about this reading. And he flatly denies it. Desperate to valorize our favorite filmmakers, male filmgoers often project feminist undertones where they probably aren’t.
Of course, Ghostland might be exactly that: As Simon Abrams pointed out, Laugier hits most of the standard slasher beats within the first half-hour. During this period, I became worried – had Laugier finally made a dull film? But as he moved into the second act, my fears dissipated when it grew clear that, far from serving as a rather languorous throwback the days when teenagers flocked to films where hulking assailants skewered nubile young women with phallus-shaped weaponry, Laugier’s film was more interested in the way that victims deal with such acute trauma (See Chris Crane’s review). In this sense, the film scratches a rather persistent itch: it’s a horror film that touches on mental health without exploiting it for cheap scare tactics (to draw upon another Chris Crane article).
But it’s more: as Abrams also points out, Laugier is interested in the reality of that trauma depicted – the camera lingers on wilted flesh, bruised faces; when a horror film villain smashes his fist against your cheekbone, it changes your cheekbone; Battering is concrete; It changes your body, alters the shape of your face and shoulders; the color of your skin turns a gruesome yellow and purple; your eyes puff up and your hair turns oily. The violence enacted on women in such films is not akin to Bugs Bunny smashing a cartoon skillet against Elmer Fudd’s cartoon face; we are watching a human person brutalized, and we are entertained.
A filmmaker shows you images, the saying goes, but only hucksters tell you what to see. Some, like David Lynch, trust that some ethereal goodness to the human spirit will guide you into drawing noble sentiments from his grizzly machinations, but it’s debatable whether that’s a responsible approach. Horror often points a camera at brutality towards women, but what, if anything, is it saying? Such questions may be at the forefront of Incident in a Ghostland, but I don’t know, and neither does Simon Abrams. We don’t have Laugier’s running commentary; we simply have his images. And while he doesn’t tell us what to see, he does give us images that will affect us.
As I’m writing now, I’m walking from my apartment in Wake Forest, North Carolina to a restaurant downtown to read a book by Alan Wolfe, about which Americans think what thoughts about which things, and why. The book is 20 years old, and it’s a bit disconcerting: He paints a portrait of the largest American voting block that might otherwise convince you that things are going to be more than okay – that the enlightenment is working, that the American populace was paying good attention amidst the staggering cultural shifts we experienced in the 1960s, and that, to echo Corey Robin, even those of us who occupy the farthest fringes of the right-wing have internalised and made our peace with the best insights that our flower children forebears had to offer between shifts at the coffee shop.
That’s to say, you would not have guessed that we have moved, not so much to the right ideologically but morally. I fielded a call from a man in my church a few months ago and listened as he lamented Donald Trump’s acquiescence to the “Send Her Back” crowds at the previous night’s presidential address. This particularly pagan belligerence, according to historians like Kevin Kruse, has never not been part of us, as the outbreaks of violence against hippies in the Nixon years probably illustrate, but you’d never have guessed, in the year of our Lord 1999, that 20 years in the future would feel like 20 years in the past.
I say this because media representation seems to bear a significant portion of the blame, here. Your uncle thinks black men pose a unique threat to his white granddaughters. They don’t, of course, but why wouldn’t he think that? What other image has he been shown, on full blast, from every conceivable direction? I like Charles Bronson films, which are Right Wing Revenge Fantasies, and I like Troma films, which are Left Wing Troll Vehicles, and both of them have force-fed me and others like me with images of “unclean” and “predatory” black men, “welfare queens,” and worse. When I think about people who don’t look like me, I rarely think about the ones I actually know; the fantasies that I imbibe through my TV screen shape the way I think about flesh-and-blood people.
Assuming that other people watch the same things as I do, they will be similarly affected, if not identically so (counterpoint: my grandma, who watches a lot of Fox News, is convinced to this day that O.J. was framed). The imagery in films like Sicario and Ghostland will not simply entertain them. It will change them. I don’t have a solution to this. I bring it up because I’ve churned out a few films myself. None of them particularly noteworthy, obviously, but media is media, and even poor media holds the sort of bizarro magic I’ve described above. Meaning that every film I’ve written has a life of its own, it does something to the folks who watch it.
One such script is a supernatural “police procedural” involving an abusive father who is ultimately rehabilitated at the end. It’s a grim rehabilitation, which requires him to “crucify himself” and turn over the keys to the folks he’s victimized, but a rehabilitation nonetheless. Despite the laments conservative cultural critics, our day-and-time is not “overrun with witch-hunters.” It’s the opposite. It has been and remains beyond question that folks who pretend to be sorry are entitled to forgiveness, at least for most people you’d ask. The righteous mobs on Twitter are both righteous and a mob but they are not representative. By all indications, they are a minority. A loud and elucidating one, but hardly an accurate gauge of what your neighbors generally think.
As always, living in a bastion (or cesspool) of hyper-individualism, most folks are unconcerned about so-and-so’s sexual misconduct. The 2020 election is going to roll around, and we’re probably going to get four more years of Trump, no matter how many teenage girls credibly accused him of molesting them. The next Supreme Court nominee will probably be accused of sexual harassment, and the accusation will probably be true. He will be appointed anyway, and Life Will Go On. None of this will be good, or right, or acceptable, but it will be what we, the people, ask for and receive – at least if by “we” one means the majority.
In a milieu like this, is there any meaningful difference between rehabilitating an abusive character and outright exonerating them? I’d like to think so, but functionally speaking, it’s not at all clear. Toxic people are people nonetheless, and I don’t particularly want to live in a universe in which the toxic are toxic because they are toxic, in which human nature is unchangeable, in which the scumbags of the world will live-and-die as scumbags, where change is impossible, and the only wise response to other people’s toxicity is to remove them from your life and never look back. But when the norm is to exonerate your toxic pals as a matter of course, to such an extent that their victims rarely find justice or even an uncoerced apology, your Vaguely Redemptive Third Act™ lands much differently than you meant for it to.
As before, I don’t have an answer for any of this, and this article is essentially a sequel (the second half? Perhaps the first half) of an article called Horror Cinema and the Myth of Redemptive Violence.
What horror often does, as far as I can tell, is break past the veneer of normalcy. It gives our deeply engrained patterns of thought and behavior a healthy shove: Are you sure your lifestyle isn’t predatory? Are you sure the problems are “out there” rather than “in here?” Are you sure there’s no God, no right or wrong, no transcendent purpose to all of this?
As a genre, it accomplishes this task, perhaps, more straightforwardly (and certainly more aggressively) than any other. But that redemptive potential requires us to “keep it” – to self-police; to root out whatever vestiges remain of the destructive patterns and habits it manages to challenge and transform. Let’s at least try.
[The featured image is Rain, Steam and Speed, by J.M.W. Turner, c. 1844.]