Viggo Mortensen

The Films that Fill Me with Dread

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For me, winter break is a time to catch up on all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year. I had a second baby at the beginning of 2010 so “all the movies that I didn’t get to see in the theaters during the year” = “all of the movies released this year.” But don’t pity me, friends. My Netflix queue is pretty kick ass these days and I’ve really enjoyed playing catch up over the last few weeks.

Wheeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

Earlier this week my husband and I decided to watch a film that we had both been wanting to see for months, The Road (2009, John Hillcoat). We were at his parent’s house and had their TV all to ourselves, which is a rarity in a house where 8 people are staying. We were about 40 minutes in to the film when my husband’s sister and her boyfriend returned from a friend’s house. We chatted with them for about 15 minutes and when they headed upstairs I said to my husband “Okay, let’s finish the movie.” He replied, somewhat despondently,”Do we have to?”

Even Omar didn't want to finish watching THE ROAD.

You see, The Road is a real downer. It focuses on two characters, the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) — they are never given proper names — who spend the majority of the film wandering through a frigid, grey-toned, postapocalyptic wasteland. They are dirty, tired, and hungry. All plant and animal life has died, so food is almost non-existent. Things have gotten so bad that people have started to eat each other; in one scene the Man and the Boy happen upon a basement full of naked, emaciated human beings that are being held captive in a makeshift slaughterhouse. Good times.

The Man and the Boy do have a mission. They are heading “South” because the Man hopes that things will be “better” there. But this seems unlikely — the world is dying, after all. So their arduous, seemingly unending journey feels pointless. Yes, the Man tells his son that they must keep going because they have a “fire” inside of them, and they cannot let that fire go out. But why? Why subject your child to this living Hell? To what end? And why subject the viewer to this Hell? The Woman (the Boy’s mother, played by Charlize Theron) had the right idea when she offed herself.

Not fun.

Despite the crushing depression we were experiencing, we did finish watching The Road. But it was difficult. My husband and I even resorted to using coping mechanisms — like heckling the film at moments of high drama — as a way to detach ourselves from the agony. For example, at one point in the film the Man has a breakdown and begins to sob. He is exhausted. His life and the life of his child are continually being threatened. He is dying of some unidentified lung ailment. The world is coming to an end for crying out loud! Right when the emotion of this scene became too much to bear — the Man is beginning to realize that soon he will be leaving his boy alone in this awful world — my husband yelled “Oh wahhhh! Poor me!” Normally I would be annoyed that someone had broken the spell of the film, but now I welcomed it. I needed to be detached from the pain and the agony on-screen. In fact, I was so unsettled by The Road (despite its optimisitic ending), that it took me several hours to fall asleep afterwards and I was plagued with dark and troubling dreams throughout the night.

The next morning I awoke exhausted and angry with myself: why did I decide to watch this movie? After all, a few years ago I made a vow to myself that I would no longer force myself to watch movies that are mentally traumatizing. I came to this decision after watching the English-language remake of Funny Games (2007, Michael Haneke).  For those who don’t know, Funny Games tells the story of a wealthy white family who heads out to their beautiful, idyllic lake house for a family vacation. They are soon taken hostage by two smiling sociopaths, Paul (Michael Pitt) and Peter (Brady Corbett), who mentally torture them before [SPOILER ALERT] killing all three of them. I knew that these deaths were going to happen from the moment I spied Paul’s smiling face and yet I continued to watch. I watched as they tied up the couple’s young son and then killed him with a shotgun. I watched as the mother (Naomi Watts) wailed over the dead body of her only child.  I should have turned the film off then. But I didn’t. I kept watching because I like to finish what I start. I kept telling myself “It’s just a movie.” And then I didn’t sleep all night.

I like you so much better in BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

In the case of both The Road and Funny Games my sleeplessness and nightmares were not caused by fear. I wasn’t worried that a bomb would destroy the world as I slept nor did I fear that two smiling young men would break into the house and hold me and my family hostage. What kept me awake and haunted my dreams was the dread each film stirred inside of me. Both films tapped into my deepest fear — the thing that I dread more than anything else — which is a world in which I will be unable to protect my children from harm. These films exploit these feelings of dread, offering parent protagonists who try and fail to keep their children safe under extreme circumstances.

Every parent's nightmare.

When I watch a drama, I try to sympathize with its protagonists and see the world from their point of view. If I don’t do that, then I don’t feel like I am truly experiencing the story. The directors of Italian Neorealist films like The Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica) depended on this sympathy — without it their films would fail as calls to action. And in melodramas like Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) sympathy, and the tears that flow when we realize that Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) will never be able to tell her mother that she loves her, are central to the genre’s pleasures.

However, this sympathy becomes a liability when watching a film like The Road. For example, every morning the Man wakes up, gasps in terror, and places a frantic, searching hand on the Boy’s chest. He is making sure that the Boy is still there. This little detail filled me with dread. How does the Man even sleep? How could he lie down and rest, knowing that his boy could be stolen away by a band of cannibals? Contemplating such a life, even entertaining the possibility of such an existence, is mentally overwhelming to me. And this pervasive feeling of dread lingers for days, sometimes weeks, after the film is over. For this reason I think I need to stop watching any movie in which children are put in danger or are killed. I’ve already stopped watching zombie movies for similar reasons (they give me terrible nightmares).

But banning certain movies from my life makes me sad. I’ve devoted my life to the study of film so the idea of limiting what I watch doesn’t seem right. Now I know that Kelli Marshall refuses to watch movies with animals in them. And last spring Amanda Lotz wrote a piece for Antenna about how being a mother affected her reaction to a scene from Lost. So I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Who we are affects how we watch and what we watch. But sometimes I wish that it didn’t.

For you, Kelli.

In conclusion, my experience with The Road has led me to wonder: has parenthood limited my ability to watch certain films? Can personal experiences — like my early (and traumatic) exposure to zombie movies — profoundly alter our ability to watch certain types of films? Or do I just need to suck it up?

And what about you: what films fill you with dread and why? Has this kept you from watching them? Or do you enjoy this feeling of dread? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.