Turn on your TV set this fall, and you’ll see a few new faces: There’s the lovelorn pie maker who can bring people back to life with the touch of a hand in Pushing Daisies. Or Aliens in America’s sweet Pakistani exchange student, who lands in Wisconsin, faces post-9/11 prejudices, and bonds with his new best friend. And then there’s Chuck, a cute IT whiz who — whoops! — accidentally ends up as a government agent who’s charged with bringing down the bad guys. Things couldn’t be more different at the multiplex: In Sweeney Todd, a murderous barber’s victims are baked into pies. Go see Rendition, and you’ll be treated to the story of an Egyptian-born chemical engineer who gets intercepted in a D.C. airport, taken to a secret detention facility, and tortured. And then there’s Agent 47, the genetically enhanced assassin-for-hire and star of Hitman, who’s always down for blowing out some brains.
No question about it, some of the most anticipated projects on movie lovers’ dockets this season are less typically Merchant Ivory and more Guns & Ammo. Punctuated by bursts of graphic violence and practically drenched in plasma, these hard-hitting (and sometimes hard-to-watch) films are ushering in one of the most savage seasons in recent memory, and it’s in marked contrast to a TV season that’s fizzing with whimsy and quirks. ”These are dark, disturbing times,” says director Neil Jordan, whose vigilante drama The Brave One debuted at $13.5 million last weekend. ”Movies have to reflect the times we live in. [The Brave One] is about violence, pure and simple. It struck me as an appropriate theme at the moment.”
Indeed, The Brave One’s No. 1 opening and the strong response to David Cronenberg’s gangster drama Eastern Promises (which features two ghastly throat slashings) are part of a building trend that began earlier this year with The Departed’s Oscar win and — berviolent 300’s huge box office take of more than $210 million. This September alone, every weekend features a brutal film, whether it’s The Brave One, vengeance-tinged Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the gruesome action-horror sequel Resident Evil: Extinction, or the searing antiterrorism thriller The Kingdom. And the bloodletting will continue through the end of the year, with everything from such spectacles as Rendition and Hitman to Oscar bait like the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Even the usually chipper musical genre will notch a higher body count this holiday season: Last Christmas, Paramount razzle-dazzled audiences with Dreamgirls, but the only sparkle in DreamWorks’ December musical Sweeney Todd will come from star Johnny Depp’s gore-covered razor. ”There’s a lot of blood,” admits costar Helena Bonham Carter. As producer and screenwriter John Logan explains, ”It’s a story about a man who murders people. It’s important that it’s R-rated. This is not ‘Do-Re-Mi.’ It’s love songs where a man is slitting other people’s throats.”
So what’s behind Hollywood’s current obsession with death and destruction? The most common theory is that it’s an ongoing response to the grisly news regularly flowing out of Iraq (barring major problems, movies generally take two to three years to arrive on screen), not to mention an artistic expression of collective post-9/11 anxiety. ”In this era of snuff porn that you can find on the Internet courtesy of extremists,” explains Eastern Promises director Cronenberg, ”people are curious and fearful. And I think that it would feel wrong to do a throat cutting without being aware of those things.” Paul Schrader, who wrote the 1976 vigilante classic Taxi Driver, agrees. ”It has to be tied to Iraq. These are furious times. People feel impotent. People are resigned to the system not working, and that manifests itself in these violent fantasies.” Even if this latter-year glut of gore sounds like (literal) overkill, Logan says that it’s foolish to overestimate audiences’ appetites for ferocity. And he points to two classics from another era defined by an unpopular war: ”Go look at The Godfather. Go look at The Wild Bunch. Audiences have [always] been drawn to the catharsis of violence.” Soon we’ll see if modern moviegoers continue to feel the same craving. — Additional reporting by Gregory Kirschling