Serial killers. Alcoholism. Death row. Armageddon. If movies get any more depressing this season, theaters are going to have to start mixing Prozac into the popcorn.
Take Seven, the ultra-gruesome maniac-on-the-loose thriller that was No. 1 at the box office for a full month, outperforming everything from Assassins to How to Make an American Quilt. Chockful of drizzly atmospherics, moody background music, and unbelievably extreme violence (a man being force-fed to death, a woman having her nose cut off, a rape-torture scene way too horrible to describe here), the film is so unsettling it'd have Hannibal Lecter sleeping with the night-light on. Yet go figure it's expected to earn upwards of $100 million, making it the most popular movie to hit the nation's multiplexes since Apollo 13.
Obviously, American cinema is in the midst of a mood swing. The feel-good formula that's ruled Hollywood for the last 15 years seems to be giving way to a gloomier, grittier, more serious and, frankly, more pretentious sensibility: Bleak Chic.
More than a dozen new and upcoming films fit the description brooding, hyperintense dramas with unsympathetic characters, challenging plotlines, and endings that aren't necessarily happily ever after. There's The Usual Suspects, a chatty gangster movie that's stuffed with endless philosophical dialogues about the nature of evil (it has grossed $21 million and landed its cast a fashion spread in GQ). Leaving Las Vegas stars Nicolas Cage as a suicidal movie executive who literally drinks himself to death. The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn's cheerless drama about a little girl who gets killed by a drunk driver, opens in November, and Dead Man Walking, due at Christmas, offers Susan Sarandon as a nun who befriends an inmate condemned to death (get this he actually gets executed at the end). And that's not all. Also heading to theaters are Bleak History (Oliver Stone's Nixon), Bleak Poetry (the Rimbaud/Verlaine biopic Total Eclipse), and Bleak Rock & Roll (Jennifer Jason Leigh as a down-and-out singer in Georgia). In short, a Bleak Chic movie for every depressed personality under the rainbow.
So what gives? Why is Hollywood suddenly so serious? What happened to those happy, up-with-people pictures they used to make in the 1980s, when cops were as pure as Arnold Schwarzenegger and prostitutes as sweet as Julia Roberts? When did Harvey Keitel become a bigger star than Macaulay Culkin?
Everybody, it seems, has a theory. ''In the '80s, everyone was rich,'' suggests screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who penned Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, a Bleak Comedy about a bunch of dunderheaded hoods who accidentally murder a Mob boss's daughter, due in theaters Dec. 15. ''They were snorting cocaine on Wall Street. Everything was fine and dandy. But now there's trouble in the world. The L.A. riots. We're disenchanted. Now it's reality. And in real life, Hugh Grant doesn't kiss Andie MacDowell in the rain. In real life, Hugh Grant goes to Sunset Boulevard and gets a blow job.''