By Jeffrey Overstreet
Just as the Man and the Boy climbed down into the basement and found all of those chained prisoners, their bodies half-eaten by their cannibal captors, I came to a troubling realization.
I have terrible taste in Christmas movies.
Last year, while families were getting weepy over reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life, I watched Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale, an R-rated story of a large family reunion rife with lies, infidelity, drunkenness, and profanity. Fleeting reminders of the “reason for the season” were thick with irony.
Shopping mall cinemas fill up on holiday weekends as frantic consumers seek a break from the bargain-hunting madness. They want an escape from their troubles. Well, they’d better watch out. The films I’m seeing this holiday season might send them running right back to embrace their daily tribulation. If you want to see the world “in sin and error pining,” go to the movies.
I was already gloomy, thanks to A Serious Man, with its vision of affliction, disaster, moral failures, and divine judgment. Then there was Where the Wild Things Are, with its cheery reminders that the sun will someday burn out, that parents fail their children, and that the best we can hope for is a little grace from Mom.
Just before Thanksgiving I watched Treeless Mountain, an extraordinary new movie by South Korean filmmaker So Yong Kim and, well...so much for motherly love. Mom abandons her two beautiful daughters, six year-old Jin and three year-old Bin. She leaves them with her hard-hearted, hard-drinking sister, where they suffer from neglect, hunger, and verbal abuse. They’re forced to fend for themselves, two fragile souls lost in Seoul.
Jin and Bin learn to make money for food by catching and roasting grasshoppers, then selling them for snacks. Watch the blackening insects squirm helplessly on the skewers—you won’t miss the metaphor. And it’s hard to watch these children driven by necessity to start a business at the age most of us started kindergarten.
But survival is costly. If you can’t sell grasshoppers, well, you can always sell yourself.
That’s the way of the world in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. Call-girl Christine—a.k.a. Chelsea—makes a life out of lying. And it’s a different lie for every man who pays for her call-girl services, until we’re not even sure she knows who she is.
The only thing Christine can depend on, in her opinion, is her belief in some trendy strain of astrology. True love seems so impossible in her world that the best she can hope for is a boyfriend who will respect her private religion and not get in the way of her profession.
For Christine, relationships are commodities to be bought and sold. Conversations are all about acting. She doesn’t dare risk trusting anyone with her true self, because everybody’s in this game for themselves. And she’s a player too: She has a boyfriend of sorts, but she’ll drop him if a more appealing partner appears—even if that better deal is married with children.
The Girlfriend Experience shows us a more desolate, soulless landscape than any other movie this year. Soderbergh will leave you feeling emptier and more distraught than even John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Sure, Soderbergh’s movie shows us beautiful people in a flashy and sophisticated city, present-day, while The Road follows a father and son, malnourished and desperate, through a perilous, colorless, post-apocalyptic wasteland. But throughout McCarthy’s harrowing story of a world consumed by darkness, the Man and the Boy cling to flickers of conscience.
They call it “carrying the fire.”
And they love each other with a passionate, sacrificial love. Whenever the Man’s violent survival instincts kick in, the Boy is there with an appeal to his conscience. In this nightmare, where the survivors must carry only what they need, faith, hope, and love shine out bright as any star.
Packing light is also a theme in Jason Reitman’s new comedy Up in the Air. In it, frequent-flier Ryan Bingham knows how to travel efficiently, carrying everything he needs in a backpack.
But he also avoids relationships. In fact, that’s his job: severing ties. He’s the guy that corporations call in to help them fire people and downsize.
Commitment? It’ll drag you down. Family? It’s a burden. The fewer people in your life, the better, says Bingham. As a result, he can move fast, but we know he’s in denial. He’s a lonely, self-serving soul going nowhere fast in a world where tenderness is hard to find.
Movies like this may depress a lot of holiday shoppers. They’ll be reminded of the darkness beyond the shopping mall decorations. They’ll see both the rich and the poor searching desperately for hope and redemption. They’ll see needy travelers who are looking for a safe place to stay, who want kindness while the world turns against them. Maybe they’ll remember their neighbors, or maybe they’ll see their own crooked reflection.
I sure did.
These reminders of the profound darkness around me have rekindled my appreciation for a song:
Oh ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing
Oh rest beside the weary road....
If we are going to prepare our hearts this sacred season, and “carry the fire” into the coming year, maybe these are just the Christmas movies we need.