Where Have Paranoid Thrillers Gone?

I’m trying out writing some thoughts beyond reviews, because I just don’t have the time and money to watch enough movies to provide as much content as I would like. This particular feature is going to be just a little article about the genre of “paranoid thrillers.”

The paranoid thriller is a genre defined by the conspiratorial world that the protagonist uncovers, a world of lies and deception that this protagonist attempts to unravel in order to find the truth at its heart. The protagonists are never clear heroic types or even the sort of “un-moral” heroes that populate film noir but rather innocents, people pulled into the web of lies and deceit by forces outside themselves much the way that Alfred Hitchcock’s heroes so often were. The villains typically possess either a brutal pragmatism that they suggest requires abolition of high-minded ideals or a vicious idealism that allows to practical considerations to stand in the way of the golden age they see, and in either case are usually in some sort of official capacity, even if they are there under false pretenses.

The genre is perhaps best exemplified by the brilliant Three Days of the Condor (Sydney Pollack, USA 1973), one of my personal favorite films, in which CIA bookworm (He says once, “I’m not a spy! I just read books!” Joe Turner uncovers something strange but of no obvious meaning: a poor-selling mystery that was translated into an odd assortment of languages with no apparent logic behind its translations. Turner files a report on his discovery, which eventually leads to his entire office’s murder while he is literally out to lunch. When he calls for help, Turner suddenly realizes that in the world of espionage, with his unit destroyed, he has no way to know whom he can trust, and he spends the rest of the film attempting to find out why someone attacked his unit, uncovering a vast conspiracy, a “CIA inside the CIA” that goes all the way to the top. In the end, Turner finds that the CIA is “playing games” (their words) to be prepared for the mere possibility of shortages in oil, food, or other resources in the future even though the games include murders of both operatives and innocents. He attempts to take out the conspiracy the best way he can: revealing it to the New York Times, saying that the CIA should ask the public instead of getting its desires by such means. The film ends with Turner walking away, looking over his shoulder, unsure of whether the public would approve of what the CIA is doing or not and unsure of whether the conspiracy will still be out to kill him.

It’s a tangled web of conspirators whose motive is unclear until the last few moments, a world where morality is so defined only by honesty and truth rather than a suite of rights and wrongs that a paid assassin is the most moral, most trustworthy person he can meet. Film noir occupied a similar world, but its conspiracies were smaller and the criminals had far less of a tendency to have some sort of official sanction. The paranoid thriller is about the dangers of large, powerful, secretive government, not the dark forces that move people in noir.

Some date the paranoid thriller’s first mature example as Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, USA 1944), which played on the fear of the Nazis and their increasing power in crafting a story around a Nazi sympathizing spy ring. After that point, the paranoid thriller essentially languished as a subset of spy story rather than a full-fledged genre until the Red Scare of the 1960s brought about another suitable enemy in Communism, an enemy that could infect everyone’s neighbors and turn them into a conspiracy to overthrow the nation, best exemplified by The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, USA 1962).As hokey and silly as The Manchurian Candidate‘s Communist mind-control plot may appear today, its central idea of outside forces gaining the seat of power in the country is something that has never again left the public consciousness.However, what really opened the box to turn the paranoid thriller into an important genre was Watergate. After that scandal, a slew of paranoid thrillers with clear connections to it appeared: The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, USA 1974) followed a surveillance expert who stumbled across a conspiracy while tape recording conversations for a client. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1974) found a political party willing to hire assassins to stop its opposition. All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, USA 1976) addressed Watergate directly.And even after its post-Watergate boom, the paranoid thriller remained popular: Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, USA 1976) and The Boys from Brazil (Franklin J. Schaffner, USA/UK 1978) brought back the Nazis and suggested that the then-current government was unaware of the threat they still posed. Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, USA 1973), Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, USA 1976) and Network (Sidney Lumet, USA 1976) all in some way worried that the government or the media was desensitizing society and making us vulnerable to governmental abuses.

Throughout the 1980s, a duel raged between paranoid thrillers that saw a lone hero saving society from corruption that could easily have starred John Wayne if he were in his prime (Chuck Norris made approximately one billion of these films.) and paranoid thrillers that saw courage in stopping similar vigilantism–a clear proxy for the political battles being fought at the time.

However, since then, the paranoid thriller has seen a decline in popularity. There are certainly elements of the paranoid thriller to Divergent (Neil Burger, USA 2014), but that film is more concerned with emotional/internal motivations than with political/external motivations and exists in a world that is much more up-front about its motivations and actions than the worlds of espionage and spycraft that so often populated the genre throughout its history. Indeed, the last clear example of a paranoid thriller is The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, USA/Malta/France/UK) 2006, and even there the conspiracy is a religious rather than a political one.

Perhaps nothing can so symbolize the death of the paranoid thriller so easily as the two versions of Edge of Darkness. In its first incarnation, it was an overlong, over-complicated UK miniseries from 1985 that began with a man’s daughter’s death that turned out to be connected to a conspiracy involving nuclear weapons that includes the government in its wrongdoing that was nonetheless extremely popular with critics and the public. In 2005, writer/director Martin Campbell brought his own series back with a film version, attaching disgraced star Mel Gibson. (Presumably, the interest in the film was not high enough to attract a star who could get other work more easily.) Neither critics nor audiences embraced the film and, even though it was a much more tightly focused and interesting version of the narrative than the earlier version, it sank from view quickly.

I won’t pretend to be able to predict whether the paranoid thriller will return, but it seems to have died a quiet death sometime in the 1990s, and it’s a shame, because it has long been an enjoyable and endlessly adaptable genre that has provided us with innumerable memorable films. Films like Night of the Living Dead (George A Romero, USA 1968) slowly turned horror into the genre du jour for making points about possible political dangers and modern political documentarians have proven adept at using people’s willingness to accept conspiracies to drive their own work, and we don’t seem to be on the verge of turning back anytime soon.

Movie Review: “Divergent” (Neil Burger, USA 2014)

Neil Burger’s career as a director has been awful. He directed The Illusionist (USA/Czech Republic 2006)—an awful, pointless film that seems to have been released at the same time as The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2006) in order to confuse viewers into going to watch the wrong film. Then he made an entire film based on the far-too-common myth that people only use some small percentage of their brain in Limitless (USA 2011), apparently hoping that enough people only used a small enough percentage of their brain to be happy with that dumb action movie with science fiction window dressing. And yet, he not only keeps getting more at-bats, but he’s getting them with increasingly higher stakes, and he keeps getting praised along the way.

So, of course, when he had a new big-budget young-adult film coming out with a plot so outlandish that it was laughable in the logline, I was first in line. If you took that line seriously, adjust your sarcasm meter. (Go ahead. I’ll wait. You’re going to need it.)

I actually decided to watch this film because of the vast wasteland that is spring in movies and because I hate to miss a Kate Winslet* performance.

The basis of the film is pretty simple: in a post-apocalyptic future, only one city remains (as far as we know), and the leaders have organized the city into “factions” that are supposedly based on their personalities in order to keep everyone contented enough that the wars that destroyed the world don’t return. There are the jocks, the nerds, the . . . oh, wait, we’re supposed to be pretending this isn’t really just an adaptation of a middle school lunch room: the Dauntless, the Erudite, the Candor, the Amity, and the Abegnation. At age 16, every child takes a personality test and then chooses a faction, most following the test’s result but with no such requirement. It’s not dissimilar from Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, though its insistence on claiming that it’s based on “personality” gives everything a veneer of legitimacy.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior, born to the selfless Abnegation faction (Who are amazingly good-looking, clean-skinned people for “rejecting vanity” and have incredible hair and makeup for people who dislike mirrors.), takes the test and is given the extraordinarily rare result that she is “divergent”—she doesn’t fit any one faction. Since it’s a young adult story, we know where this is going: she’s going to go join the most fun faction (Dauntless, the fearless warriors–just imagine how boring a movie of Abegnation or Amity would be!) and fake fitting in, start out having trouble but eventually become a leader, find another divergent to fall in love with, and then lead the revolution against this bizarre totalitarian regime.

And, that’s exactly what happens. Every note of this film is so telegraphed as to be almost a joke. One character ham-handedly asks Tris whether all Abegnation parents beat their children like the leader does before we get the “shocking” revelation that Four—the Divergent she’s fallen for—is the abused son of the Abegnation leader. Tris is confused about her own choice but sure that her brother will join Abegnation so that we are “shocked” when he instead chooses Erudite and places even more pressure on his sister. The tester who gives Tris her results (Who is somehow mysteriously present at all important events even though her day job is apparently working as a tattoo artist . . . okay . . . ) turns out to have had a Divergent brother who also joined Dauntless only to be killed when his Divergent status was discovered. And those are just a few examples of how obvious this film is at every turn.

Well, is that obviousness unforgivable? Certainly not, if the plot is serving, as film plots should, as a vehicle for some deeper and broader point. But, Burger doesn’t have a point. The plot is all he has. And if you’re going to have nothing but a plot, you sure as hell should have a plot less obvious and predictable than this tripe.

Perhaps one could argue that I am unfairly using adult standards to judge a film aimed at teenagers. Here are some of the lessons Burger seems to be teaching, though none of them ties together the entire film:

  • The prettiest people are always the best. Tris is super hot and therefore great. Christina is much less hot and therefore only okay. Four is super hunky and therefore awesome. Eric is weird looking and has bizarre piercings so he’s a horrible asshole. Molly is relatively fat (Which says something about the fitness of these people. Amy Newbold is nothing approaching fat.), so she’s a bitch. I think my point is made.
  • Most people are defined by one clear trait. I know that most people I know are easily describable in one word. It’s amazing and special to have multiple traits. I don’t have a problem with saying that it’s a good thing to have multiple virtues, but don’t pretend that most people don’t.
  • Devotion to intelligence and logic necessarily leads to a high-minded self-superiority and need for control over everything—there is after all no way to logically decide that differences are good things that help to ensure that issues are properly understood. Nope.
  • Hippy liberal gardeners and authoritarian conservative military men are real things that encompass many people, not oversimplified stereotypes. The same goes for the straw vulcanism that is the Erudite.

And I feel like this point must be made: there is a certain naiveté to the film’s depiction of Tris’s training. We’re watching a beautiful “teenaged” (I’m 28. Shailene Woodley is closer to my age than she is to the 16 she’s playing in this film.) girl and they even go out of their way to make sure we know that there is no sex separation for sleeping, changing, showering, restrooms, etc., and yet all of the negativity directed at her is based on their training and jealousy. There is no sexual tension, let alone sexual danger (Save in a simulation when it comes from the one person Tris can trust, after he has explicitly refused to attempt any such thing in a perfect opportunity to do so.), and in the dangerous world we are otherwise shown, that is so strange as to be almost disturbing. I think one could even make an argument that Burger’s muting of any possible sexual danger is an anti-feminist point, suggesting that such dangers are not actually a part of humanity and/or would not crop up in this psychopath camp (And that’s what they’re attempting to make: psychopaths.), a point that seems outright bizarre. I would bet that it’s more just that they needed to keep things away from sex to be able to hit their intended audience, but the little hints of sexuality make it stand out just how strange it is that she faces no sexual danger. I’m giving the benefit of the doubt by calling it naiveté, but you are welcome to do otherwise.

Burger and cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler have succeeded in making a film that’s almost as much of a cartoon as Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, USA/UK 2013) and yet be so very conventional that they aren’t even using the palette that gives them. If you’re going to fill the movie with so much CGI, give us some shots of the devastated countryside or destroyed night sky. Do something to justify that use—don’t just use it to cut down on how many sets you have to build!

Acting-wise, the film isn’t too bad, though it’s difficult for most of the actors to show much of anything in the two-dimensional roles given. Shailene Woodley has an unbelievable character, but she does everything they ask of her with aplomb, and does as much as she can to carry the film. Much like Asa Butterfield in Ender’s Game (Gavin Hood, USA 2013) (with which this story shares more than a passing similarity), she tries her best to carry this carcass on her back, but she can’t get very far. The only other person who really stands out is Mekhi Phifer, and he stands out in a bad way. He comes across as a cartoon villain, which is rather difficult to do in as little screen time as he has, but his bizarre over-enunciation and too-joyous affect makes him almost a joke. That leaves us Kate Winslet. I recall reading once that Bruce Hornsby said that when he became a hot commodity in the late ‘80s people would ask him to come play piano on something and when he would show up, he would play what they asked and then say, “You could have gotten anyone to play that.” That’s what Kate Winslet was—too good for what they gave her to do. She did what they wanted well, but it didn’t take full advantage of her talents, and that’s a shame.

The music deserves a note. Junkie XL’s score is awful, and the actual songs are so annoying that I wanted to leave the theater every time one started playing. It is constantly obtrusive and not fitting the scene at all, which is a major problem for a film score.

Overall, Divergent gives the rest of the year a very strong target to try to hit for worst picture of the year. The acting holds its own, but nothing else in the film is worthwhile, and that’s without even dinging it for any of the problems I have with its seeming vision of neurology or future technology (and those are legion). It’s a terrible film, the type of film that shouldn’t be made.

*Kate Winslet is amazing. Her very first performance in Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994) has rarely been matched, and she gave it at 19. And then, two years later, she became the definitive filmic version of Ophelia in Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, UK/USA 1996). She’s never dropped off since, producing one astounding performance after another. She has been nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, and that’s severely under-rating her. She might well be the best actor alive and is one of the best film actors in history. This part of the review is the one part that contains no snark and no exaggeration—I really do think she is that good.