Stylized Violence on Film Isn’t Just Lazy — It’s Immoral

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I walked out of the first movie in The Hunger Games series, directed by Pleasantville‘s Gary Ross, feeling surprisingly frustrated. In fact, I may have ranted to my friends that the film was “morally reprehensible” and “disturbing” and the only thing of value was Jennifer Lawrence’s endless soulfulness.

The Hunger Games is a perfectly serviceable adaptation of a hit novel, bland in the way that most beginnings to hit youth-skewing trilogies are these days (Twilight, Harry Potter), but what bothered me was the nature of the Games themselves, or how Ross shot the kid-on-kid violence. The film was PG-13, the audience spanned all ages, and every time a kid attacked a kid in the arena, the shaky camera blurred the fight so that the effect was something more like puppies scuffling. With the filmmaking’s kinder choices, the deaths that had weight in Suzanne Collins’ novel lost a lot of their impact, and the overall effect was something akin to a video game.

There was a discrepancy between the film’s violence — life-ending kid-on-kid horror — and the way that the visuals rendered it. I imagine my reaction to The Hunger Games was not too dissimilar from writer Geoff Dyer’s boredom and frustration with the violence that rules the recent rash of “stylized thrillers,” a list of films that, in his book, include various Ryan Gosling films (Drive and The Place Between the Pines) and this summer’s art-house films about drifters and Scarlett Johansson sexy-girl aliens, Blue Ruin and Under the Skin.

For Dyer, the fighting is too pretty, in a way that’s absolutely unrealistic, and the results make the film lose meaning: “The problem with Drive was that any kind of psychology went out the window once the graphic requirements of violence took hold.” He insists that the fights he’s seen in life have been ugly. Teeth have gone missing, noses have been broken. “It’s a lesson that should be learned by film-makers: show violence if you have to – but be honest about its effects.”

It’s an argument that can sound a little bit like an old man yelling at a cloud, awfully pedantic, but Dyer’s point is that the films are weakened as whole artistic products because of the unrealistic manner in which they treat violence as so much nihilism. The counterargument, naturally, is that the pointlessness of the violence in these films is exactly the point — but doesn’t that mean the filmmakers Dyer criticizes are having their cake and eating it too, while devoting precious hours on something that goes down like so much candy?

Mostly Dyer is saying that the stylized violence in these films is all style, no real violence, and the result is just… not cinema, at least in the snooty cineaste sense of the word. It’s just music-video bread and circuses. Perhaps this is something akin to maturity on my part, or maybe it’s simply exhaustion, but I don’t know whether he goes far enough in exploring the moral implications of his observations. They are applicable to art films, but aren’t they also applicable to all movies and any other works of art or entertainment that we absorb on our paths to becoming real human beings (maybe even real heroes)?

I am on record as being no fan of Drive (among other problems I have with it, it is not a very good film about driving). It felt fitting to me that Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up, Only God Forgives, was booed at Cannes and received some scathing reviews that called it things like “a one-dimensional video game of death.” It seemed like the pendulum had finally swung back to where it should’ve been after Drive became a juggernaut, with viewers and critics realizing that Refn had little to convey beyond a slick surface.

When style entirely subsumes the realistic effects of violence in cinema, the results are mostly Grand Guignol for shock’s sake, rarely capable of containing anything close to meaning or complication. I don’t know if violence needs to be ugly, as Dyer argues, but I do think that — as Tipper Gore as it sounds — there is a moral imperative for violence in art to have weight, to look at the world and reflect something truthful back at us. There’s something dulling and morally bankrupt in films that use death and mayhem solely as stepping stones to entertainment, whether those films are commercial products marketed to audiences of kids or the artiest examples of art-house cinema. At best, the result is art that nearly disintegrates as you watch it, films that aim for and achieve no more than the stupefied instant pleasure of a video game or a bad music video.