The Oscars: A dark view on dark times

IT used to be that violence, even more than comedy, was the kiss of death for Oscar movies. Then came blood-saturated films like "Crash" and "The Departed," which overturned some of those rules.

But perhaps no movie exemplifies how the Oscars have changed than this year's best picture winner, "No Country for Old Men," a dark, disturbing thriller from the Coen brothers.

Shot in a deliberative, unsentimental style, "No Country" is a bone-chilling tale of violence, stupidity and revenge, with a relentless, amoral killer (played by supporting actor winner Javier Bardem) at its center, coolly dispatching anyone in his way with a cattle gun. It is not the only acclaimed movie to have emerged from a forbidding corner of the American psyche. Many of this year's most compelling movies -- notably, two other best picture nominees, "There Will Be Blood" and "Michael Clayton," as well as "American Gangster," "Eastern Promises," "Gone Baby Gone" and "The Bourne Ultimatum" -- were meditations on violence, betrayal, revenge and grand ambition run amok.

"Maybe what you're getting is a ghostly, forensic glimpse of what has happened in our culture," says Tony Gilroy, the writer-director of "Michael Clayton." "We've just lived through eight years of dark, mysterious soul-killing events. It's like these films are saying, 'What the [expletive] just happened?' "

Perhaps timing is everything. Writers and directors tell stories for a thousand reasons, many of them too inchoate to ever be articulated. But it's increasingly plausible that today's filmmakers, living in a post-Sept. 11 world wracked by fear of terrorism, doubts about a bloody war in Iraq and concerns over U.S. involvement in torture, are responding to the spirit of the times.

This year's films are clearly not aberrations. Last year's best picture winner, Martin Scorsese's "The Departed," was an ultra-violent look at revenge and betrayal in the Boston mob underworld. "Crash," which won best picture in 2006 for its tough-minded look at race and class in melting-pot Los Angeles, was also punctuated with confrontations, bitter invective and random violence.

Filmmakers with the kind of ambition rewarded at Oscar time are often struggling to make sense of a chaotic culture. It's hardly a coincidence that as early-1970s America became increasingly unnerved by the trauma of Watergate, filmmakers began turning out a series of paranoid thrillers, among them "Three Days of the Condor," "The Conversation" and "The Parallax View."

In 1967, after the assassination of President Kennedy, the Watts riots and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the nation's movie screens were filled with an unparalleled explosion of violent films, including "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Dirty Dozen," "In Cold Blood," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "Cool Hand Luke."

Today, the fallout from the war in Iraq seems to have inspired a new wave of violence-tinged films. "If you look at the films up for awards this year, they all have this one thing in common -- they are from artists asking questions about what violence does to our humanity," says Paul Haggis, whose "In the Valley of Elah," dealt with violence among soldiers home from Iraq.

"We do our best to insulate ourselves from all the troubling effects of violence. You rarely see the coffins coming back from Iraq, you rarely see footage or photos from the war. But it doesn't go away. It just seeps in, under the door, often through our films."

A decade ago, with the country in a more buoyant mood, the best picture Oscars went to movies with more uplift -- notably such films as "Forrest Gump," "Titanic" and "Shakespeare in Love." For much of the 1990s, Oscar winners looked backward, the vast majority of them safely set in distant places, including Shakespearean England, the American West of "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven," the gilded age of "Titanic," the prewar and World War II-era "The English Patient" and "Schindler's List."

Today's films hit closer to home. "No Country" unfolds in hard-scrabble West Texas, outside the same small town where, by coincidence, Paul Thomas Anderson shot most of "There Will Be Blood." Film historian David Thomson recalls being surprised when he heard the Coens say they made the film because they had spent time there.

"I thought, 'Wait a minute. I've spent a lot of time there myself and the movie isn't remotely like the real West Texas.' " he says. "It's a friendly place where people are hospitable and kind. There aren't murderous zombies running around."

Thomson believes that what the movie is really reflecting is the mood in America since 9/11. "People feel that, like Tommy Lee Jones' character in the film, things are out of hand, beyond our control. The average American today has a sense that dread and evil lurks everywhere, that they could open their door and find a murderous stranger outside."

Movies are at their best when they keep their distance from the breaking news of the day. Great films are rarely ripped from the headlines, instead serving as shadowy, subconscious reflections on their time. Now considered masterworks of modern cinema, the first two "Godfather" films were not only riveting stories about the mob, but also cautionary tales about power and corruption at a time when the excesses of Watergate made it appear that America was being undermined by dark forces.

A number of films celebrated Sunday offer unsettling portraits of power and corruption. "Michael Clayton" stars George Clooney as a law firm's in-house fixer assigned to protect a malevolent agrochemical company from damaging revelations about its products. "There Will Be Blood" features Daniel Day-Lewis as an early 20th century oil wildcatter on a quest for riches who becomes unhinged by paranoia and homicidal rage.

At a time when America's own moral certainty has been fractured by the bloodshed in Iraq and revelations about Abu Ghraib and secret CIA interrogations, it's hardly surprising to see filmmakers telling stories that serve as allegories about the abuse of power.

"While we were all jumping to conclusions that movies couldn't address what was going on in the world because the films about Iraq failed at the box office, we almost missed what was right in front of us -- that movies like 'No Country,' 'Michael Clayton' and 'There Will Be Blood' reflected a real darkness, a grim despair and a sense of mistrust that was very much about our world today," says Mark Harris, author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood." " 'The Bourne Ultimatum' is as cynical a movie about our government and covert operations as any film since the 1970s."

The films with the most lasting impact are rarely cinematic versions of op-ed page essays, but ones that rely on a deeper level of artistic inspiration. In 1967, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" was viewed as a timely commentary on race relations. But today, it feels like a musty relic, while "Bonnie and Clyde," though set during the Depression, captures the subversive, anti-heroic spirit of the '60s.

"Movies aren't really good at reflecting what's in the newspapers, especially in an era where we're so skeptical of what's fact and what's fiction," says Harris. "The best films use indirection. I doubt that the Coens or Gilroy or Anderson tried to sit down and reflect on how we view our leaders today. But that doesn't mean that what's in the papers isn't reflected in their art. It just comes out in more oblique ways."

Gilroy says he went through a couple of years after the contested 2000 presidential election where he stopped reading newspapers entirely. "I'd had my heart broken too many times," he says. "It's easier to make a film that reflects your disgust, because it's a story to tell, but it's one step removed from reality. I was still just as upset, so maybe it all came out in my work."

The Big Picture usually appears Tuesdays in Calendar. Questions or ideas can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein

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