When life starts taking on absurd hues, sometimes the best comfort is a good comedy, the more bitter the better. Films like Dr. Strangelove, Arsenic and Old Lace, Fargo and M*A*S*H have exposed morbidly ridiculous human traits through storylines that can easily be considered farce. It isn’t real, one can argue, because people would never behave so shamefully. Then you take a closer look and consider, maybe sometimes they do. In a time rife with situations like this, we have seen an unsurprising increase of dark satire; but perhaps this isn’t the best tonic.
WARNING: Minor spoilers throughout.
Franz Kafka, the eccentric author of classics like The Metamorphosis and The Trial, wrote stories based on such horrifying notions that his fiction is rarely considered funny. Indeed, the experience of reading Kafka saps one’s energy and warps their perception of the world – everything seems sicker, anemic. It’s his blunt prose, expressing insanely dark ideas with administrative assurance, that makes the stories seem straightforward and serious. But this style also serves to make the ideas even more absurd than they are – mainly because his characters’ reactions are so mundane, horribly realistic. He never writes about heroes; he writes about the people who wish they could be.
In spite of, or perhaps because it follows in Kafka’s soiled footsteps, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a polarizing film. Its frank style can seem lifeless, particularly without a prior understanding of Lanthimos’s style – without the A-list cast and exquisite craftsmanship, it would be easy to assume that this approach was a mistake. That exsanguinated tone feeds the story so well, however; who hasn’t met a person who seemed utterly without passion? Their lack of reaction makes the situation seem like fantasy, impossible until the panic mounts into a burst of irrevocable violence.
A recent New Yorker article by Richard Brody referred to Haneke’s films, and thereby Lanthimos’s, as anti-liberal nightmares of unrelenting bleakness. It’s well-argued, but the article seems to forget that even Haneke has something of a sense of humor. Funny Games is a highly complex prank; just because it’s mean-spirited and soul-crushingly bleak doesn’t mean one can’t laugh in awe. It shows the horror inherent in torture porn, or hyper-violent thrillers, without giving into the tropes that make those films sadistic; he simply shows the violence for what it is. Like Kafka, he explores horrific subject matter without flinching or sensationalizing it.
Though 75 years old, Haneke returns to this environment with a new acerbic creation. The director replays several of his own films in Happy End, but it is far less visceral than the works it draws from — it chills in its lack of event more than anything. He exposes the ineptitude of his wealthy, detached characters without ever bringing them to catharsis or action. Somehow, this feels both merciful and unspeakably cruel, even by his standards — there’s no release from their discomfort and awkwardness. But the lack of resolution makes the whole exercise feel like one big joke. After the devastatingly beautiful Amour, Haneke seems to be allowing himself a little laugh – at his characters’ expense. He nods to hypocrisy in issues of refugees and mental illness, but that’s far from the film’s focus; he is more interested in showing just how helpless and ineffective his cast becomes.
By no stretch of the imagination are these the first filmmakers to draw from Kafka. Orson Welles himself adapted The Trial in 1962. Stanley Kubrick employed this style most openly in The Shining, possibly one of the most brightly-lit horror films of all time. Eyes Wide Shut plays out in an anemic tone that reflects Sacred Deer’s, and to a similarly unsettling but comedic effect. In spite of his cold tones and widely-known behavior on set, Kubrick was known for his deeply passionate friendships and fascination in human psychology – so his view, like Haneke’s, isn’t pointlessly torturous. His statement is heartfelt, even if the method of delivery is akin to a syringe in the face.
Sometimes, however, satire is not the best conduit for stories like this. The blatant comedic tones in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri create odd dissonance in its expression of police brutality. Rarely does the satire feel directed at the oppressed, though; the butts of the jokes are typically cis white men with wives, families. Most of the characters are also cis white men. Frances McDormand is astonishing as the lead, but the other women in the film have little agency, and the few black characters rarely appear on screen for long — the only character who the police actually attack is white. When a film explores the issues of marginalized people without including them in the narrative, especially when the film’s tone is often a little goofy, it rings an unusual note. Ira Madison writes about this in greater detail for The Daily Beast.
Not all examples of dark humor this year were bleak and white-washed, though. Get Out feels fresher than these films, because it provides a level of triumph — something that its protagonist deserves, considering that he represents centuries of unimaginable horror. Yet, Peele deliberately chose to give his film a happy ending; those who have seen the film can understand why this was an essential decision. The film is harrowing, weird, sometimes funny in the protagonist’s awareness of his situation — but most often awe-inspiring in its grotesque revelations — and ending it on a semi-triumphant note makes a powerful statement that these other stories don’t attempt to achieve.
Perhaps, in our uncertain and undoubtedly absurd era, we have a particular need for satire. There is power in recognizing the absurdity of a grotesque, unjust situation; if you can laugh at something, it loses its immensity. Yet we appear to have recognized so many of our core issues, disgustingly ingrown and wide-reaching ones — is now the time to laugh at them? Or do we need to be seeking solutions? But, in some way, the laughter can feel like justification — now that you’ve seen the ugliness and understood it, in a fictional sense, you can better cope with it. That’s only considering that the film’s point was universally true. It may be best that these dark dreams remain just that.