Nihilism in the Movies


It can be especially interesting to have truths brought to your attention that have been staring you in the face but that went unrecognized. A friend of mine did this for me some years ago, and it was the degree of nihilism to be found in many modern movies.

2Nihilism can be complete, and the characters in a movie or novel occupy a bleak world with no redeeming features. Such films and novels are a lie. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, pointed out in Man’s Search for Meaning that even death camps, which he experienced himself, contain elements of humanity and inspiration; kindness and self-sacrifice, dignity and a lack of despair when faced with the worst. It is possible to kill and torture people, to maltreat, starve, and freeze them, but you cannot necessarily kill the thing that makes them less despicable than you; at least not in all of them. Goodness and light are not always found where it might be expected. There are kind guards and cruel fellow prisoners such as kapos (prisoner functionary) who were recruited by the guards to supervise fellow prisoners, reducing the need for non-Jewish soldiers.

Or the nihilism can involve being expected to overlook grossly immoral actions of the main characters all in the name of “fun.” The nihilism is not complete – the hero falls in love, pets a puppy, and refrains from hitting someone – but it is still so conspicuous that in real life you would never forget it or overlook it.

If moments of light and goodness can be experienced in a death camp – perhaps the closest thing to hell on earth – then they can be experienced anywhere. Any suggestion otherwise is a lie.

The symbols for ying and yang seem apropos. A little white dot in the darkness and a 3little black spot in the white. A little light in the darkness and a little darkness in the light. Pollyanna-ish syrupy sentimentalism removes the dark spot from the joy and creepy, despairing nihilism paints over the white. Both have their nauseating aspect.

The movies considered here are ones that a thoughtful moviegoer might expect to be reasonably good. Obviously, some movies are so revolting that their trailers make a point of demonstrating just how 4disgusting the audience can expect the experience to be. A movie like Legion would qualify. Seeing that trailer while waiting for another movie to start really made it seem that the moral apocalypse must have taken place quite some time ago. A granny crawling on the ceiling and then sinking her teeth into the neck of the waitress was sufficiently illustrative of the horrors likely to come.

5A Serious Man by the Coen brothers is a major contender for being perhaps the most nihilistic movie I have seen in ten years, despite appearing to be worth seeing. The movie traces the life of a physics professor left by his horrible wife for her someone equally abysmal. When the new lover dies, the professor’s wife makes him pay for the funeral. At some point we meet the kids who turn out to be even worse than the parents – pitiless, lying, monsters. The professor’s students are represented by a conscience-free cheat. As far as I can remember, no one has a redeeming feature. Such a picture of things is simply false. Most people are a mixture of good and bad. And in any scenario some people will be better than others.

It is important that most critics say nothing about the nihilism of all this. Like fish swimming in water, they remain oblivious. An exception can be found in Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal who points out the misanthropy of A Serious Man. The Coen brothers themselves are apparently very well aware of nihilism as a concept and have a group of self-described nihilists in one of my favorite movies, The Big Lebowski. Everything they say about nihilism in this very funny comedy is philosophically accurate.

Strangely enough, the Coen brothers seem to more or less alternate between nihilism and a modicum of hope from one picture to the next. Hail Caesar? Uplift. No Country For Old Men? Very nasty nihilism. I could see from the trailer that I would hate it, but a student had written a paper on the movie and especially wanted me to see it. My worst fears were confirmed.

A sociologist friend described a study he had read concerning crack dealers where the social scientist lived with the criminals for two years. It turned out they had many redeeming features. They laughed and told jokes and I cannot remember what else. My reply was – of course! They are human beings. Nearly everyone is likely to have some redeeming features but that does not mean that dealing crack is not pathological.

No matter what culture or subculture one looks at there will be something good about it. Friendship and loyalty, care for others and delight in life. Overall, one may want to condemn it, but a depiction of pure negativity will be a lie.

The next example is The American, a European-style quasi-art house movie starring 6George Clooney. The movie is not as consistently nihilistic as A Serious Man. However, George Clooney’s hitman shoots his girlfriend in the back of the head in the first two minutes of the movie. She does not know that he is a hitman and witnesses a shoot-out with another gangster. Now that she knows, she poses a major inconvenience. He tells her to go call the police and when she turns around he shoots her in the back of head. The killing involves no particular malice. It was neither the result of high emotion nor careful planning. He is not depicted as suffering any particular angst over what he has done. He is so morally reprehensible as to qualify for sociopathy – a conscience-less monster. The film continues on as though nothing in particular has happened. We are expected to care about this man and to wish him well. We are supposed to hope he gets together with the prostitute he loves. Yet, this one action should nix any well-wishing hopes audience members might entertain.

I could not believe my eyes. When I got home from watching the movie I went to the internet to try to find a discussion about this killing. I was hoping to find outrage and condemnation of the film and its makers. I found no mention of it. Or if there was, it was just as a neutral unremarkable event. The nihilism is to be found in that character and the lack of significance the shooting is given and much to my horror, it finds a similar blankness in every critic I could find. The critics are not sociopaths. They just need the little kick that my friend gave me, to wake them up from their obliviousness and to think about what they have learned to take for granted.

I would compare The American to watching a movie about a death camp commandant’s romantic pursuit of a woman where the commandant’s day job is unremarked upon. It is morally intolerable to be asked to forget about and bracket off this aspect of the central character. It throws such a shadow over the character that it would be obscene to care about whether his delicate little yearnings get reciprocated or not. The American’s murder of his girlfriend casts a similar shadow, making every other event in the movie irrelevant, just as a diagnosis of cancer will suddenly make many other things in your life that you had been worrying about appear trivial.

7Next is Looper. The premise is that the main character kills hooded, kneeling, handcuffed, anonymous and helpless men two seconds after meeting them – shooting them in the chest. He has no particular problem with his job and is not a distraught self-loathing mess. The kind of person who could kill in this way in such a cold-blooded fashion would again be a sociopath. He would have to be a heartless villain. And yet the movie makers expect us to sympathize with his adventures; to give him our blessing and wish him well. We are not even supposed to notice or think about what sort of person we are supposed to be rooting for.

Like The American, the movie is not literally one hundred percent nihilistic. One man loves his wife. That’s nice. He loves her so much that he is willing to go back into the past to kill seven children because ONE of the seven children will grow up to be his wife’s killer. These are very young children and he will murder seven of them with six being entirely innocent of his wife’s death. The younger murdering thug seems to care a bit about people he is not cold-bloodedly shooting and he does something rather nice in the last two minutes of the film. But those two minutes do not make up for two hours of dank nihilism.

Again, it is not so much that every element of the movie is nihilistic, it is that we are expected to overlook the main character’s actions. It is intended that we not think too deeply about what it means that he is willing to do this for a job. It is the moral blindness/nihilism expected and required of the audience that is the troubling part as much as anything else.

The next time you watch a movie, do not check your moral compass at the door. Remember to make your usual assumptions about what it means to be a decent person worth rooting for. Cold-blooded merciless girlfriend killers in a movie that pays no especial attention to this salient event and hired killers of helpless victims who suffer no particular remorse for doing this are repugnant villains. The nihilism comes in the films failing to pay any real attention to these aspects of their main characters and in the expectation that you too will gloss over these little “technicalities.”

On this view, never, on any account watch any movie by Lars von Trier. His movies are 8conspicuous in their overt nihilism. His stated reason for making the movie Melancholia, for instance, was to make the viewers feel like what it is to suffer from depression by which he is afflicted. That is about as humane an idea as a drunk who has thrown up on himself and defecated in his pants sharing that with everyone also.

The movie goes from one bleak nihilistic scene to the next. Near the end von Trier even introduces unexplained magic to artificially ramp up his miserable people and world hating view. A central character says she knows down to the last jelly bean (or whatever it was) in the jar how many there were exactly, demonstrating some kind of supernatural ability to know things. She then states categorically, using her supposed psychic abilities invented solely for this purpose, that we are alone in the universe and that the existence of life is evil. Thanks, Lars!

I have encountered people recommending this movie and praising it. The cinematography has a certain appealing glossy sheen to it, qualifying it as “artistic,” but it is utterly putrid.

9The movie can be contrasted with a wonderful Australian movie called These Final Hours where, like in Melancholia, the end of the world is about to occur. The central character decides to leave his girlfriend to go party and revel in debauchery for the final few hours he has left to live. Along the way he sees two men attempt to rape a young teen. He is torn between his nihilistic debauch and helping the girl. The non-nihilism of the movie is entirely plausible as he is torn, but reluctantly makes the right decision and even agrees to help her unite with her parents before she dies. However, the cinematography is downright rudimentary, seemingly shot on videotape, and seems unlikely to appeal to the European aesthete types who love Lars von Trier.

The only other movie I watched by him, Dancer in the Dark I made the mistake of 10finishing because I thought not turning away from bleakness might be good for my soul. I was mistaken. Sometimes imagined to be “feminist” in flavor, the movie depicts a helpless, blind woman being relentlessly persecuted and finally hanged. Von Trier appears to relish punching this character in the face over and over again, piling misery upon misery.  Björk, the annihilated woman, so hated the experience of working with him that she vowed never to make another movie, a promise I think she has kept.

This kind of nihilism hits you over the head. It is not as insidious, perhaps, because it is, or should be, impossible to miss.

16 thoughts on “Nihilism in the Movies

  1. Pingback: Nihilism in the Movies | Reaction Times

  2. @RC – Good point. I find this kind of thing unbearable, and have stopped watching many movies and tv shows because of it.

    I think it is probably an aspect of the arrested adolescence (refusal to grow-up) that characterises our society; it is a wish fulfilment fantasy of a self-conscious, mood-swinging adult-teen who wants (more than anything) to be ‘cool’, and for other people to think ‘he’s cool!’).

    From this adolescent perspective, emotionless killing is cool, making a wisecrack as you kill somebody is cool (James Bond, later Tarantino) – the ideal is just to go through the horrors of the world without being disturbed by anything, never losing style and poise.

    For the great mass of people who have denied any meaning or purpose to reality, and can hardly bear the consequences; affected nihilism is a pose that has been mainstream since the end of the 19th century – Oscar Wilde was perhaps the first famous exponent.

    The thing is, excepting a handful of predatory and manipulative psychopaths (of which there are plenty in the modern mass media and politics), it’s usually an act (as it was for Wilde). The supposed cool nihilist nonetheless gets blind drunk or high on drugs (escapism), takes tranquillizers, attends endless psychotherapy, has strings of messy ‘relationships’, engages in public relations spin… often ends up with a slow or rapid suicide.

    The nihilism of mainstream media is evidence that most people *cannot* be happy when they live for pleasure; cannot be happy when they have convinced themselves life is futile. If there is no meaning or purpose to life, there can be no meaning or purpose in acting the role of a cool nihilist.

    • Yes. Materialism is nihilistic, as Bertrand Russell was very clear about. Even if you don’t succumb entirely to despair, it will be gnawing away at you as you live your life.

  3. I see very few movies, but did see No Country for Old Men. No movie for this old man. It really goes beyond the antihero, who has been pretty much de rigueur since 1970, since all the sympathetic people in NCFOM get blown away. It’s not just that there is no happy ending, but that the movie repeatedly raises and crushes a hope that this or that good character will redeem the movie. I was not rooting for the hit man, but everyone I rooted for died to no effect.

    You know the ancient Greeks used tragedy to purge the soul of negative emotions. What are we purging with these movies? When the lights come on, I feel that I have a little less faith, hope and charity

    • I know the feeling! And to heck with all those blue/gray future dystopian movies. They all seem to think they are being cool and edgy, but it is all so cliched.

    • Yes. I hated Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs for that reason. China Town back in the 70s was pretty nihilistic as an earlier example. It would be interesting to hear of other examples that people would care to nominate.

  4. For anyone who is aware that there are some parallels between A Serious Man and the Book of Job, I would like to point out that this is irrelevant for my discussion. Job suffers terrible travails but not every person in the story is supposed to be an utterly disgusting wretch. The children who Job loses are not amoral, scheming scoundrels. What a strange story it would be if they were! “And there was much rejoicing at the demise of these demons, and everybody was much happier from that time forward.” I don’t remember that part in the Bible story.

  5. With regard to No Country For Old Men, like movies such as The American, not every aspect of the movie is nihilistic. Some characters are admirable. However, the overall tone is one of nihilistic despair. The universe sucks and resistance is futile.

    • There can be any number of good and admirable people in nihilistic movie. The movie is nihilistic because their good and admirable traits make no difference. Nihilism means there is nothing in the universe that cares if people are moral, not that there are no moral people. I suppose we might say that a movie goes beyond nihilism to satanic malignity if all the good people suffer and all the bad people are rewarded. I would say that the character Job is struggling with nihilistic despair, but that does not make the story of Job nihilistic. The story of Job prepares us for the nihilistic despair we will be tempted to feel when bad things happen to good people. The solution to the Problem of Evil begins with a clear-eyed understanding that evil is a problem for anyone who is not a nihilist.

  6. I don’t go to see movies or bother with much television. About the only thing I watch is sport and good hearty foodie programmes, such as those by Rick Stein.

    I think ‘nihilism’ might not be the correct word to describe some of these films. They seem ‘satanic’. They deliberately attempt to manipulate people into rooting for utter evil.

    • That would be another way to go. Nihilism is certainly evil. I guess it seems like a particularly pernicious form of evil that has Western Civ. by the throat.


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