I have to get straight in with a warning here. These films are described as uncomfortable, as this is the type of viewing experience you can expect. Some are downright nasty, and all will make you uneasy at some point, and you may even turn them off. They contain scenes of sexual violence, mass-murder, casual killings, and portrayals of madness. So, watch at your peril, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Why recommend them in that case? Despite the above disclaimers, I feel that they all have something to offer; about society, or war, or human endurance. Some are studio productions with a star cast, others made on a budget, with little-known actors. All are well-made, with performances of intensity, and sincerity, from all those involved. Without exception, none of them are feel-good films, and all will leave you with unpleasant memories. A lot like real life then…
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. This 1986 film deals with the very American subject, of the man-next-door serial killer. Henry is not raving mad, and holds down a regular job at times. He and his friend Otis like to go out for a few beers, pick up prostitutes or hitch-hikers, and kill them. Henry likes to consider his crimes, and to think through them, and in this manner, he avoids detection. Otis becomes addicted to this life of murder, robbery, and rape; he eventually introduces his sister to his friend, and her and Henry become involved. The lead part is played by Michael Rooker, not famous by name at the time, though recognisable from numerous film and TV roles. He brings a worrying normality to the role, often charming and completely reasonable, then chillingly sadistic without remorse, or morals. This film has its say on a part of society that, thankfully, we can only imagine; but a part that is with us, and around us, unseen but ever present. Most of the killings in the film are portrayed in the before and after, with what actually occurred best left to the imagination. There is one very disturbing scene, where the friends terrorise a married couple, and it is viewed through the viewfinder of a camcorder, as the pair film their terrible deeds. I could only watch this film once, and although it sounds like a strange thing to say, I am glad that I have seen it.
The Grey Zone. A film from 2001, about the Sonderkommando, in a German concentration camp. These men, themselves prisoners, had the task of preparing the inmates for death in the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, and burning them in the ovens. This is a subject with which we are all sadly familiar. There have been numerous documentaries, and some important films made about these events, and this is definitely one of them. There is also a star cast, including Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Daniel Benzali, and David Arquette. This film has the feel of a theatrical, or TV production but don’t let that put you off. The roles are perfectly cast, and the atmosphere chilling. Upsetting scenes of casual killing and the events of the holocaust are numerous, so be warned. The viewer that can endure this film, will be left with haunting images and unsettling memories for a long time to come. Anyone who respects Spielberg’s film of similar events, Schindler’s List, is urged to watch The Grey Zone. It is less glossy, equally as upsetting, and a profound indictment of Nazi ideology. A little-known and rarely seen film, well worth the effort of watching. You may be disturbed, but you won’t be disappointed. Here is the official trailer.
The Kill List. I am at a loss to understand the many bad reviews for this film, which was made in Britain, in 2011. There have been lots of comparisons with classic British films of the past, and the director’s other, more mediocre film, ‘Down Terrace’. To try to break this future classic down is very difficult. I feel certain that it will be very highly regarded in years to come, in the way that many films have to wait for cult status, and critical acclaim.
Two actors, familiar but not famous. Two actresses, virtually unknown. Some appearances by old-school British supporting actors, and an intriguing plot. Of course it is derivative. All films since the first silent classics have borrowed ideas, scripts, plots, and scenarios. But this is so much better than it seems. It stays with you, and rightly feels like European, not American cinema. It has moments of extreme violence, yet is not really a film about violence. It contrasts the mundane lifestyles of unpleasant people, with the fact that they are contract killers for a living; as they go off to work, as if to do any ordinary job. If you have seen a lot of films, and been around long enough, you will begin to grasp the plot twist fairly early on. That is not really important though.
What matters is the fact that the cast members are entirely convincing, the scenery suitably mundane, and the film is virtually devoid of special effects, with no contrived car chases, and no obvious heroes or villains. It is a film where everyone is bad.
One day, they will probably remake it in America, with Ryan Gosling and Jamie Foxx, playing a mis-matched pair of damaged Iraq War veterans. It will be very different, not so dark, have a happy ending, and some big shoot-outs. Perhaps then, the people who like ‘Avatar’, ‘Batman’ and ‘ The Avengers’, will be happy. If you enjoy British films, and like the work of Shane Meadows, then give this a try.
Jacob’s Ladder. The first of two films in this list about the experience of the Vietnam War. This one, from 1990, stars Tim Robbins and Danny Aiello, and was directed by Adrian Lyne. It concerns the disturbed ex-Vietnam veteran, now a postman, played by Robbins. He is plagued by ghostly visions, terrifying apparitions, and worrying dreams. This could be a result of post-traumatic stress, or as he believes, drug trials carried out on army recruits. Hallucinations, flashbacks, and a growing feeling of dread, leave the viewer sometimes struggling to tell reality from fantasy. The backdrop of conspiracy and the character’s search for the truth, together make a compelling film that requires concentration and attention from anyone watching it. I have only seen this once, over twenty years ago, and yet I can still recall many of the images from it. That says a lot. Here is the theatrical trailer.
Casualties of War. This is a big-budget, star-studded film set during the Vietnam war. Strangely overlooked in favour of the better-known epics such as ‘Platoon’, and ‘Hamburger Hill’, this 1989 film was directed by Brian de Palma, well-known director of ‘Scarface’, and ‘The Untouchables’. It deals with a real-life incident, when a small patrol are sent out on a mission to locate the Vietcong. The tough platoon leader, a suitably hard-nosed Sean Penn, decides that they will take a girl along to provide sexual favours, and promptly kidnaps an innocent young woman from a nearby village. The rest of the squad (John Leguziamo, John C. Reilly, and others) are happy to go along with this plan, and all participate in the unpleasant graphic gang-rape of the unfortunate girl. However, one member of the squad, played by Michael J.Fox, refuses to join in, and tries to help the girl as best as he is able. When they later stumble across a large Vietcong unit and are forced into combat, the leader fears discovery, and orders the men to kill the girl. Returning to camp, Fox’s character fears his life may be in danger, and an attempt to blow him up forces his hand. He reports the crime, and despite resistance from his superiors, eventually gets a Court Martial for those concerned. There are also good cameos from Ving Rhames, and the excellent Dale Dye, as officers who want no part of the proceedings, as well as a heart-rending performance from Thuy Thu Le, as the unfortunate hostage. There are obvious issues about men disturbed by war, casual killing, and living a life with no rules. The film attempts to show that life always has a way of catching up, and justice eventually prevails. If only that was true. Here is a short scene.
There you have, with necessary warnings, my recommendations on films that may well be uncomfortable, but have merit. Something very different, I hope you will agree.