Many hailed 2016 as a return of the musical. Mainly, because of the success of La La Land. But musicals are so 1952 (Get it? The year Singin’ in the Rain came out. Cause La La Land is ripping it off? Hm? ….Guess not). Instead, recent history suggests that 2016 was the return of the vigilante.
Many of the factors that have led to the rise of Trump can be associated with Richard Nixon. Much like Nixon, Trump advocated for “law & order” and the return of the “silent majority.” And much like Nixon, there has been a rash of vigilante films.
Nixon was president from 1969-74 (Aka…the Dark Times…aka pre-Disco). During that period, and immediately after, Deathwish, Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, Easy Rider, The French Connection, The Wild Bunch, A Clockwork Orange, and Dog Day Afternoon emerged. Characters living in a turbulent society. With a government they didn’t trust. With justice they couldn’t get. With personal hygiene much needed.
Some of the same unrest occurred in America during the mid-60’s to the early 70’s has happened now. Malcolm X, JRK, RFK, and MLK were all killed by assassins. The Black Panthers were flourishing. Vietnam was raging. The Beatles had broken-up. And Trump was probably just beginning to grope women. A hectic, chaotic, and lost moment. Today, there hasn’t been a high profile assassination attempt for sometime, save for Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. But there have been several mass shootings. Several blacks killed by police brutality (The emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement). The LGBTQ community is still valiantly fighting for their civil rights. The only exception being, America isn’t in a major war, at least not like Vietnam. So, how did a cheeto with a twinkie on top become President?
A generational divide, and divisions between urban and rural sensibilities may provide some explanations. Many of the activists in the 60’s were young, in their mid to late 20’s, and often college educated. Who are the activists today? The same people, except when there’s a new Netflix release. Then you’ll find them typing away on Facebook, with a bowl of melted vanilla ice cream, as they wonder why Stranger Things didn’t see the future and have more episodes in-waiting. But anytime, before and after, they’re the same people. Who are the older generation? The same people, except rather than born again racists, well no, they’re still born-again racists.
But the divide between rural and urban is real. In the 60’s there was an increase in urban blight because of white-flight to the suburbs. Most cities in the 60’s made Detroit look like Plato’s playhouse. A fear was felt by those in rural areas. They needed to be protected from the “degenerates” occupying these city dwellings. Those who appeared to oppose the good ole’ days of Sunday school teachings, manners, and lynchings. Most of all. They felt ignored. Belittled. Despised. Those same feelings can be found in the rise of Trump. In a moment when intellectuals are vermin. When social conscientiousness is refuted as social warrior justice. Then it may be time for those who have felt disaffected to take “their” country back. Film has responded in kind.
Hell or High Water ,(the story of two brothers who go on a rampage robbing banks because a bank stole their dead mother’s home, was one of the more prominent examples. Set in the planes of Texas, it is the story of those seeking justice with a familiar background. A lawless, or “backwards law” laden landscape of the west. A place in mythology that allows and celebrates those who take the law into their own hands. The bank isn’t breaking the law. The police won’t stop them. So both brothers go out and take back what’s theirs.
The basic human instinct is to see retribution. It’s intoxicating. It’s attractive. Toby Howard (Chris Pine) remarks, “I’ve been poor my whole life, like a disease passing from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.” A generation that has been ignored, which won’t allow itself to be ignore anymore (Sounds like the main base of the Trump electorate). As Pine dips his head and gives that subtle Texas draw, whether you’re disaffected or not, you want them to get away with every robbery and every murder.
Captain Fantastic, Grizzly Adams with a happy ending, has Viggo Mortensen. A film celebrating a family living in the woods, far from society, seems to send the hippie commune vibes to modern heights. But, In case you thought liberals were the only ones capable of living on the fringes of society, while making acoustic symphonies around a campfire, Mortensen encompasses both ideologies. He is distrusting of capitalism, therefore he celebrates Noam Chomsky Day. Nevertheless, he doesn’t trust the government. Law enforcement. And he carries weapons. He knows his rights. And he teaches his kids to go on food raids at convenience stores, so theft. Once again, the theme of taking what you need by force. Spitting upon a society you no longer trust or recognize. A man willing to stand against it, with his family. Wanting to rid the world of violent video games, and believing he has the choice and right to flush his wife’s ashes down the toilet.
That same threads of reclaiming what is yours can be seen in Nocturnal Animals. The film is a pure revenge plot. A man whose wife and daughter are raped and killed by a Texas gang on a highway. When the perpetrators are finally caught, they are let go for a lack of evidence. Much like Hell or High Water, the law has failed him, and in relation, the government too. The final third of the film becomes a statement posed by Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) “It’s a question of how serious you are about seeing justice done.”
The dichotomy, a world of urban greed, as shown through Amy Adams’ constant wearing of green throughout the film, as opposed to a country-made-reprisal is bait-in-switch of a separate revenge plot by Gyllenhaal. To send a book called Nocturnal Animals, about the murder of a man’s family, as a middle finger to the elitist standards of success she tried to pin on him (The left elitist looking down to the rural conservatives). Carlos (Michael Sheen), while hosting an upscale party warns Adams, “Susan, enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful. Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.” A clear divide between the have-and-have not. Adams in a gilded cage, while the character in Gyllenhaal’s book watches his family fade in the Texas dirt.
Meanwhile, the same reverberations from the late 60’s are felt in the film 20th Century Women. Though not vigilante based, it is also grappling with the failures of Nixon. There’s a clip where the entire family watches Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Carter speaks toward a malaise. A lack of drive. A lack of pursuit. A lack of trust in government, and in each other. Meanwhile, the central music behind the film, is punk. And 20th Century Women is set at the outset of punk movement. A brand of music full of vigilantes. People who were spiteful against conventional norms (Annette Bening dancing to Black Flag has to be one of the best scenes of the year). A movement that is distrustful to the idea that the government could tie their own shoes correctly, much less help the poor. A trend made for protest, and made for a destruction of property (sounds like a good time, right?).
There are other films that fit under this trend. The rise of comic fair like Deadpool, who is willing to kill everyone and anyone to get revenge. Suicide Squad. A group of vigilantes and super villains recruited to operate outside the law. Captain America betraying “law and order” in order to save his friend (Please, find someone who loves you as much as Cap loves Bucky). And Batman vs. Superman doing….doing…..whatever they do.
Trump is an outgrowth of a growing tide. People in rural areas who voted for him. People in urban cities who did not vote at all. A distrust. A bubbling of hate that began with tea. And while vigilantism can take many forms and political ideologies, the central conflict remains the same. The listened vs. the never heard.
Film is reflecting it. Because film has the power to be a mirror. It has the power to be the clearest mirror, even in the darkest theater. Film is gesturing toward a new age of anti-hero. With comics now taking on R-ratings (I’m waiting for you Logan). John Wick 2. Blade Runner 2049. And whatever future Academy Award contenders we don’t know about yet, 2017 figures to continue this trend. And as Trump stays in office, this lack of faith in government may increase. The future of film isn’t the bland and glib La La Land. It’s the rough, blood soaked terrain of whatever piece of filth who thinks they’re gonna get away with what they did. In 2017, a vigilante is waiting….
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