Serial killers. Alcoholism. Death row. Armageddon. If movies get any more depressing this season, theaters are going to have to start mixing Prozac into the popcorn.
Take Seven, the ultra-gruesome maniac-on-the-loose thriller that was No. 1 at the box office for a full month, outperforming everything from Assassins to How to Make an American Quilt. Chockful of drizzly atmospherics, moody background music, and unbelievably extreme violence (a man being force-fed to death, a woman having her nose cut off, a rape-torture scene way too horrible to describe here), the film is so unsettling it’d have Hannibal Lecter sleeping with the night-light on. Yet — go figure — it’s expected to earn upwards of $100 million, making it the most popular movie to hit the nation’s multiplexes since Apollo 13.
Obviously, American cinema is in the midst of a mood swing. The feel-good formula that’s ruled Hollywood for the last 15 years seems to be giving way to a gloomier, grittier, more serious — and, frankly, more pretentious — sensibility: Bleak Chic.
More than a dozen new and upcoming films fit the description — brooding, hyperintense dramas with unsympathetic characters, challenging plotlines, and endings that aren’t necessarily happily ever after. There’s The Usual Suspects, a chatty gangster movie that’s stuffed with endless philosophical dialogues about the nature of evil (it has grossed $21 million and landed its cast a fashion spread in GQ). Leaving Las Vegas stars Nicolas Cage as a suicidal movie executive who literally drinks himself to death. The Crossing Guard, Sean Penn’s cheerless drama about a little girl who gets killed by a drunk driver, opens in November, and Dead Man Walking, due at Christmas, offers Susan Sarandon as a nun who befriends an inmate condemned to death (get this — he actually gets executed at the end). And that’s not all. Also heading to theaters are Bleak History (Oliver Stone’s Nixon), Bleak Poetry (the Rimbaud/Verlaine biopic Total Eclipse), and Bleak Rock & Roll (Jennifer Jason Leigh as a down-and-out singer in Georgia). In short, a Bleak Chic movie for every depressed personality under the rainbow.
So what gives? Why is Hollywood suddenly so serious? What happened to those happy, up-with-people pictures they used to make in the 1980s, when cops were as pure as Arnold Schwarzenegger and prostitutes as sweet as Julia Roberts? When did Harvey Keitel become a bigger star than Macaulay Culkin?
Everybody, it seems, has a theory. ”In the ’80s, everyone was rich,” suggests screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, who penned Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, a Bleak Comedy about a bunch of dunderheaded hoods who accidentally murder a Mob boss’s daughter, due in theaters Dec. 15. ”They were snorting cocaine on Wall Street. Everything was fine and dandy. But now there’s trouble in the world. The L.A. riots. We’re disenchanted. Now it’s reality. And in real life, Hugh Grant doesn’t kiss Andie MacDowell in the rain. In real life, Hugh Grant goes to Sunset Boulevard and gets a blow job.”
“The ’80s were more a time of hope,” Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender puts it, somewhat less graphically. “Now that we’re in the ’90s, there’s more of a hopeless feeling.”
In other words, bleak times breed bleak entertainment. And not just at the movies. A glance across the pop landscape reveals a zeitgeist overcast with gloom and despair. On the music charts, you can find card-carrying Bleak-niks like Morrissey, Alanis Morissette, and Nine Inch Nails. On television, there’s The X-Files, with its creepy vision of bottomless government conspiracies; American Gothic, Shaun Cassidy’s new show about the evil lurking in small-town America; and ER, the first medical show in which patients die on a regular basis. Even Friends, the hippest sitcom on the air, is a downer. Check out the theme song: “So no one told you life was gonna be this way/Your job’s a joke/You’re broke/ Your love life’s DOA…”
Yikes. Sounds like somebody should cut back on the caffe lattes.
Of course, the Bleak have not yet totally inherited the earth. There are still plenty of happy endings to be found in Hollywood (including some where they don’t belong; see Demi Moore’s dumbed-down version of The Scarlet Letter). But the trend does seem undeniable: Bleak is now Beautiful.
Cultural malaise may have something to do with it, but there’s another, less sweeping explanation—audiences may simply be getting sick of the same old shtick. “I think it’s been coming for a long time,” says Jodie Foster, whose career took off in 1976 with the granddaddy of all Bleak Chic films, Taxi Driver. “I think audiences in the late ’80s got very dissatisfied with being fed a lot of phony, formulaic films.” Foster is doing her part to vary their diets: In January a “Jodie Foster Presents” credit will appear on the American release of La Haine (Hate), a French Boyz N the Hood that has a neat riff on Robert De Niro’s famous “You talkin’ to me?” speech (“Est-ce que vous me parlez?”).
Nicolas Cage sees a similar anti-fluff sentiment brewing in theaters. “People get tired of a rehashed formula,” he says. “They get tired of being able to predict the ending of the movie.” Adds Dermot Mulroney, who stars in Copycat, yet another serial-killer Bleakfest: “Even the most lunkheaded studio executives are probably thinking ‘Maybe audiences aren’t as stupid as we thought.'”
Audiences aren’t the only ones rebelling against the get-happy Hollywood formula: Actors are tired of playing dumb as well. Increasingly, big-name stars are stretching themselves in small, offbeat movies, sometimes using their muscle to push “difficult” projects off the ground. It’s hard to imagine Gus Van Sant’s pitch-black comic thriller To Die For being made for a major studio without Nicole Kidman, for instance. And Seven would probably still be just another obscure integer if not for Brad Pitt.
“The industry will offer you what you’ve done before,” says Pitt, who turned down Apollo 13 to star in Seven. “If you want something different, you have to go out and find it.”
For filmmakers, it works in reverse: “The best way to get a dark movie made is to get an actor who wants to do it,” says Denver’s Rosenberg. “You could finance the Son of Sam story with David Berkowitz as a sympathetic character singing Lerner and Loewe songs—if you could get Johnny Depp to play him.”
Not only could you finance it, you might even get people to watch it. How many moviegoers would be lining up to see the carnage in Seven if, say, Michael Madsen and Ving Rhames were the names on the marquee instead of Pitt’s and Morgan Freeman’s? Not many. “It’s Brad Pitt and that nice black guy from Driving Miss Daisy,” says Larry Clark, who directed the sex-and-drugs-packed Kids, Bleak Chic’s entry in the teen-flick genre. “People could relate to them as being Hollywood and feel safe with them, even though they were in this really terrible, awful, sick, sick, sick movie.” ( Jodie Foster, on the other hand, enjoyed Seven: “It’s about as close to a perfect film on the topic as I can think of.”)
“Brad helped get the movie made,” acknowledges Michael DeLuca, president of production at New Line Cinema. “When he came aboard, people got a lot less insecure about the film. It was very brave of him. I love when people go against type. To come off pictures like Legends of the Fall and Interview With the Vampire and play a homophobic, bigoted, neo-fascistic cop with a crew cut—it was a very cool thing for Brad to do.”
Sniff around and you can sense a whiff of atonement in the Bleak Chic craze—Hollywood making up for its commercial excesses of the 1980s. Listen to Laura Ziskin, who once produced a little film called Pretty Woman and who now makes movies like To Die For and oversees a production house at 20th Century Fox. “Pretty Woman started out as a very dark story,” she says. “The original script was called 3000, and it had a really grim ending. What would we do if we got the script today? We might leave it that way. We might leave it dark. And it probably would be a really good movie. But,” she adds pointedly, “it wouldn’t make the same kind of money.”
Actually, it might—and that’s really the biggest factor behind the trend. If last year’s Pulp Fiction taught Hollywood anything—aside from the French name for a Quarter Pounder—it was that Bleak Chic could be bankable. There had been hints (The Crying Game, The Piano), but Pulp Fiction was the first formula buster to break into the mainstream, grossing more than $200 million worldwide. After its success, every studio chief in Hollywood was looking for scripts with that Quentin Tarantino feeling.
As it happens, there is no shortage of those. In fact, a whole generation of Taranteenies is coming of age in Hollywood right now—directors and writers in their 20s and 30s who spent their formative years poring over every frame of The Godfather and memorizing every word Travis Bickle ever uttered into his mirror. Bleak Chic Geeks. No wonder many recent films have been set in the ’70s (like the Black Bleak flick Dead Presidents, made by the Hughes brothers, who weren’t even born when the decade began). “The first movie I ever saw was Magnum Force,” remembers the 32-year-old Rosenberg. “The next day, The Longest Yard. That’s what I was raised on. Most of them had really unhappy endings. You know, Faye Dunaway gets shot in the eye in Chinatown.”
To a degree, a lot of these filmmakers can thank Pulp Fiction for their new and improved careers. “Hollywood is confused,” explains director Terry Gilliam, who’s just finished 12 Monkeys, due Dec. 27, a Bleak- and-beyond time-travel fantasy about a virus that may or may not wipe out 99 percent of humanity. “The studios don’t know what works anymore. They aren’t making $150 million with every Sly Stallone movie. And along comes this smaller, non-formula movie—Pulp Fiction—and blows everything away. Nobody knows anymore. And that means new ideas can sneak in between the cracks.”
That is not, by the way, always a good thing. One of the problems with the Bleak Chic trend is that its films tend to be, well, really depressing. Some of the new filmmakers are incredibly young (Kids was written by a 19-year-old; Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer is 28; Andrew Kevin Walker was in his early 20s when he wrote Seven), and their raging cinematic angst can sometimes be hard to take. It’s easy at that age to mistake grimness for seriousness. “It’s fun to do a vision of hell when you’re 19,” offers John Waters (Serial Mom, Hairspray), who was Bleak way before it was Chic. “It’s great to be a drug addict and an alcoholic at 19. It’s sexy, it looks good, it’s fun. It’s horrible to be one at 50.”
Another problem with Bleak Chic movies: They aren’t all performing quite up to Seven‘s standards at the box office. So far the Bleak Bombs far outnumber the hits. Look at The Basketball Diaries, for instance, which was a flop despite hot young Xer Leonardo DiCaprio and the built-for-Bleak topic of heroin addiction. And Clockers, which tanked despite some of the best reviews of Spike Lee’s career. For other films, the creative downsides of the genre are just too treacherous to overcome. For one thing, it’s practically an engraved invitation for stubbly, scenery-chewing actors to ham it up in the name of street cred. For another, sometimes the new gritty realism looks an awful lot like good old-fashioned exploitation. It’s no accident, for example, that so many of these movies have brutal rape scenes. The Bleak T&A epic Showgirls has the worst, but there are also harrowing rapes in Leaving Las Vegas and Strange Days, a Bleak Sci-fi movie about the end of the century—a topic that will undoubtedly unleash a flood of Bleak Millennial Angst movies, books, and albums.
How long will Bleak remain Chic? Is it merely a passing mood, a brief funk of the national spirit, or has America fallen into a protracted cultural bummer? Most likely it’s a temporary thing. After all, Hollywood is too hooked on happy endings ever to give them up for long. Then again, some of these gloomy new filmmakers can find a Bleak lining in even the most silvery cloud. “One of my favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life,” confesses Usual Suspects‘ Singer. “But it ain’t all roses in that movie, either.”
You can almost hear his pitch for a remake: “It’s got suicide! It’s got bankruptcy! It’s got depression! We can even get Harvey Keitel for George Bailey!”
(Additional reporting by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Kristen Baldwin, Dave Karger, Chris Nashawaty, Jessica Shaw, and Anne Thompson)
The Bible of bleak
Bleak babe: Juliette Lewis
Bleak bad boy: Johnny Depp
Bleak brooder: Morrissey
Bleak buzz cut: Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Bleak blonde: Leonardo DiCaprio
Bleak Brit: Gary Oldman
Bleak brat: Quentin Tarantino
Bleak band: Nine Inch Nails
Bleak bozo: Steven Wright
Bleak beatnik: Jack Kerouac
Bleak bogeyman: Christopher Walken
Bleak bore: Bret Easton Ellis
Bleak bigmouth: Roseanne
Bleak house: Charles Dickens
No self-respecting Bleak movie would feature a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot—unless, of course, the boy gets girl’s severed head. But that doesn’t mean such cinema is free of formula. Here, a do-it-at-home guide to making your own Bleak Masterpiece.
1. Hire a twentysomething screenwriter working a minimum-wage job in a video store.
2. Don’t admit you’ve ever seen Pulp Fiction.
3. Cast Steve Buscemi.
4. Include at least one strong role for a woman. Then kill her.
5. Ban shampoo from the set.
6. Invest in rain machines.
7. Film underground as much as possible.
8. Film everything else at night.
9. Save by skimping on lighting.
10. Fight for an NC-17.