Archive for the ‘frank capra’ tag
Trailer-level spoilers for Up in the Air and medium spoilers for Drag Me to Hell
Manohla Dargis called Up in the Air “a well-timed snapshot of an economically flailing America.” A. O. Scott called it “a classic in the making. In 50 or 60 years when people want to know what life is like in this anxious, strange moment of recession at the end of this decade, they’re going to look at this movie the way we look at the movies of Preston Sturges or Frank Capra to find what life was like in the ’30s. … It captures something very deep and very sad about the way that we live now in a light-hearted and comic way, and I think that that’s brilliant.” And those descriptions are exactly right, but they’re about the wrong movie.
They are talking about Jason Reitman’s fine character study of a man who fires people for a living. It’s the one booming business these days, but even this job is unsettled as George Clooney’s character, who has trouble forming relationships with anybody, realizes his job is being replaced by an up-and-comer, played superbly by Anna Kendrick. The film is very aware of its prestigious ambitions and careful tone, and it is a moderately successful film that is a big-issue story masquerading as a small, intimate story. It’s pretty good. You should see it.
But, with all due deference to Mr. Scott and Ms. Dargis and the many others who have made similar claims, Up in the Air is not the 2009 film that best captures “this anxious, strange moment of recession at the end of this decade.” For that, we should turn to Sam Raimi’s throwback horror film Drag Me to Hell.
Drag Me to Hell is the story of Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who in her role as insurance officer at a regional bank branch, decides to try for a promotion to assistant manager despite knowing that doing so requires her to make “tough decisions” that will impress her boss. The first such decision is to deny a third extension on a late mortgage payment; unfortunately, this is an old gypsy woman who begs Brown to reconsider, and in refusing to do so, shames the old woman. Being a gypsy, she curses Brown, who spends the next 60 minutes chased by a demon who claims her soul. Why is this the film that best captures the feeling of 2009?
“Actually, it was the bank that took the house. I just work there.”
Before entering a by-the-book horror-film third act, Drag Me to Hell is largely about the psychological consequences of working in a capitalist society. Brown is torn between doing what she knows is right and doing what she knows will help her get ahead in her workplace. She feels threatened by her boyfriend’s parents, who see her as a failure for not being born successful. She feels threatened by her male coworker who is gunning for the same job, and taking every opportunity to demean her. But she chooses to work within the cold machinations of capitalism, even when she knows it will hurt others. She will sacrifice an old woman’s future to keep her job secure and get just a little ahead. We see the devastation wrought by the financial sector on this old woman. The film doesn’t even attempt to cloak it as a case of capitalism-run-amok with greedy robber barons destroying the country; Brown is doing what makes sense for her job, since her bank will earn nice fees for foreclosing on the house. We watch the pitiable woman being beaten down by a system that doesn’t stop for her, and the subsequent shame. And we also see the shame to Brown as she participates in this. Early on, she attempts to deflect the guilt of her actions onto the company for which she works, but the film is a slow realization that she must face up to her guilt rather than hide behind her company.
“You deserve everything that is coming to you.”
After the gypsy woman attacks her, Brown suffers a mental break. (Notably, most of the film could be read as a psychotic break suffered by Brown; almost no one else experiences the terrors that she experiences, even when they are in the same room, unless they are already “believers.”) Like someone fired in a massive downsizing, Brown believes that she deserves what is happening to her. People who have been fired often feel like they are at fault rather than the company or person who fired them; if only they had worked harder, they would have been okay. They feel guilty, like they deserved what happened to them, even if that is not the truth. And certainly Brown goes through this as well. She, and the viewer, know that her actions led to this point, and that she must face the consequences herself. That feeling of deserving what is coming to you perfectly captures the feeling of the displaced worker, even though Brown deserves it and many downsized workers do not.
“It was my decision and it was wrong of me.” “You have such a good heart.”
The shame to those destroyed by the system, the guilt of those complicit in the system, the difficult choices faced by those still in the system. These are the feelings of 2009 that Drag Me to Hell captures and Up in the Air does not. After all, Anna Kendrick’s character got hired coming right out of college! And she had multiple job opportunities! Up in the Air may have some nice things to say about changing ideas of corporate loyalty and growing old, but nothing hits 2009 where it hurts like Drag Me to Hell. [BIG DRAG ME TO HELL SPOILER] When Christine Brown recognizes that what she did was wrong, it is too late for her. Having a good heart in the end wasn’t enough. She had to face the consequences of staying in her job. And the film’s final scenes are a working out of her survivor’s guilt.
2009 was hell. Sam Raimi captured it in a way worth remembering.