Three films from 2005, after the Iraq War was in full swing, focused on the sociopath as protagonist, all from a more “personal” point of view, if one can really comprehend the black hole at the center of these dark souls. Many films (including some of our greatest) have focused on the consequences of power, corruption, and lies, but this trio tried to approach the criminal mindset from a more intimate, stealthy point of view, as though we ourselves were lurking with them much as they do with their victims.
Lord of War had the most immediate cultural zeitgeist in 2005, approaching the world's turmoil from the underhanded point of view of an arms dealer, sprung from our own American soil, our own thirst for capitalism and self-made glory. Match Point entered the sociopath’s world backwards, from the point of view of everyday human needs and wants, upper crust drawing room normalcy. Capote seemed to approach from a bird’s eye (or rather vulture’s eye) point of view, a journalist tracking a straight out pair of murderers, but as the film unfolded, we started to realize who the true murderer might be, not just the hungry eye of Capote himself, but our own voyeuristic thirst for deviance.
Is there any particular reason why all these films came out within months of each other a decade ago? Perhaps during that era there was a loss of faith in our highest ranks, our presidency, our institutions, after the brutality of 9/11, and an aimless war based on invisible weapons of mass destruction--with art trying to ask why. 9/11 shook us out of our sterility, and perhaps people started to look inward at the American way, which wasn't always pretty. And they did it in a more personal, forthright way.
Lord of War follows perhaps the straightest track, but with perhaps the foulest consequences. We know where the story is headed from the start, but we can’t take our eyes off of it, because on some level we’re familiar with the descent, complicit in it, yet hoping at every moment the protagonist will turn away from his path to hell. Yuri Orlov starts out like any affable hardworking Brooklyn immigrant: ambitious, dreaming, hungry to improve his station in life. He has a crush on the local beauty queen, and he helps out his family’s humble restaurant business. As though cross-sparked by the famous downfall of that other cinematic paean to immigrant dreams gone sour, the Godfather trilogy, Yuri witnesses a mob-related offing, and the murder, instead of frightening him away, sparks blood lust. But a terribly practical form of lust; he sees the business opportunity of selling the guns that do the dirty deeds. Armed with a natural salesman’s talent, steel-lined charm, he climbs the ranks, and believes the whole while he is getting rich while keeping his hands clean.
This form of indirect murder is all too familiar to any human being; letting others do the dirty work while we reap the benefits. The metaphors are morally damning (which may partly explain why the movie flew under the radar to some degree), as we watch the guns and bullets fuel the slaughter of innocents in Africa, while Yuri woos his beauty queen, first with lies, then with real money, in posh Manhattan. All the while he maintains a breezy center of indifference, a smiling, jokey calm at the center of chaos. He uses the same jokes with a murderous Liberian warlord as he does with his brother. He does not sweat out of pangs of conscience, or get worried about what his wife will think, so much as he does about getting caught. Even at some point, when he ought to stop just from a standpoint of survival, he wants to continue to gamble. The thrill is all.
He is only done in because he bothers trusting anyone at all. His brother, who unfortunately for himself does have a conscience, self destructs on drugs and then tries in vain to fight back, even if it is futile. His wife, who has unwittingly become the muse for all this corruption, can only direct her anger back at Yuri, even if she herself has joined in the crime by wanting to marry him in the first place. Strikingly, she tells Yuri at some point to go legit and stop his business, but she never says to get rid of the apartment. In the end though, after being left alone, Yuri is left freer than ever to continue his enterprise. We realize that there is no stopping Yuri, because as horrified as we pretend to be, we also need him. We, like his wife, don’t want to give up the jewels for the rest.
Match Point practices its own subversion; it pretends to be about everyday human beings, and ends up being about a monster disguised as an everyday human being. But until Chris Wilton makes his final descent into hell, he is an everyday human being. It’s his choices that damn him. He is your typical semi-ambitious social climber, who uses his natural good looks and charm to woo a wealthy Briton heiress. Despite being set in the UK, Chris' character feels vaguely more American in terms of hungry status-seeking. A male golddigger, he is drawn to his parallel female golddigger, Nola Rice, who is indeed American, and who dates his girlfriend Chloe’s brother Tom. It isn’t completely clear why he is so drawn to her aside from sheer animal lust. Is it just envy and competition with Chloe’s genteel brother? Is it being drawn to his mirror image in female form? Is it her American naivete combined with a jaded sadness? Does he just smell someone he can take advantage of?
In any case, he successfully, doggedly pursues Nola as successfully as he makes his way into the Hewett family business. All the while he quietly deceives and discards his wife’s feelings and views her yearnings for pregnancy as a horrid irritant. Curiously the viewer still empathizes with Chris all along; he might just be caught in a muddle, but he seems to be following his passion, his heart in his pursuit of Nola, like any other unfaithful flawed human being. He marries Chloe for money just like many other thinly veiled marriages in the world.
It’s only when he takes the sudden Machiavellian step that becomes the shock of the movie that we realize our ability to forgive his character might be a sign of our own quiet complicity in evil. We watch his preparatory steps in quiet disbelief, still thinking he won’t go there. And he does. And for all his nervous bungling afterwards, he gets away with it, because of dumb luck.
The ambiguities of the game of life leave us feeling quite uncomfortable at the end of Match Point. Are we always trying to get away with it ourselves, to varying degrees? Does this complicity cause us to ignore or minimize real horrors when they do happen? Is all selfishness ultimately a form of murder? And Chris himself, what causes us to relate to him, to let him thrive in our hearts, while all the while he couldn’t care less about any of us, even the woman he supposedly loves? We want to be him, we want to root for the envious young climber outsmarting his way into the midst of the elite. We want to be beautiful, charming, outwardly perfect, even if it means fueling a lie. Fueling a monster. (Woody Allen's subsequent troubled history makes us feel even squirmier about these insights in retrospect.)
Our own rapacious lust for the trappings of success find full fury in Truman Capote. He knows that if he captures the great American crime story, he will tap into this part of American nature. Ironically, it is by dramatizing blatant sociopathy that he manages to achieve notoriety. We think we won’t ever relate to the killers of In Cold Blood, but Capote simultaneously humanizes and exploits them in his blockbuster story. He knows and feels he has every right to use them, because they’re already doomed to extinction for the worst crimes. And as silken as Satan, he lures them into telling their story by acting as their friend, their father figure, their savior. He allows himself to behave this way because he wants straight up to be famous. He knows this story is his ticket to the big time from the outset.
Is this horrific selfishness on Capote’s part? Is he in a sense the bigger villain for allowing the graphic luridness of the murders to spread across the country, to sensationalize horror and also give fame to the murderers? Or on a basic interpersonal level for tricking and exploiting the killers? Or is he just again the foil for everyday human curiosity and desires, that we can’t help but want to be famous, or to read lurid crimes that remind us of what we aren’t? Is it okay that he milks the killers for what they’re worth before they go to their execution?
One thing we know is that Capote would not succeed if he didn’t have the American public to rely on, our own lust and greed for the extreme, for voyeurism. And if he didn’t have the killers to exploit to begin with. Everything depends on something else; no moment of evil stands alone.
Only in the past, we hadn’t reflected as much on the art of exploitation, of manipulation, of those who masquerade as people only to step upon others in search of bottomless desires, empty lusts. Our ignorance only allowed sociopathy to thrive, because psychopaths prey on our sympathy, our belief that they look and act like our best selves, even as they behave as our worst selves. They also prey on our envy, our own secret wish that we too could get away with the most heinous of crimes without batting an eyelash. Because there is a creepy freedom to immorality, that one is free from our own emotions, our conscience, our own restraints and laws, that one is free to be whatever one wants to be. It is the twisted underbelly of the freedom we idealized and sanctified once upon a time as Americans. It’s how the terrorists and stock brokers reamed us from within; it’s the potential anarchy that lurks if we do not measure the heavy responsibility and gift of freedom with a moral compass. That compass is self-reflection, the open voice of free speech and artistic expression, and these films were part of it, part of what might save us.
And a decade later, in the aftermath of 2008's late economic collapse and election of Obama, and the proliferation of social media and personal broadcasting, America has tried to rebel and reconnect with idealism again at times. But in 2015, things remain more uncertain than ever. New forms of the same old sociopathic games have taken hold via new technological means and new world skirmishes. But at least, we are still willing to look, to examine, and to be wary.
Copyright 2014, Jean Kim.
Image: Truman Capote, 1948. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Carl Van Vechten, photographer.