Seems only fitting that we follow up last week’s question about favorite films not themed around sex or violence with the reverse question: What are your favorite films that expressly explore the themes of sex and/or violence?
I wouldn’t say Jane Campion’s In The Cut is a favorite of mine in the sense that I want to run out and re-watch it every week. It’s a brutal, sometimes overwrought, sometimes overbearing film, and like Campion’s work in general, it can be a bit pretentious. But I remember watching it with amazement, thoroughly impressed at how much mileage it got just from reversing the sexual dynamics between genders, and giving Meg Ryan a character who acts more like a man does in a typical dark sexual thriller than like a woman does. She’s menacing, mysterious, and prone to taking sexual control—but she’s also very aware that the men around her are stronger and with more potential for violence than she has. Campion is always alert to the possibilities of gender dynamics, an ongoing theme in her films, and she tends to address them in ugly, blunt ways, but her lack of hesitancy tends to have powerful effects.
Maybe it’s because it’s been airing on basic cable television with alarming frequency lately, but I’d have to go with the original Bourne Trilogy here. All three are stepped in the physical and psychological costs of violence, with Matt Damon’s lead character fighting to keep any semblance of his humanity throughout the three films. Too often, cinematic violence lacks a visceral edge, whether it takes the form of bloodless gunplay or the Looney Tunes-esque choreography of something like Shaolin Soccer. But in the Bourne films, each fight takes its toll on both the characters and the audience. Watching Bourne employ a rolled-up newspaper as weapon is thrilling, but that thrill soon gives way to horror at the sheer brutality with which it’s wielded. Even if Jason Bourne can’t always remember those upon whom he has inflicted violence, he feels the pain he causes them in every fiber of his being. Bringing such visceral violence into a popular film series is no small feat, and it’s always surprising to see, no matter how many times TNT might air it this month.
Just after Tony Scott died, I pulled out his early-’90s classic True Romance. There’s a movie with just about all the violence you could ask for, plus a nice side dish of sex. We get most of the sex early, as a call girl named Alabama and a comic-book-store clerk named Clarence fall in stupid love after a night of steamy passion—depicted with a hot but not explicit sex scene—then get married. The violence starts shortly thereafter, once Clarence goes to kill Alabama’s pimp and ends up stealing a shitload of the mob’s cocaine by mistake. From there, it’s pretty much nonstop mayhem (with one more sex scene thrown in for good measure), with several unforgettable scenes, including Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken facing off in a battle of wits that ends with a sudden headshot, and a youngish James Gandolfini delivering an almost unwatchably brutal beating to Alabama (Patricia Arquette). It all climaxes in a massive clusterfuck of a shootout that sees the mob, the police, and a couple of ’roided-up bodyguards shooting the living shit out of everything and everyone in sight. When it was new, it was one of my favorite movies, and I have to say it holds up remarkably well after almost 20 years. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better use of cinematic sex and violence cementing together a timeless story of young, senseless love.
Sometimes my girlfriend gets on me about only liking violent movies. My usual rejoinder is “Hey! I only like movies about violence!” and then, “I love you.” Obviously the former isn’t true. When I watch Commando or Death Wish 4 (or, more recently, The Raid: Redemption) I’m not really watching anything that’s about anything. I’m watching it for the goofiness, the splatter, and the inventive bone-cracking. Nonetheless, violence—the nature of it, the human capacity for it—is an endlessly interesting theme, and one that informs many of my favorite films: The Shining, Robocop, Performance, The Wild Bunch, Taken, etc. It also informs what is maybe my favorite movie, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I can’t possibly fathom what it might have been like to see this surrealist high masterpiece when it was originally released (in September 1986, I was too busy being a newborn to get out to the movies), to be fully knocked off-kilter by its studied critique of the return-to-values ideals of the Reagan era. But in a way, these of-the-moment resonances are incidental. Blue Velvet’s themes go way back, dismantling the complex veneers of civility we erect to suppress a violence and vulgarity innate to our character. Kyle McLachlan’s gumshoe journey into the seedy underbelly of his all-American industrial town is, as has often been said, a journey into these roiling subconscious desires, embodied by Dennis Hopper’s sadomasochistic, gas-huffing, nipple-twisting crime boss. Besides being perfectly made, Blue Velvet exists at the confluence of sex and violence—themes it confronts with elegance and a weird, watchful respect. It doesn’t explode with squibs or seduction (what sex there is seems thoroughly un-sexy), but I’d put Blue Velvet on the short list of the best, most important films about sex and violence.
My favorite films tend to hover in low-violence territory, but 90 percent of the movies I see in theaters are ultraviolent spectacles. If it stars Liam Neeson or has DC or Marvel in the credits, I have probably seen it half a dozen times. Most of these movies shy away from treating violence as a theme in favor of using it as an effect: Taken is the prime example. The best of this recent run of big, beat-’em-up franchises does, however, explore what violence means while it’s splashing it all over the screen. The Dark Knight trilogy spends just as much time on the consequences of violence as it does on how great fighting looks in hi-def. The Batman franchise has historically complicated violence more than its comic-book peers, but previous movie versions have fallen a bit short of nuance. Christopher Nolan’s run returned meaning to the character by pushing his violence back into an ambiguous zone somewhere between good and evil. The movies have lots of exciting fight sequences, but on all sides, the violence stems from, and results in, loss. The Dark Knight Rises powerfully concludes the trilogy by flipping good and evil, pitting a Batman motivated by pride and a death wish against an enemy with a vision for a better world. The ending may be a bit of a copout, but the rest of the film wallows in violence, righteousness, and what it takes to win.
As an impressionable, celibate-but-not-by-choice college student, I found sex, lies, and videotape much more of a revelation about sex than any of the porn I was watching at the time. Why? Because Steven Soderbergh was unknown back then, he made the movie on a shoestring, but his tight budget worked to his advantage. It felt in many ways like a student film, where we looked in on the lives of a group of young, attractive people who were only interested in the adult ways to make sex more than just friction and sweating. Once James Spader, playing an impotent filmmaker who gets off on recording women talking in achingly sensual terms about sex, enters the mix, the movie goes from a standard infidelity tale to a story that could make even the most asexual person horny as hell. It doesn’t hurt that Laura San Giacomo manages to out-sexy Andie MacDowell, which turns out to be a great acting feat, given that San Giacomo’s subsequent filmography was filled with dowdy and nerdy roles.
Looking back at the legacy of Twin Peaks, it’s easy to accuse the show of inspiring numerous subpar knockoffs revolving around small towns filled with eccentric residents and dark secrets. But it’s also guilty of a far more heinous crime: sending hormone-addled teenagers to seek out any and all other films featuring Sherilyn Fenn. This wouldn’t be such a sin if Fenn’s filmography had been written and directed by guys like Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorsese, but if there’s one thing we can probably all agree on, it’s that Zalman King, God bless him, is not on that level. With that said, however, I suspect I’m not the only one who can recall a time when Two Moon Junction was the best goddamned movie of all time. It really isn’t, of course, but it’s one I can actually revisit once in awhile and enjoy… and no, not just because of the gratuitous nudity and sex scenes. There’s still some kitschy merit to the film, thanks to performances by Burl Ives and Louise Fletcher, neither of whom wink at the camera in spite of the ridiculousness of it all, and as someone who can be amused by a film simply because of a weird cast, it’s also just fun to see people like Kristy McNichol, Milla Jovovich, Hervé Villechaize, and even Screamin’ Jay Hawkins show up at various points in the proceedings. But, yeah, I’m not going to pretend otherwise: the biggest reason to watch is still the fact that it’s filled with naked-Sherilyn-Fenn-ness. So sue me.
I’m not a big fan of ultraviolent horror movies like some film editor-types around here—if it’s gratuitous, it’s generally not for me. But if it’s artful, and in service of a corker of a story, like Quentin Tarantino’s debut, Reservoir Dogs, then bring on the blood. Though the big ear-cutting scene turned stomachs when Dogs first came out, the ultraviolent moment that actually stuck with me more is right at the beginning, when Tim Roth is gut-shot in the back seat of a car. The interior of the car just had to be white, right? So Roth’s blood can wash over the entire frame, of course. But really, it’s Roth’s desperate, horrible cries (“I’m gonna die, Larry!”) that make this violence work so well. Say the goddamn words! You’re gonna be okay!
As with John, Blue Velvet definitely comes to mind for me right away when it comes to sex, given the way David Lynch takes the safely sexy poses of classic Hollywood and literally strips them naked. As for violence, I think immediately of Fight Club, which finesses the difficult trick of indulging the audience’s punkish, anarchic desire to watch the world burn and exposes how that “fuck everything” approach to life is ultimately a dead end. The movie rages, then rages at itself for raging. Plus, there’s a Pixies song.
I feel like this is a boring answer because it’s recent, but my favorite movie of the past five years or so is No Country For Old Men, a film haunted by death at every turn. There’s Javier Bardem’s ruthless killer, Anton Chigurh. There’s the sense of day-to-day violence escalating with a ferocity that baffles law enforcement. And on a more basic level, there’s the age-old passage of time, which offers no escape. No Country For Old Men has plenty of violence, particularly in the early going, when Chigurh brutally strangles a highway patrolman, then uses a cattle gun on A.V. Club friend Chip Love, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. Not that I mind some gratuitous violence every now and again, but here, it’s part of a larger, more textured world. Sometimes violence doesn’t even have to happen to be effective, as the threat of it makes one of the film’s best scenes almost unbearable:
There was a time during my teen years when I thought being a linguist seemed like the coolest hyper-intellectual job possible. I was fascinated by the remarkable piece of craft that is Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. I remember seeing the Stanley Kubrick film version a couple of years after discovering the novel (so I was probably somewhere around 18), and although I was quite familiar with the plot points of the story, I was completely horrified by that rape scene. This was when I began to understand what all the fuss regarding Kubrick films was about, and while I’ve revisited the book more often than the movie over the years, few films have combined the elements of misplaced teen angst, violence, crime, violence, punishment, violence, and torture to such an astounding effect. Malcolm McDowell’s performance as Alex still gives me the heebie-jeebies. I found the idea that you could conclude a story with no real redemption for the protagonist revolutionary at the time. Also, this film ruined Singin’ In The Rain for me. Permanently.
David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is the best possible answer I can think of. The 1983 film is nominally about James Woods’ efforts to discover the origins of an independent television program that depicts explicit, narrative-free torture, but it’s really about… Okay, I’m not exactly sure, which is why I love it, but I guess deep down, it seems to be about the same thing so many of Cronenberg’s movies are about, which is that it’s really weird to have a body, and sometimes the neurons that make us want to fuck and the neurons that make us hurt get crossed. (Also, there’s a lot about how TV images alter the social consciousness. I’m sure someone’s written an essay.) What I love about Videodrome is that it takes all these weird, challenging, unsettling ideas and runs straight into them in a way that is both entertaining and relentless. Watching Deborah Harry give in to temptation is unsurprisingly hot, and by the time I realized her desires are driven as much by a need to experience extreme sensation—which includes cigarette burns and needles—the movie had pulled me too far in to turn back. It’s a mesmerizing, engaging experience, and it uses sex and violence in a way that suggests the difference between the two is less than any of us is willing to admit.
Classic answer in the violence category: Sam Peckinpah movies, especially The Wild Bunch. A lot of directors with no special talent for depicting violence onscreen have relied on it to juice up their movies; Peckinpah was a genius at it, but he couldn’t resolve his feelings about it, or much of anything else. He’s one of my two or three favorite movie directors, because his best work feels alive in a way that most movies just don’t, as if he had more intense feelings than normal people, and had the rare ability to put that right on the screen. As is natural for someone who was that interested in life and could find so much visual beauty in a natural landscape, he saw violent destructiveness as something that was horrible and appalling. But because as a film artist, he couldn’t help making violent destructiveness beautiful and thrilling—especially since the intensity of his emotions extended to his feelings of hatred and disgust, which means he could sometimes seem like one of those men, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, who just “want to watch the world burn”—he created some unparalleled violent sequences (such as the apocalyptic battle at the end of The Wild Bunch) where viewers are likely to be torn between feeling devastated at the wasteful carnage and wanting it to never stop. I don’t know of any other movies that so fruitfully capture the helpless attraction to violence that most people feel on some level, even if they hate themselves for it in the morning.
Let me add two things to the Peckinpah love: 1) Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia, one of the nastiest films in the director's filmography, and one that felt like he knew he wouldn't have too many more chances to make grand statements about sex and violence and the way they relate to each other. I find those statements repulsively nihilistic, but that's almost beside the point: They're compellingly portrayed enough that it doesn't matter. 2) The greatest bit of Peckinpah-inspired comedy ever, courtesy of Monty Python. "Anyone for tennis?":