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Evil in film: To what end?

On Aug. 12, I published two zero-star reviews, of "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" and "Chaos." The first was a moronic comedy. Of the second, I wrote:

"'Chaos' is ugly, nihilistic, and cruel -- a film I regret having seen. I urge you to avoid it. Don't make the mistake of thinking it's 'only' a horror film, or a slasher film. It is an exercise in heartless cruelty and it ends with careless brutality. The movie denies not only the value of life, but the possibility of hope."

The "Deuce Bigalow" review speaks for itself. The review of "Chaos," which has not yet received a wide national release, deserves some discussion. I received a provocative letter from Steven Jay Bernheim, its producer, and David Defalco, its director, that is printed in an advertisement in the Weekend section of the Chicago Sun-Times. I reprint their letter here, followed by my response (which reveals important plot details).

* * *

Dear Mr. Ebert:

Thank you for reviewing our film, “Chaos,” and for your thoughtful comments. However, there are some issues you raised that we strongly feel we need to address. First, it is obvious that our film greatly upset you. In your own words, "it affected (you) strongly," and filled you "with sadness and disquiet." You admitted that the film "works." Nevertheless, you urged the public "to avoid it," and you went so far as to resort to expletives: "Why do we need this s--t?", you asked.

As your colleague at the Chicago Daily Herald commented, “Chaos” "marks the first real post-9/11 horror film," and "the horror reality has long ago surpassed the horror of Japanese movies and PG-13 films." Simply put, The Herald gets it and you do not.

Natalie Holloway. Kidnappings and beheadings in Iraq shown on the internet. Wives blasting jail guards with shotguns to free their husbands. The confessions of the BTK killer. These are events of the last few months. How else should filmmakers address this "ugly, nihilistic and cruel" reality -- other than with scenes that are "ugly, nihilistic and cruel," to use the words you used to describe “Chaos.”

Mr. Ebert, would you prefer it if instead we exploit these ugly, nihilistic and cruel events by sanitizing them, like the PG13 horror films do, or like the cable networks do, to titillate and attract audiences without exposing the real truth, the real evil?

Mr. Ebert, how do you want 21st Century evil to be portrayed in film and in the media? Tame and sanitized? Titillating and exploitive? Or do you want evil portrayed as it really is? "Ugly, nihilistic and cruel," as you say our film does it?

We tried to give you and the public something real. Real evil exists and cannot be ignored, sanitized or exploited. It needs to be shown just as it is, which is why we need this s—t, to use your own coarse words. And if this upsets you, or "disquiets" you, or leaves you "saddened," that's the point. So instead of telling the public to avoid this film, shouldn't you let them make their own decision?

Respectfully,

Steven Jay Bernheim Producer, “Chaos”

David Defalco Director, “Chaos”

* * *

Here is my response (which reveals important plot details):

Dear Mr. Bernheim and Mr. Defalco:

Your film does "work," and as filmmakers you have undeniable skills and gifts. The question is, did you put them to a defensible purpose? I believed you did not. I urged my readers to avoid seeing the film. I have also urged them to see many films.

Moviegoers make up their own minds. Like many at the screening I attended, I left saddened and disgusted. Michael Mirasol, a fellow critic, asked me why I even wrote a review, and I answered: "It will get about the audience it would have gotten anyway, but it deserves to be dealt with and replied to."

Yes, you got a good review from the Daily Herald, but every other major critic who has seen the movie shares my view. Maybe we do "get it." As Michael Wilmington wrote in his zero-star review in the Chicago Tribune, the movie "definitely gave me the worst time I've had at a movie in years -- and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but my worst enemies." And from Laura Kern at the New York Times: "Stay far, far away from this one." The line "why do we need this s - - t" was not original with me; I quoted it from Ed Gonzalez at slantmagazine.com, who did not use any dashes in his version. I find it ironic that the makers of "Chaos" would scold me for using "coarse" language and "resorting to expletives."

But there is a larger question here. In a time of dismay and dread, is it admirable for filmmakers to depict pure evil? Have 9/11, suicide bombers, serial killers and kidnappings created a world in which the response of the artist must be nihilistic and hopeless? At the end of your film, after the other characters have been killed in sadistic and gruesome ways, the only survivor is the one who is evil incarnate, and we hear his cold laughter under a screen that has gone dark.

I believe art can certainly be nihilistic and express hopelessness; the powerful movie "Open Water," about two scuba divers left behind by a tourist boat, is an example. I believe evil can win in fiction, as it often does in real life. But I prefer that the artist express an attitude toward that evil. It is not enough to record it; what do you think and feel about it? Your attitude is as detached as your hero's. If "Chaos" has a message, it is that evil reigns and will triumph. I don't believe so.

While it is true, as you argue, that evil cannot be ignored or sanitized, it can certainly be exploited, as "Chaos" demonstrates. You begin the film with one of those sanctimonious messages depicting the movie as a "warning" that will educate its viewers and possibly save their lives. But what are they to learn? That evil people will torture and murder them if they take any chances, go to parties, or walk in the woods? We can't live our lives in hiding.

Your real purpose in making "Chaos," I suspect, was not to educate, but to create a scandal that would draw an audience. There's always money to be made by going further and being more shocking. Sometimes there is also art to be found in that direction, but not this time.

That's because your film creates a closed system in which any alternative outcome is excluded; it is like a movie of a man falling to his death, which can have no developments except that he continues to fall, and no ending except that he dies. Pre-destination may be useful in theology, but as a narrative strategy, it is self-defeating.

I call your attention to two movies you have not mentioned: Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" (1960) and Wes Craven's "The Last House on the Left" (1972). As Gonzalez, despite his "coarse" language, points out, your film follows "Last House" so closely "that Wes Craven could probably sue Defalco for a dual screenwriting credit and win." Craven, also indebted to Bergman, did a modern horror-film version of the Bergman film, which was set in medieval times. In it, a girl goes into the woods and is raped and murdered. Her killers later happen to stay overnight as guests of the grieving parents. When they discover who they are, the father exacts his revenge.

In the Craven version, there is also revenge; I gave the movie a four-star rating, because I felt it was uncommonly effective, even though it got many reviews as negative as my review of "Chaos." Craven, and to a greater degree Bergman, used the material as a way of dealing with tragedy, human loss, and human nature.

You use the material without pity, to look unblinkingly at a monster and his victims. The monster is given no responsibility, no motive, no context, no depth. Like a shark, he exists to kill. I am reminded of a great movie about a serial killer, actually named "Monster" (2003). In it, innocent people were murdered, but we were not invited to simply stare. The killer was allowed her humanity, which I believe all of us have, even the worst of us. It was possible to see her first as victim, then as murderer. The film did not excuse her behavior, but understood that it proceeded from evil done to her. If the film contained a "warning" to "educate" us, it was not that evil will destroy us, but that others will do onto us as we have done onto them. If we do not want monsters like Aileen Wuornos in our world, we should not allow them to have the childhoods that she had.

What I miss in your film is any sense of hope. Sometimes it is all that keeps us going. The message of futility and despair in "Chaos" is unrelieved, and while I do not require a "happy ending," I do appreciate some kind of catharsis. As the Greeks understood tragedy, it exists not to bury us in death and dismay, but to help us to deal with it, to accept it as a part of life, to learn about our own humanity from it. That is why the Greek tragedies were poems: The language ennobled the material.

Animals do not know they are going to die, and require no way to deal with that implacable fact. Humans, who know we will die, have been given the consolations of art, myth, hope, science, religion, philosophy, and even denial, even movies, to help us reconcile with that final fact. What I object to most of all in "Chaos" is not the sadism, the brutality, the torture, the nihilism, but the absence of any alternative to them. If the world has indeed become as evil as you think, then we need the redemptive power of artists, poets, philosophers and theologians more than ever.

Your answer, that the world is evil and therefore it is your responsibility to reflect it, is no answer at all, but a surrender.

Sincerely,

Roger Ebert

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