Finding horror in revolution

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As economic inequality has grown into an increasingly pressing issue in the United States, it makes sense that Hollywood has begun to grapple with it on the big screen. Yet what 2019’s three most popular class-conscious thrillers — Oscar-winning “Parasite,” box-office smash “Us” and indie darling “The Lighthouse” — share goes beyond simply placing a spotlight on classism. Universally celebrated for their sharp, socio-political commentary, their stories all, to varying degrees, revolve around a moderately sympathetic lower class violently rising up against the elite. But what’s often overlooked in the conversation surrounding these films is that they don’t support their depicted revolutions.

These thrillers emerged from liberal, white-collar perspectives. Naturally, this means they perceive issues surrounding classism in the modern world and are accordingly layered with affluent guilt. But as products of an established class, the root of their fears is more personal than conventionally liberal. Rather than drawing their primary horrors from the pain of the oppressed, the films derive this terror from the idea that the poor will rise up in violent revolution, therefore tearing down those on top. 

Jordan Peele’s “Us” is probably the clearest example of this. Its horrific doppelgangers are unabashedly a metaphor for a controlled, subservient class. Every move the “Tethered” make, like puppets, is dictated by those above. Yet as duplicates, they are functionally the same people — the same “Americans,” the film makes sure to note — as those with privilege, meaning they have the power to replace them at any time. Living figuratively and literally below the affluent beach community, their bloody efforts to snip away at their masters’ hold on society is a nightmare of class revolution.

“Parasite,” while more nuanced, holds similar views. It clearly empathizes with the plight of both the poor Kim family and the couple imprisoned beneath the house. Yet the violent mayhem in the final half originates from these overlooked people’s struggles to achieve power and vengeance. For all the praise director Bong Joon-ho drew for his startling insights into capitalism, “Parasite” is decidedly nonideological. Its message seems to be one in fear of inevitable bloodshed, rather than in solidarity with the working class. 

Likewise, Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” while much more abstract in its arthouse vision, ultimately derives its horrifying climax from fear of a Marxist world. However much Robert Pattinson’s character is forced to toil for his domineering, farting and exploitative boss, his violent overtaking of the island is presented as the tragic and inevitably homicidal path for the revolutionary working man. 

These films’ liberal, or at least broadly class-conscious, point of view is key to understanding them in a modern context. It shows an acknowledgment that modern America doesn’t work for everyone — a belief shared by many Americans today. Yet at the same time, the horror in these films’ compositions captures the same basic fear-pushing people, rightfully or wrongly, away from the class revolution promised by today’s progressive front-runners, and instead toward a vision of pragmatism and normalcy. Contrary to popular belief, it is not always a matter of ideology that scares people. 

What these films so honestly portray are deeply human fears: ones which shed light on the practical limits of human compassion for both moral and immoral motivations. While the underlying philosophies may naturally lean toward radical reform, there is a logical concern that drastic change will result in both physical and metaphorical destruction. 

Physical destruction, the same type that has been tied to drastic social change throughout history, is presented in these films to shock viewers: scissors through flesh, a rock to the head or an ax to the face. But even with a sense of compassion toward the oppressed, these films, as products of educated, progressive directors, are naturally afraid of what they will be forced to lose if “righteous” change ever comes. This fear of losing one’s place in society, not to an evil force, but to a recognizable, deserving opponent, defines these movies’ fixation with people like the Kim family. 

The films’ critical and commercial success is probably explained by this. They have the political awareness to be “woke” commentaries, yet they concurrently share a relatable establishment fear of extreme change. Why is a “political” and foreign movie like “Parasite” able to win best picture? Because Hollywood voters identify with it. That’s not to take anything away from these phenomenal movies or to mount a political critique against them. If anything, it just proves that they’re better examples of the time than the bland “capitalist commentary” labels that get tossed upon them. These movies are deeply human, explaining our society with an implicit honesty that’s rarely discussed.

Contact David Newman at [email protected].