Tom Jolliffe on cinema’s fascination with nihilistic film characters…
Nihilists…rejecting all values, beliefs, morals and systems of order, deeming life to be meaningless. Sounds like most peoples teenage years. On the other hand, as far as creating cinematic protagonists, a character with a nihilistic frame of mind might not necessarily seem like the safest creative choice. It can be difficult in pulling off any film, if your protagonist isn’t in some way redeemable, and nihilism in its most adhered forms can push a character into being irredeemable. Still, many filmmakers have taken the steps in portraying characters with a nihilistic point of view. The easiest way of course, is as an antagonist. But some filmmakers still have that creative bravery to paint their main subject with a nihilistic brush.
In some interesting cinematic cases, some characters strive against their very nature to try and find that semblance of meaning. If you think of Daniel Plainview’s (Daniel Day Lewis) perpetual quest for riches in There Will Be Blood (indeed, money and material existence can be that false ‘meaning’ these characters often look for) he is morally disconnected, lacking in empathy, and directly scorns religious belief. Interestingly, the same year, The Coen brothers created a film with a certain overriding gaze of nihilism, in No Country For Old Men. Chigurgh certainly could fall into the category of being a nihilist, but Tommy Lee Jones, who certainly doesn’t, is left feeling a distinct emptiness and an epiphany that there’s something altogether meaningless about existence, where explaining the unexplainable becomes moot. In Michael Mann’s Thief, Frank (James Caan) has detachment to life, possibly a result of a life in correctional institutions. He focuses his goals into a collage picture he carries, which includes a fancy house, wife and children. He pines for it, but it becomes meaningless by the end, if it ever truly had meaning to him (beyond an inherent desire to fight against his own nihilism).
Among other favourites which took a unique spin on the idea, we have American Psycho, with a protagonist who is an embodiment of 80’s corporate greed, where you might say there may have been an overriding sense of nihilism (when the pursuits and systems of belief didn’t really extend beyond accumulating material wealth). It’s darkly comic and satirical and layered with enough variables that audiences can choose their own meaning. Christian Bale’s iconic performance as Bateman delivers a character who is nihilistic, psychopathic, sociopathic and probably a paranoid schizophrenic. Lets just say, he covers some bases. We shouldn’t in any way shape or form like Bateman, but the film’s skill and Bale’s performance make him enthralling, and perhaps more than ‘likeable’. Certainly compelling. To an extent Kubrick had trodden a similar path, with distinct mix of humour and the horrific with A Clockwork Orange.
On a flipside to that is a more restrained, listless and poetic look at nihilistic (and sociopathic) runaways in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. You’d certainly say Martin Sheen’s character is more overtly nihilistic, among his other traits, but Sissy Spacek’s young character isn’t exactly swept into the lawless adventure against her will. She has that distinct disconnect with conventional morality and systems of law and belief. Their nonchalance at taking life, and having no fear of being caught/killed, might also suggest they’re at peace with the ultimate meaningless of our existence in the grand scheme of the universe. The whole antihero thing has always made for compelling cinema I guess, so the success of Badlands is no surprise.
Probably the ultimate in nihilism in cinema, is with Mike Leigh’s Naked. On paper it’s a film that just shouldn’t work. How do you go to a studio exec or a distributor and pitch a film about a manic depressive nihilist, who talks to random misfits on a night odyssey through London? It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, and we’re never promised redemption or life altering epiphanies (after all, at the base of the film, though oddly ethereal for Leigh’s CV, still has some roots in kitchen sink). Johnny (an exceptional David Thewlis) is certainly persuasive in his viewpoints. He’s also under no doubt of his own nihilism and the unerring hopelessness of existence (particularly with an apocalypse fascination). Yet the film treads a parabolic line throughout, and is like an odd fairy tale. It’s stunningly shot too, particularly those listless and nomadic wanderings through London. Johnny focuses his nihilism on egocentric philosophising and intellectualism. He knows life is shit, meaningless and the ultimate demise is just around the corner, and finds some of his only flights of passion in imposing his intellect and knowledge on willing (sometimes unwilling) listeners. He’s smarter than them and he knows it.
It’s interesting too that Leigh throws a counterpoint to Johnny in the film with Jeremy (Greg Cruttwell). Their similarities extend to unescapable fatalism, and sexual urges (as exercises in lustful whims satisfied) over any sense of passion or feeling. In Jeremy’s case his fate is the inevitably of time and mortality. Losing his youth is the death sentence, and he’s engaging, without belief or moral compass, in whatever he wants at a given moment (he plans to off himself before hitting 40). Both men have reached a stage in their sexual pursuits that nothing fulfils them there, and their pursuits become increasingly violent or perverse. A key difference between the pair is that Jeremy focuses his non physical pursuits to material possessions and wealth (things that matter little to Johnny). The disconnect between them and everyone else is all too clear. It’s beautifully summed up in one of the films simplest shots, which is an almost voyeuristic long lens of Johnny stood outside a tube station watching the world go by. Dozens pass in the bustling street, but he has no kind of emphatic connections to anyone. It’s written on Thewlis’ face as he looks at people as if the Martians have landed. For a time it’s almost painful, and perhaps confusing. Maybe he’s wondering just why these people can believe in anything but impending doom.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/