Nihilism in Post-Modern Cinema

An article by | Debopam Deb Roy

After having watched a film, most of us tend to focus on superficial aspects like the content of a film, amount of violence, risky stunts, camera movements, etc. Although these aspects act as the basis of all criticism surrounding a film, there is one more aspect that is generally overlooked by most lovers of cinema. Just like any major project is based on a central idea, a story has a certain philosophical ideology working behind it. This ideology drives the central theme of a film, thus guiding how the characters in the story would react to certain situations or how they would behave in general. Throughout centuries, artistic and cultural trends have evolved radically, breaking old norms and creating new ones on its way. Even though art in general is hundreds of years old, cinema is comparatively new in the realm of visual arts. From its inception in vaudeville theatres to highly crafted animation films, cinema has adopted several technological advancements and modified itself with ever-passing time. However, we can broadly classify films into two groups, namely modern and postmodern, depending on their thematic differences. To understand such complex theories, we need to carefully analyze their differences and gradually move on to understanding Nihilism in postmodernist film.


It is crucial to understand the terminologies before we move further with our argument regarding the philosophical trends in the world of cinema. Many arguments revolve around the time period that differentiates modernism from postmodernism. For some, modernism can be briefly classified as the philosophical movement that saw its inception in the late 19th century, more specifically in the 1890s and continued till the early 20th century, circa 1950s. While others argue that modernism ended with the end of the Second World War, which marked the beginning of postmodernism, mainly after 1968. Thus, the period between 1950 till this day, falls under the category of postmodernism. Postmodernist art movement can be readily differentiated from modernist artform depending on certain ideological differences between them. For instance, a modernist approach to any artwork and not just film, would be rational and inherent of logic. Not only that, a modernist approach to any artwork would be generally objective, analytical and theoretical. On the other hand, the postmodernist approach is strikingly different than a modernist approach. While modernists searched for abstract truth of life, postmodernists blatantly deny the existence of abstract or universal truth. Also, postmodern art is considered decorative and elaborative, whereas modernist artwork is based on simplicity and elegance.


It is argued that postmodernism is seen as a nihilistic state of society. Primarily, nihilism is a mode of thought that denies the real existence of a subject and denies that it can have an intrinsic value. It paints an image of pessimistic skepticism towards life. Cinema is a medium that arguably holds nihilistic properties. This is because cinema has the potential to distract its audience from reality with the help of illusions. According to John Marmysz, cinema readily creates a distance between the audience and the depicted reality on screen. Although some would argue that it is possible to close down such distances with the help of effective camerawork and editing technique, Marmysz argues that it is the transient nature of film that creates this distance. He studies the work of philosophers like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Kant to better understand the preliminary definitions of Nihilism. Through his speculation, it can be argued that Nihilism, which is an entirely man-made construct, creates a space for humans which motivates them to strive towards their goals. In case of cinema, Marmysz argues that the audience encounters a kind of passive and active Nietzschean nihilism. The audience passively accepts and buys into the illusion on the screen, while actively reaping education and entertainment from the moving picture thinking it is “just a movie”.


Nihilistic films are mostly very bleak, depressing or even disturbing in nature. Such films feature heavy suffering and intense pain with no happy ending at all. Nihilistic cinema relies heavily on futility, fate and helplessness. There are some films with a good story which stop abruptly, thus not giving the story enough time to come to closure. This kind of pessimistic approach is integral to nihilistic films in general, as it helps to reinforce a postmodern world; a world where “nothing matters”. However, most nihilistic films explore concepts beyond pure nihilism, such as religious fundamentalism and neo-conservatism. Some of these films want to explore how any catastrophe can affect our personal sense of morality, others ask us how we justify our decisions even when they don’t tone with our beliefs. In general, films which incorporate nihilism as a motivating ideology, support the trend towards postmodernism. Nihilistic films try to project the idea that nothing in this world matters and that we are free to choose what we want to do with our lives. From here onwards, we will critically analyze certain films and their endings to understand how nihilistic philosophy is incorporated by some films in order to procure a bleak and depressive cinematic space.


To start with, we must lay emphasis on Collateral (2004) directed by Michael Mann starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo. The film tells us the enthralling story of an LA cab driver who finds himself in a fix after agreeing to give ride to a sharp-suited Vincent, whom we later find to be a merciless hitman. When Vincent asks Max, the driver, to make five stops we soon realize that each of those stops involves a hit. Vincent sums up a prophetic story about a dead man riding the subway without being noticed for hours, which projects his nihilistic outlook in a subtle manner. Moreover, the death of the police officer, despite his prior importance as a character, is inherently nihilistic in nature.


Another film that deserves a mention under the category of nihilistic films is The Mist (2007). The film shows us a series of unfortunate events that follow after a strange, thick mist engulfs a town with people trapped in a supermarket. The Mist is directed by Frank Darabont stars personalities like Laurie Holden, Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey DeMunn who performed stupendously and did justice to the roles they were assigned to. The film’s nihilistic ending is what makes it stand out in this article. The mist that engulfs the entire town brings along collateral hazard that intensifies the drama even more. Demonic creatures that lurk in the mist slaughter people as soon as they step outside into the mist. The ending of the film is even more grappling as the characters start dying one by one, despite their best efforts. The central theme of the film appropriates a nihilistic approach as all kinds of religious beliefs are nullified and are portrayed as either insane or dangerous. At the very end of the film, the protagonist shoots his own son and several others with his rifle just to save them from being mauled by the demonic creatures.


One more film which portrays nihilism in its most essential form is No country for old men (2007). Directed by the Coen brothers, the film stars personalities like Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson. The story starts with a hunter who, upon chance encounter, comes across $2 million while strolling through the fallout of a drug deal gone wrong. A psychopathic killer then pursues him for the money and commits several murders throughout the movie. He is the embodiment of an active nihilist, who embraces reality and acts on his instincts. He does not just murder people, which are nevertheless illogical, his murders have some kind of guiding principle. Chigurh sees himself as the stronger being and targets victims who are weak and lack any moral principle. Apart from speculating Chigurh’s character, it is important to also observe the name of the film itself. As the name suggests, No Country for Old Men implicates the end of old values in the new world. In an instance where Sheriff Bell and his colleague engage in a conversation about the radical changes in the society, the latter replies that its all about money and drugs that matter now. What emerges from this context is that the lack of comprehension of violence and putting it into perspective is a new form of nihilism. This is solely because of the corrosion of traditional values that things don’t make much sense to anybody anymore and Sheriff Bell is undoubtedly one of them.


For a lot of people, nihilism is much more liberating than depressing. One can do whatever they please with a clear conscience when the world lacks meaning and purpose, or when moral constraints are no longer fashionable. Strangely true, when someone has to create something out of nothing, purposelessness starts getting purpose and meaninglessness starts to become meaningful. Nihilism in films is beyond any regular theme for a B-movie. It is a reinforcement of the postmodern worldview that asserts nothing really matters in this world. A medium like film has the potential to appropriate this worldview and thus, craft stories that can be equally appealing to the audience.


Debopam Deb Roy, a post graduate with a degree in Film Studies, French Language (DELF A2) from Alliance Française du Bengale working as a Content Writer at Human Lab Corporation with an interest in writing and watching films.



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