Themes of Cinema: Cruelty to Children


Six films.

Magnolia. Grave of the Fireflies. The Night of the Hunter. Lolita. ChinatownEmpire of the Sun.

On the surface they are each different. Family dramas. War films. Hard-boiled detective noir. But they each have a core theme that permeates the bones of the film. Cruelty to children.

For some, this is an extension of The Loss of Innocence story. In Grave of the Fireflies, the war (and loss of their mother) forces the children to grow up. To become parent figures to each other. Empire of the Sun runs a similar theme. A child separated from his parents and forced out into a horrific world. In The Night of the Hunter the two children lose their parents and set out across country. In each of these examples the children all find themselves in an adult world. Alone. All adult figures around them are indifferent to them or look down on them.

Magnolia, Lolita and Chinatown focus on a different manner of cruelty. Active cruelty. Predatory cruelty (The Night of the Hunter fits here too). Their cruelty is action rather than the absence of action. In Magnolia a father forces his child to play game-shows for cash prizes. An impersonal environment to raise a child. We see the fate of a similar character, now grown up and the lasting damage. In Lolita we see the perverse hunt of two predatory men on a young girl; a long downward spiral.

It might not be the core theme of the film, but as a theme or a sub-theme it is there.

But why? Why do we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children? Are we supposed to? Film-makers have tapped into a nerve. Watching cruel things happen to children makes our guts turn. It makes us sad. But it makes us interested. It is a conflict. And conflict makes stories.

It would be a mistake to think that the sole purpose of film is entertainment. That is one purpose. Other purposes are to make us think. To help us reflect. To provide perspective. And more. It’s not that we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children. But it resonates with us as humans because we are protective of them. This is why the scene in Under the Skin where Laura leaves the crying baby abandoned at the beach is so powerful in proving how alien she is. Because no human with conscience could do that.

It evokes emotions in us that are stronger.

The Loss of Innocence does not presuppose cruelty. Or even relate to the children. But cruelty to children is a direct relation to it. Watching children endure suffering on a road to destruction. We invest. We hope that these children will grow, become strong and withstand. When they don’t, it hurts us. And we reflect on this. We think about ourselves as a society and how we treat other people. Or, we think about the nature of harming innocence. We see struggle and hardship from a perspective that we might not relate to. And we hope that things might be better. And maybe we become better for thinking this.

Under the Skin (2013)
May 21, 2015, 10:29 am
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Under the Skin (2013)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

It’s finally time to talk about Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. A science-fiction road trip through Scotland. Told from the perspective of an alien in the skin of a human woman. Laura is a predator, driving a white van around the streets of Scotland. She seduces men by showing only the vaguest interest in them. In return they follow her into a dark nightmare.

Science-fiction. But Under the Skin is a film about real people.

It all hinges first on the girl. Laura. Scarlett Johansson. A Hollywood face in disguise, dropped into the realms of Scottish civilisation. Filmed with hidden cameras. Interacting with real people. True reactions.

Even the opening sequence reflects the dual nature of the film. In the context of the story, we hear Laura practicing her dialogue. She makes vowel sounds and practices the way words form in her mouth. But this is actually a recording of Johansson practicing her dialect for the role. It’s a clever idea, reflecting the nature of the film as a form of method acting.

The first half of the film is sparse of exposition. We follow Laura on her road trip, in her interactions, ensnaring men. She lures them back to a derelict house. Inside is only a dark abyss; a haunting abstract plane. The men descend into this darkness. Willing to do so as they are so captivated by this siren. And something invisible in the darkness pulls the meat from under their skin. Leaving only a hollow shell behind.

The film indulges itself in letting this half of the film play out in slow pace. It is slow because we have to witness the length of time that Laura allows humanity to impact upon her. She is not human. This is never more clear than a particular beach scene. It is a gut-wrenching emotional play that she witnesses, and is completely indifferent to. But over time, the effects of humanity do seep in under the skin. There is no galvanising moment of realisation. It is a slow process.

Yet there is a galvanising moment that shifts the focus of the film. We find a narrative in the second half. As Laura finds a twinkling of humanity, the perspective turns. She experiences the world not from the perspective of a predator, but as the prey. She finds herself in an unfamiliar abyss (a deep forest). She experiences the dark, predatory nature of the human in the film’s climax.

Under the Skin is bold. It is clever. It is beautiful. It provokes thought. It pulls the viewer out of their comfort zone. Jonathan Glazer has made a film that realises his cinematic vision. A guerrilla documentary on the nature of people. The cinematography and soundtrack are haunting. And Scarlett Johansson is ethereal as Laura.


A personal note: While watching the film I was unsure. It took time to fall into it. But when the closing credits rolled, my mouth was agape and I sat for a while in the dark just to catch my breath. The more I think about and talk about this film, the more it becomes one of my favourites. It’s hard to put these kinds of emotions into a review without it becoming too masturbatory. But I wanted to add this short note to say this film had quite a profound effect on me.