Every Christmas I say, I can’t take it anymore. Almost every film you can find on TV during the Holidays is the same old worn-out stuff, fairy tales for the silly. It drives me, well, inane.
Like on Christmas Eve we ventured over to one of Nebra’s sisters for supper, and what’s on the tube? It’s A Wonderful Life, that’s what, that sob-story with Jimmy Stewart that’s supposed to make you believe, really believe, the world would’ve been a far worse place without you. What swill! And people actually watch this film over and over.
With the bone-deep belief that we all should have a healthy dose of realism and darkness at Christmas in addition to all the nonsense, I’ve come up with a dandy list of dark films.
Two very good films guaranteed to bring you down, slap you back into the real world for a change are Sylvia and The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Sylvia was such a downer that even I didn’t think early on that I could watch it all. It is the story of the depressed genius of a poet, Sylvia Plath, and her marriage to the far-more recognized poet, the Brit Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig).
It is a slowly darkening love story doomed by the obsession of the suspicious Plath, played superbly by Gwenth Paltrow, and the womanizing of Hughes. Her growing insanity drives the poetry and gives it power. The film focuses primarily on Plath as her personality disintegrates and her inevitable fate looms. It is filmed darkly and at times the sounds of a moaning wind reach the ear. Sylvia is only hobbled by the ending. At some point director Christine Jeffs decided to pull her punches, perhaps realizing a completely gloomy movie is dead box office. Soaring music replaces the moaning wind and the kind of horrific ending the viewer expects is taken away. As if we were children and could not bear it, ha. In that way, I guess, it is much like Christmas classics. Ah, Sylvia, at last will have eternal peace.
If there is any sense of caring for Plath, you will feel none for Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn) in Assassination. He is despicable, and suffering from acute persecution complex. He lies, mopes about and his visions of grandeur lead to false hope. As his life as a furniture salesman wobbles, his marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts) crumbles and his get-rich scheme of a portable-tire truck operation grinds to and end, Sam begins to blame President Nixon for all his woes. The fixation drives him toward a horrible action. If nothing else, Assassination is worth seeing for great acting. It is Sean Penn at his best. And he is so good, the film is painful to watch.
If you want to think about Christmas in a meaningful way, that is without Santy Claus and angels, then Agnes of God should fit the bill. Agnes (Meg Tilly) is a cloistered nun in a convent in an isolated area of Quebec, pure as driven snow used to be. Somehow, Agnes becomes pregnant and strangles her new-born. She is charged with murder, and a shrink, Dr. Martha Livingston (Jane Fonda) is assigned by the court to see if the Sister Agnes should stand trial. What Dr. Livingston finds is a mystery of the highest order. Who is the father? And more, the viewer is made to take sides in the ultimate question. Could it have been an immaculate conception? Would anyone on this cynical planet really believe if a Second Coming fell in front of them? The film is loaded with symbolism (try the ever-present cigarette on for size) and will captivate the puzzle-lover, no matter whether you’re a True Believer.
But if you must sob and can hold back tears for a while, there is the darkly-filmed Road to Perdition, starring Tom Hanks as Michael Sullivan, a hit-man for the mob in and around Chicago in the 1930s. When young Michael Jr. (Tyler Hoechlin) accidentally witnesses a mob killing involving his father, the family’s world spins into tragedy. Mob boss John Rooney (Paul Newman in his last screen appearance) sics his crazed and inept son Connor to do in young Michael. Connor botches the deal and kills the mother and another of the Sullivan children. The rest of Perdition involves Michael Sr. attempting revenge and at the same time trying to protect his surviving son. The clever and poetic ending is a cinch to make eyes well up with tears. And if there be a smidgen of the artiste in you, the cinematography by Conrad Hall will dazzle.
So there is a nice list of dark films to sink fangs into. Dark, yes, but of top quality.
At least this year, I didn’t have to put up with Miracle on 34th Street.