No country for old formulas (Forum)

Jeremy Gordon and Jeremy Gordon

In 2006, the Academy Award for best picture went to “The Departed,” Martin Scorsese’s blood-drenched crime epic about the Boston mob. It was the first post-“Pulp Fiction” stylized violent movie to reach that level of critical validation.

The problem was that the violence just wasn’t that violent anymore. You can only watch so many people getting shot in the head, stabbed in the chest, pushed off buildings, put through wood chippers and just plain mutilated before it stops meaning anything. Movies like “Kill Bill,” “The Boondock Saints,” and “Smokin’ Aces” were replacing significance with a higher body count. So when “The Departed” won best picture, maybe serious filmmakers subconsciously realized that over-the-top violence had gone as far it could go. They would have to get smaller and more serious, and by jove, they did.

Films like “No Country For Old Men,” “Eastern Promises” and “There Will Be Blood” came out in 2007 and were unflinchingly realistic in their depiction of violence. People died, but the build-up was slow, tense and wince-inducing. Instead of treating every death as a cheap thrill, we had a return to purer filmmaking, in which violence added to a narrative instead of pulling the audience out of it. Daniel Day-Lewis throttling Paul Dano in “Blood” was chilling not because of Day-Lewis’ brutality, but because of the massive thematic implications behind the act. There was a reason behind everything, not just mindless violence.

Is this change in motivation a good thing? Well, yes. Quentin Tarantino can do what he does very well (or at least competently), but for every film he made, he inspired dozens of knock-offs who thought that a few f-bombs and head shots could legitimize a movie. The more of these “cool” movies that came out, the more desensitized the audience was becoming.

This desensitization has changed how stylized violence affects me, even though those types of movies continue to be made. When I watched “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculous, over-the-top murders that Todd commits. Throats were slit, geysers of blood erupted, and you know what? It didn’t mean anything. So the step backward in a film like “No Country,” with gunshots and deaths coming out of nowhere and actually meaning something, sucked me in like a vacuum.

As we approach the Oscars, we find out what direction mainstream American cinema is moving in: Further towards exploitative violence (should “Sweeney Todd” pick up the award for best picture) or backwards in the attempt to add substance through bloodshed (should “No Country” or “Blood” win). We will see if audiences respond and gravitate away from the Guy Ritchies of the movie world and more towards the David Cronenbergs. We will see if violence can be violent again.

Medill sophomore Jeremy Gordon can be reached at

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