The banality of evil in 2024’s Best Picture nominees

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Reflecting on the last twelve months at the cinema, we may find ourselves drawn to images of Barbie’s (2023) fluorescent pink matriarchal paradise or Taylor Swift’s juggernaut of a concert film, The Eras Tour (2023) – both of which broke box office records across the board. Yet, looking at the nominations for the 2024 Academy Awards, there is a far less optimistic idea that sits at the heart of many of the year’s most acclaimed films. A world away from Barbieland, Best Picture nominees Oppenheimer (2023), Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), and The Zone of Interest (2023) all wrestle at their core with a central notion that we – as viewers and people – are complicit in the wider culture of violence that permeates their subjects. So why has this idea taken such a hold on filmmakers in our present moment and what, if any, real power do these films have in changing our cultural attitudes?

On Oscars night Christopher Nolan’s titanic historical epic Oppenheimer took home the Best Picture award, and yet despite its runaway success it has not been free from criticism. Fellow director Spike Lee, though he stipulated that this was a comment rather than a criticism, suggested that Nolan might’ve liked to show “what happened to the Japanese people” who felt the impact of the atomic bomb, rather than just the tortured psyche of its architect. Lee’s point plays into the conceit at the heart of Oppenheimer’s story: it is a film about an act of war that never depicts said act. It is a deliberate narrative decision to focus solely on the figure of Oppenheimer rather than the circa 200,000 innocent civilians his invention killed, one that highlights our western proclivity to identify ourselves with western voices rather than those marginalised and victimised. Nolan makes a point of condemning both our complacency in avoiding the full histories of violence and his own limits as a white, Anglo-American filmmaker in depicting the story of Japanese devastation.

All three focus on the plight of a white man in the context of widespread violence against predominantly non-white groups

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese returned last year with Killers of the Flower Moon, another grand historical drama, which was tipped to win Lily Gladstone her first Oscar for Best Actress. Scorsese’s film is a profound reflection on a career steeped in violence. From Taxi Driver to GoodFellas to Raging Bull, perhaps no director is more associated with the language of cinematic violence than Scorsese. Yet, with Killers of the Flower Moon, the true-to-life account of an unspeakable act of attempted genocide against the Native American Osage tribe, he questions the morality of depicting real life tragedy in such a trivialised way. Instead of sensationalising the murders of the Osage by turning it into a murder mystery, Scorsese centres the narrative around one of the killers, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart, as a means of depicting the banality that lay behind such acts of brutality. There is an obvious racial element at play. Scorsese as a white man aligns the narrative, and by extension us as audience, with the white protagonist to ask something about how and why we are able to identify with such perpetrators of violence. In an age of true crime obsession, Scorsese questions the way that we, by making ourselves spectators to violence, become complicit in its acceptance.

Most obvious and timely amongst the nominees, perhaps, is Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, a film about the idyllic home life of an Auschwitz commandant. It is a film overtly about how we allow ourselves to live unquestioningly with violence and how our passive spectatorship becomes violence in itself. Accepting the BAFTA award for Best British Film, producer James Wilson summarised its key theme as being about “the walls we construct in our lives which we chose not to look behind’” before continuing that “it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen in the same way think about innocent people killed in Mariupol or in Israel”. Like Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon, The Zone of Interest makes a point of questioning our western attitudes towards violence, specifically violence against marginalised groups, and how we choose to favour the suffering of some groups over others when doling out our sympathies. All three focus on the plight of a white man in the context of widespread violence against predominantly non-white groups. In an age where social media and 24-hour news have made violence overseas into an ever-present fact of life, it is easy to see the pertinence of these films in questioning our indifference to global suffering. The question then remains as to how we, as viewers and as people, choose to respond to this call: whether we remain spectators to suffering or activists in its abatement.

Image credit: Mohamed Hassan via Pixabay

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