The thoughts of “who cares?” and “life is meaningless” can allow one to feel a sense of relief, of freedom from consequence. However, it also has the possibility of taking away one’s moral standards, ambitions, and goals. That is exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche debated in the 19th century. Nietzsche’s argument of there being “no true world” and his parable about “the death of God” can be seen as the roots of nihilism. Obviously, this form of thinking is quite intriguing and has thus influenced the world of cinema.
In a world where most people are attracted to and support heroes, the film industry is urged by box office numbers to produce films (and franchises) with protagonists who save the day or become the ‘best version’ of themselves. Therefore, finding a film with an anti-hero protagonist that has no absolute morals and who is constantly indulging themselves in a void of their own making seems a bit rare. This has not stopped certain directors from pursuing the philosophical theme of nihilism and interweaving it to their creations. In fact, these nihilistic movies have received so much praise and positive feedback (despite their ironic negativity) that some of them (and the philosophers and writers who’ve inspired them) are definitely worth giving a try. These are some of the most nihilistic films ever made.
8 American Psycho
Based on Bret Easton Ellis’ gruesome 1991 thriller, American Psycho became a cult classic due to its portrayal of a narcissistic protagonist with no moral obligations; fascinatingly, Christian Bale prepared for this role through intense training, a strict diet, and a sense of detachment. Bale’s Patrick Bateman leads a double life. It can be said that during the day he’s a professional businessman leading a luxurious life and at night he is a savage with no moral inkling to prevent his bloodlust; he’s a successful man, so he thinks he can do whatever he wants. The success of Bale’s portrayal is still evident, as we still see the character’s influence in mainstream media. Margot Robbie’s American Psycho-inspired vogue video, where she imitates Bateman’s morning routine, is illustrative of this film’s influence. Additionally, the development of an American Psycho TV show is further evidence of this dark film’s success.
7 A Clockwork Orange
A Clockwork Orange is yet another book-to-screen adaptation that explores the idea of nihilism through a protagonist who gives into his urges with no sense of humanity. As stated by Walter Chaw, when Stanley Kubrick wanted to adopt Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, he wanted to portray how men are primates with “primate urges, the violent acquisition and subsequent hoarding of sex, food, and shelter”. Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of Alex, the protagonist with no remorse, was so successful that the film had to be withdrawn from the UK for a certain period as “copycat” crimes were emerging with criminals starting to mimic Alex. Whilst this is definitely not a positive comment, it does show how successful the film has been in portraying the idea of embracing nothingness.
6 Funny Games
Michael Haneke’s attempt at satirizing American slasher films is quite the exceptional experiment, as it exposes the audience’s interest in violence in a reflective, hostile way. Funny Games is a film that starts off by representing a typical horror piece, with a wealthy family vacationing at a holiday home and then suddenly encountering intruders who don’t kill them instantly but would rather gleefully torture them. However, Haneke gives way for some metafictional techniques which implicate the viewer in the violence and comments upon the inherent nihilism of all film viewers who pay money to watch people murdered. Additionally, he opts for the opposite of a typical horror film ending, where one of the family members saves themselves, and enters a dark, unforgiving place of hopelessness at the end. Thus, Haneke’s Funny Games is, as The Film Magazine says, a “nihilistic exercise” that attempts to expose viewers’ feelings towards onscreen violence.
5 The Fifth Seal
This Hungarian film by Zoltán Fábri is another screen adaptation of a novel, this time one of the same name written by Ferenc Sánta. The Fifth Seal is a brilliantly executed film that imposes a simple-looking yet very complex question– would you rather be the oppressor or the oppressed? With this question being the starting point of the plot, the film then attempts to answer it in dark, surprising ways. The 1976 film makes the viewer question their own beliefs whilst showing how, even if someone has a strong moral compass, there are tasks and limits which can most likely break anyone down. The result of learning that every belief is breakable tends to be nihilism, or a belief in nothing.
4 Requiem For A Dream
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, this 2000 psychological film prima facie comes off at first as a film on addiction. While this is true, the film contains a far deeper meaning. As pointed out by Philosophy and Philosophers, the film depicts how humans are alone, with no guidance to perceive right from wrong (at least for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to any God-given absolute moral truth). The four protagonists’ need for a better life, but their inability to achieve their goals due to addiction, indicates how fragile one’s beliefs, morality, and perceived sense of purpose can be. The addiction portrayed in Requiem For a Dream shows how it is easy for individuals to end up leading numb and detached lives and lose their grasp on different beliefs and goals, with nobody in the universe reining them in from abuse, addiction, or destitution. It’s the most hopeless film the director has made, and reeks of pure nihilism.
3 Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
This film by Pier Paolo Pasolini is quite controversial due to its graphic portrayal of sex, rape, and torture as political and philosophical metaphors; it updates a novel from one of the great early nihilists, the Marquis de Sade (who was the namesake of ‘sadism’), and places it during the end of Mussolini’s reign in Italy. The film explores the idea of nihilism by portraying the oppressive characters’ lack of morals and beliefs to the extent that they lead their lives by giving way to their urges. The Italian generals, politicians, and elites in this film, when faced with losing their war, decide that nothing really matters and begin indulging themselves in disgusting atrocities against their prisoners. The film depicts how those who continue to indulge in their power start to gradually let go of their morals so far so that they end up being the most inhumane versions of themselves. Thus, it can be said that Salò takes a brutal approach in illustrating nihilism and is an example of the extremity the mindset can lead to. It was so brutal and troubling, in fact, that the director was tortured and murdered after it’s release.
With Nicole Kidman, as Grace, leading a group of great actors on a bare soundstage of a set, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville shows what happens when an entire community loses its grasp on their principles and ignore their moral compass. In Dogville, we find a small town that initially helps the protagonist to escape the mafia. However, the film takes a dark turn when the townsfolk, including small children, gradually start to torment Grace by using her labor (physically, sexually, emotionally) as a form of payment for her safety. Interestingly, this leads to a collective nihilism which is so overwhelming that the oppressed Grace believes getting caught by the mafia to be a better fate than being under this town’s control. The film’s utter misanthropy and lack of faith in humanity is largely representative of nihilism.
1 No Country For Old Men
The Coen brothers embed the philosophy behind nihilism into almost every aspect of their film No Country For Old Men. The use of a setting that’s barren and extends far and wide can be seen as a visual representation of nihilism, and by incorporating an antagonist (played by Javier Bardem) that kills with no remorse, No Country for Old Men has portrayed what it is like to have ‘no strings attached to life.’ Furthermore, according to Hrvoje Galić of Taste For Cinema, the film shows how there is no absolute value that gets replaced when old values die out, and that there isn’t even any objective ‘value’ to human life, either, especially considering that people are sacks of meat, merely flesh and blood. All this makes it obvious that No Country for Old Men is a great representation of Nietzsche’s troubling, prophetic warnings about nihilism.
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