As we approach the November presidential election, we may find that now is as natural a moment as any to pause and reflect what has been, by any measuring stick, one of the most nerve-wracking and outrageous periods in the history of the United States of America. The administration of President Donald Trump has been a ceaseless cavalcade of embarrassment and outright horror, as we’ve witnessed everything from refugee children in cages, to a renewed rise in white supremacy, to the West Coast in flames, to a complete disintegration of any kind of international gravitas the country might have ever possessed. Oh, and a pandemic that will soon have killed more than 200,000 Americans.
Of course, that’s really only scratching the surface of the shame and degradation that the Trump era has brought to the office of the President and the idea of what it means to be an American. There’s been such a pervasive sense of anxiety to everyday life, in fact, that for many Americans—or this American, at least—it’s now impossible to look at any given depiction of cinematic horror without feeling it has a certain relevance to our current, sad state of affairs. As we wrote about not long ago when revisiting Futurama, even a TV comedy from 20 years ago can’t help but draw Trump to the forefront of the mind.
Horror, though, is undoubtedly the genre where Trump’s ethos most fittingly belongs, and it’s likely the genre through which many survivors of this era will filter their experiences for the next few decades. The following films didn’t all arrive during the Trump presidency itself, but they do speak to the senses of ennui and hopelessness we’ve experienced over the last four years.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film about the helpless feeling of knowing in your gut that something in your life is very wrong, but feeling like the world won’t let you acknowledge it, much less do anything about it. In this case, a mother (Tilda Swinton) seems to realize from the moment that her son is born that she’s given birth to the proverbial “bad seed.” This is a gut reaction, at first, and one that understandably causes her deep shame. “What kind of monster would think such a thing about her own son?”, she can clearly be seen asking herself. Indeed, the society that surrounds her gives the mother every possible reason to make excuses for Kevin’s budding sadism, because it is simply not socially acceptable for a mother (especially a mother in film) to display anything other than unconditional love for a young child, even out of concern for that child. We feel the push and pull here brutally—the pain of the mother’s suspicion and the guilt of knowing that Kevin may represent some rotten part of herself, coupled against the intensity of her desire to overlook the many warning signs, as everyone around her is capable of doing. It’s a stunningly bleak depiction of how much we’re willing to delude ourselves, if it means we can delay the day of facing an impossibly harsh truth.
In this way, We Need to Talk About Kevin feels prescient both to the dynamic of so many families that included Trump voters in 2016, and the grander metaphorical “family” of the nation as a whole. Watching Ramsay’s movie now, one is reminded of every time you’ve willfully tried to ignore your father or uncle’s Trump adoration in the name of having “a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner,” or every other instance in which you decided that heartless, racist or otherwise damaging statements from friends or family “weren’t worth the hassle” of rebuking. Of course, ignoring a problem almost invariably leads to an escalation of the problem, and our desire for escapism from reality means we just return after each escape to a nation that has disintegrated a little bit more during our mental absence. We Need to Talk About Kevin ultimately implies that it’s on us to take a more active role in facing those harsh truths if we want to have any chance of preventing a disaster before it happens.
Goodnight Mommy can be considered a thematic sister film to We Need to Talk About Kevin, the flip side of a coin in which both reflect how the Trump era has forced us to confront the fact that other people, be they our family or neighbors, may not be who we always thought they were.
Unlike We Need to Talk About Kevin, where the perspective of a concerned parent might well resonate with those who have seen their children drift in the direction of men’s rights or radical right-wing militia movements, Goodnight Mommy is presented from the opposite perspective: Two young boys (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) come to believe their mother (Susanne Wuest), who recently underwent surgery on her face that necessitates extensive bandages, has been replaced by an imposter. It’s a depiction that calls to mind the echo chamber of the internet in particular, where one deluded soul “just asking questions” so often now acts as a beacon, drawing others to them as the growing sense of community justifies a loss of rationality, leading to an embrace of fake news and further radicalization. In Goodnight Mommy, the two young boys eventually tie up the woman in their house and demand to know what she did with their “real mother,” even as her efforts to reach them on an emotional level are tragically rendered completely ineffective.
There’s little doubt that dynamic seems familiar to those whose family or friend groups were fractured along political lines back in 2016 during Trump’s ascendency, as both sides were likely processing similar feelings of those they know and love having been “replaced” by imposters with alien agendas they couldn’t fathom. In our current era of cultural polarization, Goodnight Mommy is a perfect snapshot of how quickly such relationships can fall apart, even when they’re supposed to be based on unbreakable bonds.
Few films made during the Trump presidency have seemed more ripped-from-the-headlines in retrospect than The First Purge, released just over two years ago. This was hardly a subtle political allegory at the time of release, drawing heavily on the sickening violence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Virginia that resulted in the wounding of 19 people and the death of Heather Heyer. But despite being pretty much on-the-nose in its depiction of white supremacist violence, it also managed to be prophetic for how much worse things could get, and how quickly.
This film, the fourth entry in The Purge series, returns the timeline to its beginning to depict what happened during the first ever “Purge” night, wherein all crime (including murder) is briefly legalized. It’s a story about the hijacking of a quasi-noble but incredibly stupid concept, designed as some kind of cathartic outlet that would let the country get all its bad vibes “out of its system,” by people who have the most clinically evil of political and economic motivations. Put simply, The Purge’s designer is an idealist who thinks the system will actually lead to social progress, while the government sees it as an opportunity to kill the poor, cynically reducing the burden on social services.
That’s an absurd premise, to be sure, but it seems less absurd with each passing tweet from Donald Trump, actively encouraging violence against protesters and anyone who he dubs as the “enemy of the people” on any given day. This is, after all, the man who has called for more police violence, and whose unidentified goon squads have been grabbing protesters and sticking them in unmarked vehicles on the streets of Portland. Legitimate question: Did Trump literally watch The First Purge and think, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea?” He’s certainly been behaving like this series is his end goal.
One of the most notable aspects of this rape-and-revenge horror film from 2017, literally titled Revenge, is the simple way our protagonist Jennifer’s (Matilda Anne Ingrid Lutz) lover (Kevin Janssens) blithely decides to murder the woman he slept next to the night before.
It’s not something he agonizes over, or apologizes for. It’s just this thing he has to do, because he’s realized that a woman knows things about him that could complicate his life in ways he’d rather not see it complicated. He didn’t bring this woman—the one he’s having a secret affair with—out to his secluded home in the desert in order to kill her, though. Far from it; they’re here to have a romantic weekend. But when his drunken idiot friends show up and end up raping the poor woman, it’s a simple choice between “comfort and status quo,” or letting this woman back out into the world with information that could implicate him. And as soon as that happens, Jennifer becomes just a disposable piece of meat in his eyes, a problem to be removed.
That’s exactly the sort of callous disregard for 50% of society that I can only imagine many women have experienced during the four years of the Trump administration, and with it comes a psychic toll that manifests itself in daily anxiety for millions. How hard is it to even operate when you know that the highest office in the land is held by a man with more than 25 sexual misconduct complaints (a new one just this week) against him since the 1970s? How hard is it to know that somewhere around half the country’s population—including those who proclaim themselves as the evangelical moral compass of the nation—are fine with all of those allegations, and have no problem voting for the guy again in 2020? How much salt does it throw in the wound to see new Supreme Court Justices confirmed by this man, even after their own sexual assault hearings happen under full public scrutiny?
With that kind of daily trauma in mind, Revenge is an understandable and righteous argument against civility and the fallacy of the perfect victim, the person who exists to be made into the type of nonexistent martyr that both sides could somehow agree did not deserve the terrible things that happened to them. Such a victim does not exist—our nation is so polarized that even some of the people watching Revenge might manage to rationalize a way that the villains “did nothing wrong.” And that’s exactly what Revenge is about: Those people can’t be reasoned with. They can only be actively confronted and defeated.
When I first jotted down the concept for this list, it was early 2020 and it didn’t have anything related to a global pandemic on it.
Clearly, that wasn’t going to remain the case. Even in four years that have been marked by constant embarrassment and policies whose destructive outcomes the nation will be feeling for decades to come, there’s no storyline of the Trump presidency that will likely be remembered as a more devastating blow than the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s failed response to contain a disease that will soon have killed more than 200,000 Americans. At least, we can only hope that this is the very worst thing that happens during the Trump presidency, and that the guy doesn’t have any last-minute surprises for us come November that include …I dunno, nuclear war? What would qualify as worse than this?
There’s no shortage of pandemic or virus-related horror cinema that might now evoke the feelings of 2020 in hindsight, but more so than the straightforward (like Cabin Fever, etc), it’s the odder approach of Pontypool that really feels indicative of this moment in our history. A postmodern horror film about the death of communication and the dumbing down of society, cloaked in the guise of what at first appears to be a standard indie zombie movie, it’s a grand allegory both for our current viral pandemic and the simultaneous emergence of a “post-truth” reality during the Trump administration.
Pontypool takes place at a small Canadian radio station, where a shock jock (Stephen McHattie, grizzled and fabulous) begins to hear reports of a strange condition, similar to a virus, that is rapidly spreading throughout the country, turning people into violent killers. We come to learn that it’s not a pathogen as we know it, but a viral infection of the English language itself—our very dialect has become infected by obsolescence, so little do we accomplish with it. It’s a bizarrely creative tale about our sweet nothings and vocal platitudes coming back to bite us in the ass. And looking back, you’d swear it was somehow a prescient allegory for both the mental and physical destruction we’ve experienced as a result of both fake news and a very real coronavirus.
Pontypool speaks to the breakdown of not just language, but discourse—our ability to be understood, to be comprehended, and to be empathized with as a result of our words. It seems to anticipate a coming time when it’s impossible to have a political conversation with any substance in it, due to the inability of the average person to process what the other person is saying, or because they’ve become so polarized that they inherently lack the ability to be swayed in any way. After all, you can’t debate with a zombie, can you?