Cinema has the ability to cast a spell over its audience, to keep our eyes firmly gripped to the screen and not want to even blink for fear of missing something special. What is even stranger is when that is the case despite being transported to a world that’s so bleak you’d think that the first thing you’d want to do would be to look away! So what is it about these dark, sombre films that keep us so mesmerised? Could it be the intriguing lives of others that are brought to light such as in Todd Solondz’s Happiness? The sense of desperate hope for a better life like in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream? Or the incredible performances that a melancholic plot can bring from actors such as with Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea?
With the fantastic Oscar-winning Manchester by the Sea releasing on digital download on May 8th and on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand from May 15th (read the Movies In Focus review), there’s no better time to take a look at some of cinemas most incredible, yet tragically melancholic films.
Breaking The Waves (1996)
A bright, breezy tale of one woman’s sexual liberation… No, sorry, Breaking The Waves is a comparatively little-seen gem that revels in its own melancholy to ultimately shocking effect. A very young Emily Watson takes centre stage as a woman raised in a devoutly Christian community on a small Scottish island. To the chagrin of the island elders, though, she meets and falls in love with Stellan Skarsgard’s worldly oil rigger and her world changes. That is until he is paralyzed in an accident and implores her to allow him to live vicariously through her sexual exploits. Things take an even darker turn when she boards a ship with that end in mind and ends up being savagely beaten and raped. Watson plays the whole thing with such a wide-eyed, almost crazed simplicity that each gut punch life throws at her seems even worse than it would for someone made of stronger stuff and Breaking The Waves is all the more unforgettable for that. Definitely not one to watch with the family, though.
Todd Solondz Happiness is a film that seems as though it’s been edited with the intention of trying to keep the tone up for a film that conveys the opposite to what its title suggests. The film explores the lives of several individuals that intertwine as they go about their lives in their own unique ways, engaging in acts society as a whole might find disturbing in a desperate search for human connection. The film boasts a stellar cast, including the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as an incredibly awkward man desperately in love with his neighbour, Jane Adams as a quiet woman searching for sexual liberation, and Dylan Baker as a psychiatrist with some dark secrets of his own. The film leaves us feeling sympathy for some and loathing others, but ultimately intrigued by its characters and whether the find the human connection they so desperately crave.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Following on from his critically adored debut Pi (1998), indie visionary Darren Aronofsky set out to make a film about the dangers of drug abuse and how they can plunge the innocent into the darkest of places. Based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr., this gritty drama concerns four people trapped by their addictions. This includes Harry (Jared Leto), Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and Marion (Jennifer Connelly) three impoverished heroin addicts who are pushed to their limits to keep the high going. Meanwhile, Harry’s mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) unwittingly gets hooked on prescription amphetamines whilst trying to lose weight for an appearance on her favourite game show. The real sadness in this film comes from the four character’s desire to chase a better, more fruitful life than the one they’re living, but through their attempts to escape the darkness only get pulled down further.
The Road (2009)
If there’s a film that encapsulates the bleak melancholy that cinema can offer, it’s John Hillcoat’s The Road, based on the incredibly sombre novel by Cormac McCarthy. We’re transported into a post-apocalyptic world where a father (Viggo Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are walking alone through a burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, with the gray snow falling from a black sky. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food — and each other. Undoubtedly, this film shows us the darkest side of cinema, but the bond between the central characters as they try to survive in the wasteland is what the audience will cling to as their silver lining on a very dark cloud.
Manchester by the Sea (2016)
With the all of the awards buzz surrounding Kenneth Lonergan’s fourth feature film, viewers may have been surprised with just how sad the film is. The film’s premise is sad enough, with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) having to return home after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), and then becomes shocked to learn that Joe has made him sole guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). But as the film goes on, you come to realise that there is more behind Lee’s relationship with his home town, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the community where he was born and raised. However, the bond that forms from the memory of the man who held their family together is what keeps us glued to the screen, hoping that Lee and Patrick’s struggle to adjust to life without him begins to ease.
Manchester by the Sea is available on digital download from May 8th and on DVD and Blu-ray from May 15th, courtesy of STUDIOCANAL