Wednesday, 11 December 2019
On Violence: The Irishman, In Bruges, You Were Never Really Here
In recent years I've more or less stopped watching films and TV. But with my wife and bairn away, the last three nights I sat down to watch The Irishman, In Bruges and You Were Never Really Here (YWNRH) on Netflix. (This review has very minor spoilers.)
Brief reviews: The Irishman is utterly fabulous, with Al Pacino giving a highly pleasurable performance as Al Pacino on steroids, and Joe Pesci brilliantly understated, but I could imagine getting restless if I'd watched it in the cinema. In Bruges was enjoyable and in its own way emotionally affecting, but the ending was too contrived and I can't shake inexplicably finding Colin Farrell a bit annoying. YWNRH was pretentious nonsense, like a boring music video, made worse because it poked at my very biggest pet hate in films - mumbly dialogue too low in the mix so you have to turn up the volume absurdly loud to hear it.
All that said, the three films formed an interesting sort of triptych on the theme of violence. In the middle, The Irishman, a grand statement on a suitably large canvas, showing us how violence consumes and destroys but also has a way of attracting and even entertaining us - an ambivalent phenomenon. On the left, In Bruges, carefully walking the line between cartoonishness and realism to brilliant and often hilarious effect - a use of violence that primarily amuses us for all its capacity to shock. And on the right, YWNRH, which preaches a message that violence is nasty and brutal, so much so that it denies the audience the opportunity to even see the proper exciting climax that ought to have been brewing. (David Cronenberg made its mirror image in A History of Violence, which knocks spots off it, if you're in the market for a viewing recommendation.)
Of the three of them, The Irishman is like a giant walking among grasshoppers, which is as you would expect from a filmmaker as good as Scorsese. That's because he understands that while a violent society has something sick at its heart, finally a film-maker has to entertain - and that there is nothing illegitimate about violence as entertainment. The violence in The Irishman is tense, exciting, and explosive. The consequences are bad. But the gunplay has you hooked.
Scorsese is too clever to shy away from the fact that violence thrills us. In this sense The Irishman is very similar to A Wolf of Wall Street and indeed Goodfellas - if you don't show the audience why a certain way of life, obnoxious on its face, is actually highly appealing, you're doing them a disservice. The world is much more complex than "Bad guys do bad things" but it's also more complex than "Good people are regrettably forced into violence". Rather, violence has the capacity to terrify but also excite, and that applies across the board.
What does this have to do with D&D? There is nothing worse than getting preachy about violence in games. But you can make it interesting by keeping the message of a film like The Irishman in mind - violence has consequences, but it's also fun. If you can capture the right mix (by making combat both thrilling and terrifying) you are almost certainly doing it right.