Lost Highways: Two Big-Screen Journeys into Darkness That Drove Me From the Theater

I can’t explain this: On two occasions in the last eight months, I’ve walked into Seattle’s Varsity Theater on a Tuesday night during an unexpected cloudburst and bought a ticket to a critically acclaimed motion picture, only to march right back out of the theatre about 70 minutes later.

Yes, that whole description fits both situations.

I cannot explain why the circumstances — the location, the night of the week, the weather — were so strangely similar. I can, however, say that my patience was exhausted by similar forces in these films.

This doesn’t happen often. I think I can name only five films that have driven me from the theater in my moviegoing lifetime. But these two were especially surprising, as both films had come highly recommended by prominent American film critics and by close friends in my film-enthusiast community.

Bear with me, and I’ll tell you what those movies were, and why I walked out.

Last week, when I wrote on this blog about movie walk-out experiences, more than 30 people told stories about their own walkouts. They “abandoned ship” on a wide variety of movies for a wide variety of reasons. Knocked Up, Mars Attacks!, Seven Days in Utopia, Raising Arizona, Krippendorf’s Tribe, A Christmas Story, Trainspotting, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Hot Tub Time Machine, The Matrix Reoladed, The Last Boy Scout, Blue Velvet, Cop Land, American Psycho, Natural Born Killers, A Fish Called Wanda, Fatal Attraction, and more than one Transformers movie were mentioned.

Some testified that they walked out because they were scared. Others were deeply disturbed by depictions of evil. Some walked out with their intelligence insulted by inane screenplays or shoddy artistry. Others complained that the picture was out of focus.

Reading these, I was tempted to write back and object to several examples. (What? You walked out of Raising Arizona? That’s my all-time favorite comedy!) I happen to consider some of those films to be rewarding, admirable, even exemplary works of art.

But I’m holding back because I do believe that even though a movie might be a masterpiece, certain moviegoers may be doing the right thing when they walk out.

After all, everybody who steps up to a work of art is unique. Every conscience is different. A work that blesses one viewer with revelations and insights may wound or inspire unhealthy thoughts and feelings in another. What may be a revealing study of evil to one viewer could give another a lifetime of nightmares.

From time to time, someone will respond to one of my film reviews and ask, “How could you sit through that movie? I just don’t see how anybody could sit through all of that [foul language/violence/nudity/depravity].

Sometimes I’ll explain that I needed to see the whole film in order to give it a fair review. Sometimes, I’ll admit that, while they were offended by what they saw, I found it to be a necessary and meaningful part of the whole.

Whatever I say, I have a pretty good guess about what they’ll say next. “Is there nothing that would persuade you to get up and walk out?

Actually, yes. There is.

Sometimes, a film is so poorly made that I decide it’s a complete waste of time. If a filmmaker is so lacking in imagination that he just uses the camera to film people talking, then I’ll leave. A motion picture should be about pictures as much as words. I’ll stay if I think that seeing the movie will give me something interesting for an article or a blog post. But I’ll leave if I think that there’s nothing much to say except “This was a shoddy piece of work and I have nothing more to add.”

Sometimes a filmmaker seems to think that the tools of filmmaking are useful in portraying nothing more than spectacular violence. Like a four-year-old boy who thinks toys are for smashing and throwing and breaking, he fills the screen with sound and fury that, yes, signifies nothing… well, nothing more than his own juvenile impulses and lack of restraint. This is why I’ve steered clear of the Transformers movies. I think I would be bored out of my mind.

But I’ve had far more upsetting experiences at the movies.

If a movie upsets me by revealing truth about evil, that’s one thing — I’ll stay, because, well, some things are worth being upset about. Sometimes, visions of darkness teach us about our need for light.

But sometimes a filmmaker betrays my trust. I don’t like movies that make me feel like I’m being baited into a trap, seduced and lulled into seeing things that will do damage to my spirit, that will encourage cynicism or contempt. Why spend time on movies that don’t incline me to seek beauty, truth, and meaning in the world? Why revel in darkness? Why buy a ticket when what I’ll get is abuse? Why sit and listen to lies? Why pay attention to someone who invites us to spend two hours hating, mocking, and sneering at other people?

If a filmmaker goes beyond a depiction of evil that enervates the conscience, and proceeds into gratuitous displays of destruction and desecration, then I refuse to follow him further.

Over the years, though, I’ve learned that it can be difficult to discern this difference.

Some movies that grieved and disturbed me at first later revealed deeper purposes that, when I overcame my initial feelings of protest, I came to appreciate and even admire. The films of David Lynch, for example. Blue Velvet makes me sick; but I also find it to be a stirring testimony of an artist’s struggles to sustain hope and faith in a hellish world. Mulholland Drive is a film full of scenes that would do more harm than good to most viewers’ heads and hearts; but I find it to be a truthful depiction of how the idols of Hollywood lead people into self-worship and destruction. But Lost Highway? I found that one corrosive to my spirit, dwelling too much on destruction, too little on what destruction reveals to us. I would add that I have similarly complicated relationships with the films of Lars Von Trier and Charlie Kaufman.

Even when I do walk out of a movie, I need to be careful. I need to remain humble, allowing for the possibility that I’m wrong.

The more experience I have as a film critic, the more I realize a discomforting truth: Recommending a work of art to a large audience is like recommending a pair of shoes to the same number of people — I’m probably asking a lot of people to try on something that won’t fit them, that might do them more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean the shoes are not excellent.

I have a responsibility to caution others if I suspect that something is poorly made, or if I suspect that it is likely to do them harm. But I also have a responsibility to be careful, and to write with humility, taking care to remind viewers that what was a blessing to me might do them harm, and what grieved my spirit may yet give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to awaken a viewer’s conscience of trouble them in a meaningful way.

So, what were the two movies the drove me out of the Varsity Theatre?

The first one is a perfect example of the dilemma I’ve been describing. I saw Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, and then abandoned it more than halfway through.

Close friends of mine have sought to persuade me to go back and revisit the first of the two movies that drove me from the Varsity Theater. And I probably will at some point. I write this as an admirer of Von Trier, after all.

Von Trier’s documentary The Five Obstructions is one that I use in workshops about creativity; I find it to be incredibly inspiring. His film Dogville is one of my favorites, delivering a powerful drama about the tension between law and grace. (It’s even more impressive that he achieves this by filming actors on a bare stage, without sets and the usual filmmaking luxuries.)

But Melancholia bothered me for many reasons. It depicted its characters as so thoroughly and consistently selfish, crass, mean-spirited, vile, and profane that I felt like I was suffocating. To go on would have been like trying to finish a bowl of soup after finding maggots in the first several spoonfuls. The movie seemed to go beyond exposing evil; its cinematography and architecture seemed design to injure me, to draw me into a contemptuous view of humanity and the world as a whole.

I am skeptical of my own response. Many of my friends and colleagues have written and testified about the meaning they found in the full experience. Perhaps I gave up too quickly. (To be fair, the storm outside had given me a migraine, so I was already feeling pretty miserable in that theater.)

What was the second movie I abandoned?

It’s the subject of my new post at Good Letters: “Why I Abandoned Compliance.” Read it. If it reminds you of your own walkout experiences, please share your story with us. If you’ve seen Compliance and you felt the same way, or differently, tell us about that too.

Maybe we can all help each other make better decisions at the movies.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    I think the whole point of MELANCHOLIA is that humanity is vile and an extinction event is a consummation greatly to be desired. The catastrophic event is salvation of sorts because humanity a) means less than nothing in an empty universe and b) is evil and deserves to be extinguished. And, yes, I think b is an inherent contradiction to a, one that the movie neither explains nor recognizes.

    As a worldview, the film could not be clearer.

  • Erik Naydiuk

    I’m in agreement with you on “Melancholia.” I forced myself to watch the entire thing, hoping that in the second half something – anything – would be redeemed. It wasn’t. It just ended up being a long, painful affair about how awful we can be. For me, that became redundant pretty quickly. It was visually arresting, though. I can’t deny that.

  • Sandy

    Melancholia and Tree of Life prompted similar responses: insufferable attention to the direction. The directors of these films drew my attention to their heavy handed directing rather than draw me into their story. Thankfully, I attempted both on
    Pay per View so for each there was only a $6.00 donation and 20 minutes of effort before I went on to something else.

    I relish your articles and try to see your favorites. Thanks for your hard work and though FULL ness.

  • http://catholiccinephile.wordpress.com/ Evan

    “It depicted its characters as so thoroughly and consistently selfish, crass, mean-spirited, vile, and profane that I felt like I was suffocating. To go on would have been like trying to finish a bowl of soup after finding maggots in the first several spoonfuls. The movie seemed to go beyond exposing evil; its cinematography and architecture seemed design to injure me, to draw me into a contemptuous view of humanity and the world as a whole.”
    To be entirely honest, I had that same problem with Dogville. Well, not the soup analogy; for the first hour and a half, Dogville was one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. But I found the ending, while dramatically justified, to be nearly as morally repulsive as the actions of the other characters. And my problem was that the film seemed to embrace Grace’s fall from grace as necessary, or she would have to embrace relativism and excuse the actions of the townspeople. I found those two alternatives disturbing, and I felt the film had a very contemptuous view of humanity.
    I would love to be wrong regarding Dogville, and I can understand why others would admire it. Its artistry is incredibly impressive, and Von Trier does a great job showing how sin and its consequences effect everyone, not just the sinner. But, in my experience, I felt contempt towards a hope and grace deprived people.
    (I did consider that the film was a modernized version of the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, in which the townspeople commit the same sin as those cities and then receive the same punishment. But the god-like figure who enforces the punishment is a brutal gangster, which creates a host of other problems.)
    Just my two cents, I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

  • http://www.myfriendamysblog.com Amy

    I watched Melancholia and found it more bearable than Antichrist a film I really should never have watched. Even still, I didn’t really like it.

  • joel p

    I sat through Melancholia and at the time enjoyed the craft of how well made it was. but by the end, and as time past by a couple of days, it was jsut this dark and depressing picture. I think part of the reason of my dissapointment with Melancholia would be that I had seen Tree of Life earlier in the year and found that to be one of the most spiritualy-filled films i’ve ever seen, point that I making is that alot of critics were compairing the two in the context that there “art films” about “how to look at life”. And while one was more more about our beginings, the other about our end, so to speak. I also had similar feelings wiht Girl with the dragon Tattoo, Fincher is one of my favorite directors and while it was extremely well made from a technical point. By the end of it I couldn’t help but feel betrayed and empty, leaving me with all these empty and moriless people.

  • The Pachyderminator


    (To be fair, the storm outside had given me a migraine, so I was already feeling pretty miserable in that theater.)

    Now you’ll never watch A Clockwork Orange the same way again.

  • Ryan H.

    I certainly wouldn’t push you to revisit MELANCHOLIA. I sat through the whole, unbearable, awful thing and wish I hadn’t. I don’t know that I’ve seen a more hateful, inhumane film.


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