Considering the phenomenon of movie audiences cheering for murder



No multiplex audience could be this bad.
  • unk./Wikimedia Commons
  • No multiplex audience could be this bad.
Last week I made the mistake of catching up with Zero Dark Thirty at an early-afternoon screening rather than at night. There were maybe a dozen people in the audience, all of them middle-aged men who had come on their own. It felt like sitting in a diner during the off hours—hardly the virulent atmosphere I anticipated from the countless op-ed columns the movie's inspired. (And is it just me, or did Brokeback Mountain initiate a new class of Oscar-bait movies: the film that anyone can write an editorial about without actually having to see? At least the extracinematic debate surrounding Kathryn Bigelow's movie stems from a complete sentence—Can one take a neutral stance toward images of torture?—and isn't totally divorced from issues related to filmmaking.)

I had been curious to hear if anyone in the audience would cheer during the killing of Osama bin Laden that occurs at the movie's climax, as some friends reported hearing at a Friday-night screening they'd attended. Not that the movie encourages this sort of response. As many reviews have noted, the climactic raid is generally without action-movie heroics; it feels like a piece of business rather than a victory, and the filmmakers undercut any potential sense of satisfaction with such repellant details as children sobbing over their parents' corpses. But the impulse some viewers have to cheer at onscreen violence is so strong that I doubt if any film could succeed at undermining it.

I'm not surprised that even a morally ambiguous movie like Zero Dark Thirty would trigger applause, though I'm glad not to have heard it all the same. Few things make me more uncomfortable at the movies than hearing people cheer the death of a stranger as though it were a touchdown or a home run. I appreciate lots of violent movies, and I often find it cathartic when a particularly loathsome character gets his or her just deserts. But I've never felt the urge to clap for an onscreen death the way I would a great musical number or slapstick sequence. In the latter the spectacle derives from the execution of a complex feat of physical invention; in the former the spectacle derives from the resolution of narrative suspense in the most barbaric way.

As Hong Kong cinema has demonstrated time and again, movie deaths can be impressively choreographed too. But when moviegoers cheer the stabbing of a random thug in the paint-by-numbers Parker, as some did at the screening I attended two weeks ago, chances are they aren't responding to Taylor Hackford's tired, generic blocking. (That applause sounded like a Little League coach acknowledging a groundout to first base at the start of a practice game. "Good hustle, good hustle . . . ") Why applaud the death of some faceless bad guy you haven't even spent enough time with to properly hate? Does the appeal lie in seeing someone disposed of so efficiently or in the demonstration of the hero's prowess at killing?

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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