One of my pet theories is that leading Oscar contenders reflect a current mode of our times. Last year's "Up In the Air," for instance, hit hard on the layoffs that touched so many. This year's theme, it seems, is enduring, despite overwhelming odds against you.
In the wonderful "Conviction," Hillary Swank's character battles for years to free her innocent brother from prison. You see her battle setback after setback. And still she hangs on. Believing that she can do it.
In the beautiful "The Way Back," we have prisoners from a Soviet concentration camp, first exiled to Siberia. Then some of them decide they've had enough, and endeavor to escape (all of this being in the trailer, I'm spoiling nothing; also this happens in the beginning of the film). They do escape, and begin their trek. I suppose they are heading toward that nebulous "freedom." Their path seems to go from Siberia to Mongolia to Tibet to India. On foot.
Needless to say, of the ones who start on the journey, not all of them make it, for various reasons. But it's a battle. A struggle to survive. A struggle to make it to the other side. A struggle to be free.
It seems that many of us, with millions of Americans unemployed, are struggling just to survive, too. Hanging on. Trying to make that meager unemployment check last just a little bit longer. Piecing together rent with odd jobs, believing, against all odds that that next job is somewhere around the corner. I really believe that hanging on and believing you'll make it is the new American dream.
No more streets paved with gold, we'd be happy to get a paycheck regularly. And this "endurance cinema" reflects that. Hang on, hang on, hang on, just a little bit longer.
"The Way Back" isn't quite as bleak and despairing as last year's "The Road," but it's a tough go. The ending brought tears to my eyes, but boy! was it a long slog to get there. Mind you, I do love Peter Weir as a director. His "Dead Poet's Society" remains one of my favorite films. And visually (thank you, Russell Boyd), "The Way Back" is stunning to look at. Vast landscapes that include icy snow-covered peaks, as well as vast deserts.
In "Conviction," though, it was clear what the motive and struggle was. In "The Way Back," they put themselves though lots of dangerous situations, and it's kind of unclear why exactly. They talk at the beginning about how "there's a bounty on your heads," from neighboring villagers, but this threat is never bourne out, or even hinted at, once they escape.
It's enough of a stretch to believe that people one day just say, "Hey! Let's walk across Mongolia!" but that they do it without ANY help from villagers along the way strains credulity a bit.*
I watch "Survivor" pretty much every week since it started (a few missed seasons here and there). The parts I love the most are the way people interact with each other (there is much of that in this movie). The parts I REALLY dislike vehemently (OK, I admit, I'm a city girl, and I'd never survive in the wild) are the parts where chicken's heads are lopped off, or animals are otherwise killed for food. Sadly, there is also a lot of that in this movie.
Sure, I understand, they are starving, they need to eat. Do I really need to watch it, though?
Another endurance movie is looming on the horizon, one that I am distinctly NOT going to see: "127 Hours." People in our office this week spoke again of people fainting at screenings. Know this, anyone who plans to go see this one: the hiker goes by himself into the wild, and ends up CHOPPING OFF HIS OWN ARM. And they show it. GRAPHICALLY. Why are people surprised about this? Every screening has someone fainting.
I don't intend to faint. I don't intend to see it, Oscar-worthy or not. I've had enough of endurance films for this season.
ADDENDUM: * I know it's based on a true story. I know people actually did this. Still...