Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional cultural ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” –Unknown

“Some men are created evil” Big Bad Wolves Tagline

Contiguous with our “golden age of television” is a cycle of works, in both TV and film, whose protagonists’ “moral ambiguity” is a selling point. From Jay Gatsby and Walter White to Louis CK and Hannah Horvath, moral ambiguity marks a work as mature, complex, and thought-provoking—worthy of being called great art. The last few years have also seen the rise of a new genre with deep political ramifications: the “morally ambiguous” torture film.

The most recent entry in the genre is Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film that Rex Reed called “a sensation” and Quentin Tarantino called “the best film of the year.” The film deals with a group of men who kidnap and torture a suspected child-murderer, and is visually and thematically dark. Among positive reviews (the film enjoys a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes), the film is widely praised for its “moral ambiguity.” The film has been called a “morally ambiguous fairy tale,” whose “haunting meditation on the morality and efficacy of torture…only increases the moral ambiguity,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Thematically and ideologically, the film shares the most DNA with another dark revenge-thriller from 2013, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Prisoners also deals with a missing girl, whose father then kidnaps and tortures the suspected abductor. Villeneuve’s film was similarly hailed as another “morally ambiguous” film, sophisticated enough to “navigate a maze of moral ambiguity.” “Prisoners puts all other morally ambiguous movies to shame,” in the words of one breathless reviewer.

Both Big Bad Wolves and Prisoners follow the first “morally ambiguous” torture film: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. When it was released, Katherine Bigelow’s film about the manhunt and murder of Osama bin Laden rightly generated a lot of controversy around its depiction of torture. However, for as many people who called the film out for its torture apologia, there were many who praised the film for its “moral ambiguity,” erecting the strawman that to not depict torture would constitute a whitewash. In a Time magazine interview, Bigelow defended the film as “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” Where Zero Dark Thirty generated controversy, Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves have generated unreserved praise. Mother Jones celebrated Prisoners as a welcome corrective to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it “the strongest anti-torture argument that has come out of the movies in years.”

The idea that these films are “morally ambiguous” is central to their reception. It tells viewers that, rather than functioning as torture apologia, there’s a nuance at their core that prompts deep ethical probing. However, viewers tend to side with the character through whom they see the world. Dodge paid for Walter White to drive their cars for a reason, and Jay Gatsby’s parties look pretty fun. Quentin Tarantino’s sensibility draws heavily from the simplistic worlds of comic books and exploitation films—If Big Bad Wolves gets the Tarantino seal-of-approval, the ethical complexity of this genre is probably being oversold. The man’s most morally ambiguous choice is giving the world of cinema its most congenial Nazi—he’s not exactly St. Augustine.

These films share the same ideological core, and it’s not one built on great complexity and shades of gray. The moral world these films create is one of dueling, good-vs.-evil extremes: heroes who grudgingly use torture to defeat monstrous villains. Moral ambiguity is a superficial affectation achieved by a dour visual palette, extended onscreen suffering, and a disingenuous air of ideological neutrality. Films in the “morally ambiguous” pro-torture cycle obfuscate their Manichaean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.

Torture Creep

Today, more Americans support torture than believe in evolution. In a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes:

In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes toward torture, and found that Americans had become more supportive of the use of torture in the previous half decade. Zegart reported that: “[between 2007 and 2012,] 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.” Among the reasons for this shift in consensus, she cited the possible influence of spy movies and TV shows, which have increasingly depicted torture as heroic. According to her poll, so-called “spy TV watchers” were more likely to support a range of abusive tactics.

Zegart’s findings were predicted in 2008 by a Parent’s Television Council report which observed a significant spike in the depiction of torture on prime time television—and more critically a shift in which characters were using torture. Increasingly, it was the “good guys” carrying out the torture.

2012 was a decade after the Bush administration legalized torture and four years into the administration of Barack Obama, who didn’t consider torture a “grave [or] intentional breach” of Presidential powers and consequently immunized torturers. This isn’t to frame America’s current acceptance of torture in liberal declinist terms. From the torture inflicted on black slaves to torture as a tactic to crush the Philippine insurgency to the CIA’s KUBARK manual to the torture lessons at the School of the Americas, torture is as American as an apple with a razorblade in it. Recently, legalizing and immunizing torture has signaled to the culture industry that torture is now something “the good guys” do, too. However, torture is best depicted with a bit of handwringing, and a ghastly villain to justify it. Continue reading