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.

U-S-A! U-S-A! Zero Dark Thirty’s Torturers-as-Heroes

Zero Dark Thirty's Maya: tears as blank slate.

Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya: tears as blank slate.

By the time Katherine Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal released Zero Dark Thirty, the public had been primed for the message from the top-down. Though Bigelow and Boal mischaracterize the case against them, the film depicts torture as both morally defensible and effective. Zero Dark Thirty begins with a first act in which a detainee, Ammar, is tortured by Dan, a handsome American interrogator played by Jason Clarke. After 45 minutes of being tortured, Ammar gives up the name of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, after Clarke’s character threatens to “hook [him] back up to the ceiling.” Later, Jessica Chastain’s Maya threatens to render a suspect to Israel. He tells her point-blank “I have no wish to be tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it.”

Ultimately, it’s Abu Ahmed’s name (given up after Ammar was tortured and threatened with additional torture) that leads the SEAL team to Abbotabad, where they successfully assassinate America’s public enemy #1. The clear progression from information gleaned via torture to killing the US’s most-hated enemy belies Bigelow and Boal’s insistence on the film’s anti-torture message. After the film’s release, it was revealed that Boal had worked closely with the CIA over the screenplay, even giving them veto power. The CIA had learned from the US military that the “embedding” process creates a sympathetic interlocutor with the veneer of journalistic objectivity.

However, just as insidious as Boal’s rewriting of history is the veneer of “moral ambiguity” slathered on the film. It’s easy to dispute the facts depicted in the film, determinations about morality are more elusive. Bigelow’s savviest decision was to end the film with Maya, alone in the belly of a C-130, shedding a few tears. The moment acts as a cipher, onto which a viewer can project any amount of “moral ambiguity” they want. Despite the blank slate with which the film ends, though, at the heart of Bigelow and Boal’s work is moral certainty, not complexity. Dan and Maya are torturers, but there’s never any doubt about their Goodness or the righteousness of their cause.

Midway through the film, Dan and Maya are at a black site in Afghanistan, discussing the 2005 London bombings. Dan eats ice cream and plays with a small monkey in a makeshift cage. The way the film treats the Londong bombings (dubbed 7/7 in an echo of 9/11) marks al Qaeda as a SPECTRE-like group of global reach and unlimited power to inflict terror. The sequence contrasts the savagery of America’s al Qaeda enemies with the kindness and relatability of Dan. In America, depicting a character as an animal lover is the surest way to mark that character as Good—as obvious a signifier as old Westerns giving the villain a mustache and black hat to make him Bad. That the American torturers are so legible as “Good,” in such a clear contrast to the ultimate evil of al Qaeda, broadcasts the moral clarity at the film’s core.

The fact that it’s Osama bin Laden who’s being pursued codes the torture as moral. In his speech announcing the bin Laden killing, President Obama called it a reminder “that America can do whatever we set our mind to.” The success of Operation Neptune Spear brought crowds of thousands out in New York and Washington for a rousing, spontaneous chant of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Mark Bowden’s book on the manhunt, The Finish, even reports that hundreds chanted C-I-A! C-I-A! at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Once bin Laden was dead, torture didn’t seem to trouble those Washingtonians cheering the CIA. Given this cultural context, very few viewers will be inclined to leave the theater looking at torture as an unambiguous moral evil.

When she ultimately felt compelled to address the controversy in an open letter to the LA Times, Bigelow clarified how “ambiguously” the viewer is meant to read the characters. Invoking the horrors of 9/11, she lauded the “brave professionals who paid the ultimate price in the effort to combat a grave threat to this nation’s safety and security…ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” America’s clandestine services: brave individuals who only sin to keep you safe from even greater horrors. Bigelow isn’t describing multi-faceted, ethically suspect characters: she and Boal are explicitly coding torturers as Selfless Heroes.

Prisoners: the “Anti-Torture Film” That Wasn’t

Violent times call for Violent Dads™.

Violent times call for Violent Dads™.

Enough people picked up on Zero Dark Thirty’s pro-torture subtext to create a controversy, and Bigelow’s loss of “Oscar buzz” became the worst sanction anyone suffered for torture. “With Prisoners, however, there is no hedging on the matter,” according to Asawin Suebsaeng of Mother Jones. Suebsaeng raises the common trope invoked by torture defenders. Wouldn’t you, the idea goes, torture someone to protect a loved one? “That seems like something many parents would say, and it’s not hard to understand why. But Prisoners intelligently explores the failings of that logic. What if you have the wrong person? Is this undermining effective police work? What do you lose of yourself if you go down this road? Prisoners strips any hint of heroism or romanticism from the notion of doing ‘whatever it takes’ to save your family.” To hear Suebsaeng tell it, Prisoners is a morality play: a father tortures with the intention of saving his daughter, only to have it backfire and lose his soul. Man gazes into abyss, etc.

For the first half of Prisoners, the film does what Suebsaeng describes. Two girls go missing, one of whom is the daughter of Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover. Dover is convinced the abductor is a stranger named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whose RV the girls had been playing on the morning of their disappearances. The police tell Dover there’s nothing they can do, so he abducts Jones and tortures him with beatings and scalding water. For about an hour, Dover looks like a villain. Jones gets so battered and bruised that he looks like an extraterrestrial from The X-Files. As the search goes cold, Dover’s family life starts to fall apart. In a blow to Dover’s status as patriarch, his wife impugns his masculinity for his failure to protect the family. Dover begins to lose faith in god.

In the third act, though, the narrative cuts off whatever anti-torture message may have existed. Though Jones himself was innocent, Dover’s act of kidnapping put him on the path to finding the real villain. The girl was abducted by Jones’s aunt, played by Melissa Leo, who kidnaps and murders children as part of her “war on god.” Rather than impeding a police investigation, only Dover’s dogged tenacity in torturing Jones revealed the killer. A multiple-child murderer at the heart of the abduction provides a character whose monstrousness absolves Dover of villain-status. Happily, her motivation—waging a war on god—erases any doubts in Dover’s heart about Protestant-Jesus’s beneficence. In the end, the handsome, rugged Dover has successfully returned peace to his family unit.

Big Brave Wolves

big bad wolves

“This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”

Big Bad Wolves functions, narratively and ideologically, much like Prisoners. A girl is abducted. A nebbishy teacher named Dror suspected, so he’s beaten up by cops, one of whom, Micki, abducts Dror to obtain a confession via torture. The missing girl’s father, Gidi, also suspects Dror, so he kidnaps both the teacher and Micki. Though Dror manages to convince Micki that he his innocent, Gidi—a former military man seasoned by wars against Arabs—is not convinced. For most of the running time, the film maintains some sense of ambiguity about whether or not Dror abducted Gidi’s daughter.

Like Prisoners, a missing girl is at the center of the search, and the film is visually dark and thematically miserable. The film takes place in abandoned houses, the concrete guts of an unfinished building, and the dank basement where the suspect is tortured at length. The torture itself is brutal: the camera shows a blowtorch incinerating the suspected killer’s chest, and the scene holds on pliers ripping out a toenail. The film subjects its audience to durational violence, ominous threats, men with nostrils flared.

However, also like Prisoners, the film expects viewers to mistake a surplus of violence for moral complexity. Gidi ultimately beheads Dror, and the film’s last shot reveals that Dror had abducted Micki’s daughter and trapped her in his basement. Revealing Dror as a child-murderer, the film ends by justifying all the horrors that had been unleashed. If anything, the shot of the trapped girl implies that the torturers didn’t do enough to find her in time.

The narratives in Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves are anything but ambiguous. Though the protagonists torture, the films’ conflicts hollows out any hope of a genuine ethical dilemma. Child murderers are the most reviled people in society—even the most hated people in prisons. In 2008, then-Senator Obama signaled his tough-on-crime bona fides by calling for the death penalty for child rape. To make the villain a killer of children is to obviate ambiguity and introduce moral certainty—just as surely as making the villain Osama bin Laden.

On the other hand, there are the heroes. Traditional gender norms demand that fathers protect the inviolability of the nuclear family. With their father-as-torturer heroes, defending the Family from the worst members of society, these films are smuggling in an insidious moral framework.

“Every Moment Matters” –Prisoners Tagline

Rather than being nuanced, at the core of these films is the most popular narrative of all: the Powerful Man who exercises force to protect His Things. This narrative undergirds power in our world; it’s the basis for authoritarianism, imperialism, and colonialism. The patriarch slays dragons to defend his property, his borders, and his family.

In Prisoners, Dover’s lowest point is when his wife spitefully tells him “you said you could protect us from anything.”The strong man’s ability and will to do violence for these ends justifies his place atop the hierarchy. Authoritarians have summed up the idea as “we sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” Things like feminism and the age of decolonization have tarnished this brand; these “morally ambiguous” torture films burnish an old message by presenting it as an understandable decision. The patriarch only does violence grudgingly, in the face of extreme circumstances.

The fact that many people can imagine themselves torturing to save their own children is a psychological aspect that’s exploited to do unmitigated evil. Torture supporters endlessly invoke the “ticking time bomb” scenario to take advantage of this line of thinking, but this scenario is a fascist fairy tale. There will always be an exception, an emergency, to justify something. Carl Schmitt, the authoritarian political philosopher whose writings became the theoretical basis for the Nazi regime, based his ideas on this “state of exception.” For Schmitt, an exceptional situation justifies absolute power, and from there it was a brief jump to his treatise On Dictatorship.

To say that a state will utilize whatever power it has is not to invoke a “slippery slope” argument, it’s to point out a historical reality. This is how legalized torture transpired: with the myth of a “ticking time bomb” as justification, the next step was to “GITMO-ize” an entire country. These films bring audiences into the minds of subjects in an extreme “state of exception,” but the permissive attitudes towards atrocity extend beyond emergencies.

Think of the Children

Children aren’t just invoked because their defense provides a cynical justification for violence. Discourses about children are crucial to the gendered power at the heart of imperialism. A child as the locus of the narrative makes the homeland a “mother” and the powerful protector the “father.” Entries in the “morally ambiguous” torture film genre explicitly enact this fantasy. Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves feature fathers as justified torturers, but Zero Dark Thirty does some more complex work to achieve the same ends. Maya, by torturing Muslim men and ultimately killing bin Laden, “represents the ‘liberated Western Woman showing her dominance’ and triumph[ing] over ‘brown male bodies’,” in the words of Matt Cornell. Maya is an imperial feminist heroine: a white woman triumphing over brown men. As a driven woman, rather than a vengeful father, Maya presents the same gendered power fantasy with a feminist whitewash.

Colonialism and empire are masculinist projects. Territories being colonized are referred to as “virgin” lands waiting to be “fertilized” because it erases the existing inhabitants and evokes patriarchal dominance over women’s sexuality. This gendered narrative has been used for centuries, and it’s currently at work in Israel’s colonization and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, as Bayan Abusneineh explains in “Gendering al-Nakba.”

In her New York Times review, Manohla Dargis says “[the directors] [Aharon] Keshales and [Navut] Papushado invoke the ‘existential anxiety’ that ‘serves as Israel’s foundation’ and promise that their movie will ask, ‘Does being the victim give you the legitimate right’ to become a vigilante?” Keshales and Papushado raise several colonialist tropes here: whitewashing a land theft and extant ethnic cleansing as “anxiety,” and making the villain and victim of revenge a single figure–equating the displaced Palestinians with German Nazis. Missing the point of this genre entirely, Dargis called the statement “ill-advised,” as though the directors were inadvertently bringing controversy to something apolitical. Keshales and Papushado didn’t making a flippant misstatement, they invoked colonialism because that’s the ideological thrust of the “morally ambiguous” torture film.

The “female” land belongs to a “male” Empire, and a man’s power is his masculinity. Zero Dark Thirty, a film depicting American revenge for 9/11, reflects the male half of the gendered binary of Empire. “Amy Laura Hall argues that 9/11 was a mass spectacle of violation that continues to shape American conceptions of gender, sexuality, and safety,’ and that the felled towers marked the symbolic castration of the West,” explains Matt Cornell. “Following from this analysis, we can interpret [government torture] as a form of gender-based revenge for the trauma of 9/11.”

As the most rapacious settler-colonial project in the world, this colonialist narrative about children is deployed most often in defense of Israel. To support Israel’s periodic slaughters of its captive population, President Obama has said “If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.” Israel has exploited narratives about its children for decades, and just as importantly, it wrings its hands over the Palestinian children it murders.

Israel performs frequent public displays of remorse, like Golda Meir’s statement that “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.” This narrative is so common that there’s a name for the extensive genre of works it’s spawned: “shoot and cry.” The remorse is disingenuous, though, revealed by the fact that Israel and its supporters assiduously block any attempts by Palestinian children to speak for themselves. The US and Israel’s affectations of sorrow are expressed in “morally ambiguous” torture films, whose torturers are aggrieved by the sin they’re forced to commit—recall Maya’s tears.

A Cornerstone of the World System

It’s both revealing and natural that it’s the United States and Israel, partners in a “special relationship,” whose culture industries are creating “morally ambiguous” torture films. The US is the most successful settler-colonial project in world history and the current enforcer of the global status quo. Israel, engaged in a settler-colonial project of its own, is America’s brutal constabulary enforcer in a region marked for subjugation. The US funds and arms Israeli colonialism and protects it from international law. In turn, Israel “field tests” these weapons on its Palestinian captives and exports new, more advanced means of social control back to the US.

It is not a contingency of history that the US and Israel are so closely connected in alliance that there is ‘no daylight between them,’” according to Matthijs Krul. “On the contrary. The hegemonic United States is a settler society and Israel is the only social formation of a similar type planted, in the decolonizing period of modern history, in the middle of the periphery (for want of a better term) and in a land of great religious significance at that. Therefore, much more than all the other such sites of struggle, Israel is a cornerstone of the political world-system.”

This world-system is maintained with state terror, whose panoply of tactics includes torture. The United States and Israel torture children, they torture during wartime, they torture during peacetime, they torture their internally colonized people en masse. However, they also have exceptional reputations to maintain. For the United States, it’s being the leader of the free world, the shining city on a hill. For Israel, it’s being the “Middle East’s only democracy,” an irenic, perpetually innocent country with the misfortune of being stuck “in a bad neighborhood.”

The United State and Israel are the states that best exemplify the divide between the high-minded rhetoric of democracy and the brutal work of Empire. To erase that gap, the two play-act ethical crises to maintain their images. The narrative around imperial violence is one of sorrow, reluctance, and remorse: the US and Israel are always pushed to do evil despite their best wishes. It’s no surprise that their culture industries have created a genre that walks viewers through this same arc: making us sympathize with torturers and getting us to wring our hands over their morally complex, but ultimately just, decisions.

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

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  4. reading thru some of your archives, film stuff now. everybody likes films and i think you bring out the didactic value & topical range available to film criticism. I refused to see ZD30 so the unfamiliar bit about the torturer & the pet monkey…precious.

    Mem Day saw several showings of Saving Private Ryan. what a blood-splattered Hallmark card that movie is. Father keeps the surrogate son alive driven by nostalgia for his castle, queen, and lost innocence. ultimate sacrifice, Dvorak’s “Coming Home,” naive young egghead learns to put down Remarque and kill the next Nazi POW, etc. It’s like a book burning for “War & Peace.”

    • Glad that you’ve had a chance to look through the archives. I was pleased with this piece, so I’m happy someone’s taken another look at it and found it valuable.

      Your instincts were right on the money with ZD30, although you wouldn’t know it from the film’s many defenders. To hear them tell it, the film is stridently anti-torture–which is why none of them mention the torturer and his goddamn pet monkey.

      It’s funny you mention Spielberg. I’m actually in the preliminary stages of expanding some of the material covered in this post and others into a book, and Spielberg shows up a couple times. Being as popular and influential as he is, he’s really a unique mediator and channeler of the American psyche. With Ryan, he really kicked off the WWII craze which is still going strong a decade and a half later. How convenient, right around the time “the long war” was beginning, America went nuts for media about “the last good war.”

      • hmmm…how about “Munich”? def in the “shoot & cry” genre (thank you for that, btw.) but with “minority report”, “war of the worlds”, & def “munich”, spielberg seemed to embark on a new seriousness. clearly these are not scathing, radical critiques of empire, capitalism, etc., but it’s not the british troops showing up at the end of “temple of doom” either. of course “munich” is suffused with this nostalgia, longing for home, motif that is spielberg’s hallmark.

      • maybe it’s not necessary to read more into “munich” than is there. “if you don’t want to embark on these angst-ridden journeys of conscience, don’t engage in these kinds of actions. here is the limit.” i enjoy the movie, so perhaps i project.

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