Around the same time that the controversial Iraq war bomb-disposal thriller The Hurt Locker was sweeping the Academy Awards, an act of real-world movie violence was taking place elsewhere in California. A cinemagoer at a screening of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island complained to a woman talking on a cell phone; as a result, the man was stabbed in the neck with a meat thermometer and hospitalized with serious injuries.
Shutter Island is a magnificent film, much-misunderstood, about the process by which those who use violence to achieve authority (or closure, or peace) try to convince themselves that they have not been harmed by their own actions. It’s also about how the good guys tell themselves that that’s who they are, without ever learning that you don’t need to kill in order to fully express your humanity. The film is an unfolding lamentation for what our culture can be at its worst. That a viewer of this profound movie was the victim of a horrific act of violence isn’t just ironic—it makes perfect sense in the context of the culture into which Scorsese is trying to speak.
Most of the Oscar anticipation ignored the substance of The Hurt Locker, dropping a dialogue about masculinity, meaning, and the warrior myth in favor of snarky speculation about whether or not director Kathryn Bigelow might wave a golden statuette in the air while inquiring of her ex-husband, Avatar director James Cameron, who’s king of the world now?
Meanwhile, a man gets attacked at a film that suggests the logical consequence of our culture’s addiction to violence, whether of the physical, emotional, or talk-radio kind. So much of our culture has been reduced to us trivializing, shouting at, dehumanizing, or threatening each other—why not stab each other?
The day after the Oscars, film industry bible Variety fired its chief film critic in favor of freelance rent-a-quote, and a cultural crisis came full circle. Decent criticism matters because it helps us think better about the worlds portrayed in art. When we interact with a work of art that appears to us to be truly great, we figure out how to live. H. L. Mencken wrote that the best motivation for critics is the simple desire to function freely and beautifully: That’s also why we watch movies. The multiplex stabbing is the consequence of a dehumanized culture that defaults to sarcasm and nurtures angry condemnation, all reinforced by impatience and the compulsion to immediate judgment. Shutter Island and The Hurt Locker are reminders that this can only be transformed by deciding to resist violence by refusing to dehumanize anyone. But the alternately shallow and tragic public responses are reminders that our culture may still prefer to hide from itself.
Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster in Carrboro, North Carolina, is the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.