Torture in the Movies, Making Us Squirm

From the art house to mainstream films, torture is a cropping up as a trendy cinematic theme. How did torture become hip? And why are directors putting viewers on the side of the torturers? Film critic A.S. Hamrah offers his insights.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

While Director Paul Verhoeven may have cut back on violence in his new movie, it is a hot commodity in Hollywood. But ads for a film called "Captivity," which featured young actress Elisha Cuthbert being tortured, have been taken down because of public reaction to them. The film is still scheduled to open next month.

It seems that every weekend, a movie with excruciating scenes of torture hits the theaters. A.S. Hamrah is a film critic. Last year, he wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times called "We Love to Torture," and he's in our New York bureau. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. A.S. HAMRAH (Film Critic): Thank you for having me.

HANSEN: Any theories about why audiences want to watch people suffer?

Mr. HAMRAH: Well, I think there's a lot of reasons. I think historically, people have been interested in seeing acts of violence and of torture. I think it's significant that this is happening now, in the wake of Abu Ghraib and during the war in Iraq.

Another thing that torture films are about is they're an attempt to reconnect to the physical. They're this kind of fantasy of returning to a world when people were still, you know, connecting to each other somehow, even if it's through pain and torture.

HANSEN: Many torture scenes and scenes of bloody violence are, sort of, the scenery for B-horror, slasher-type films, but they're not confined to that kind of film. This year in the film "Casino Royale," for example, there's a graphic scene where the James Bond character is naked, and he's strapped to a chair with the bottom missing, and the villain hits him hard in a very vulnerable place.

(Soundbite of movie, "Casino Royale")

Mr. MADS MIKKELSEN (Actor): (As Le Chiffre) I never understood all these elaborate tortures. It's the simplest thing to cause more pain than a man can possibly endure.

Mr. DANIEL CRAIG (Actor): (As James Bond) (Screaming)

Mr. MIKKELSEN: (As Le Chiffre) And of course….

Mr. CRAIG: (As James Bond) (Grunting)

Mr. MIKKELSEN: (As Le Chiffre) It's not only the immediate agony but the knowledge that if you do not yield soon enough, there will be little left to identify you as a man.

Mr. HAMRAH: Well, in "Casino Royale," it was played for laughs. That was what was so interesting about that scene. It was more like a locker-room scene than it was like a torture scene.

HANSEN: Oh, like snapping a towel at a guy?

Mr. HAMRAH: Exactly, yeah, and that was towel-snapping. That's part of what's so strange about that scene.

HANSEN: When was it that torture started to enter the mainstream? Was it like Quentin Tarantino with his "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction"?

Mr. HAMRAH: Yeah, "Reservoir Dogs" was when it started entering into the mainstream, but I don't think it should be held against Tarantino. The torture in "Reservoir Dogs" is, I think, different than torture in subsequent films. You know, we were asked to identify with the criminal, who was torturing the cop, but at the same time, we knew that it was wrong. We understood his motivations for doing that, which weren't, you know, respectable ones at all.

Today, it would be a cop torturing someone, a suspect. The situation has been completely reversed. The thing that's most interesting about torture is which side it puts you on, and for the last few years, the American audience has been on the side of the torturer. That's the most disturbing thing about torture in movies and television.

HANSEN: I want to play a clip from the film "Turistas."

Mr. HAMRAH: Yeah.

HANSEN: In this scene, a young American woman is being threatened by some Brazilian gangsters, and they're threatening to take her kidneys out.

(Soundbite of movie, "Turistas")

Unidentified Man: If a rich gringo needs a kidney, what does he do? Wait and get sick and die like the rest of us? No. He come here to Brazil to take advantage of our bounty, and of our poverty.

HANSEN: Now here, the torturer is justifying his actions as, you know, sort of, Third-World revenge. Do you think this is a new representation of torture, that it can be justified?

Mr. HAMRAH: Well, definitely these films - or most of them - seek to justify the torture somehow. In "Turistas," they really worked hard to justify it. I mean, the kids, you know, these vacationing Americans and English kids and Australians, were so obnoxious and annoying that seeing them tortured was something that was fun.

The kids were so stupid that, you know, seeing them tortured in the name of Third-World justice, you know, made the film more interesting.

HANSEN: Do you think it's a game for filmmakers, trying to top one another?

Mr. HAMRAH: There's this real sense of desperation in Hollywood filmmaking now. People are not going to the movies as much as they used to, and there's this idea that the mainstream audience, you know, only responds to movies like "300" or "Saw III" or what have you. People try to pretend that that audience represents, you know, the average viewer.

HANSEN: Do you think the torture of women is handled differently than the torture of men in these movies?

Mr. HAMRAH: Women are the primary victims of torture in films like "Turistas." These billboards for "Captivity," I think, finally are what changed it because they're too sexualized. If they were showing violence against men in those billboards, or if the violence was toned down a little, if it wasn't a young, attractive blonde woman, I don't think it would be as offensive to people because the connection between the torture and the sex was too obvious. Now, torture makes us all equal.

HANSEN: A.S. Hamrah is a film critic and writer living in Brooklyn. Thanks for your time.

Mr. HAMRAH: Thank you, Liane.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.