A few years ago, a spate of critically-acclaimed prestige pictures like No Country for Old Men were scrapping from simple, grisly horror films like Halloween. The difference was the objective. Whereas slashers aimed for the gut, these “psychological thrillers” aimed for the head. The problem is that their aim was way off. A man chasing you with a knife doesn’t give you much to think about; it’s why he’s chasing you that does (though it’s probably not worth dwelling on unless you can take a breather).
If you shovel it out from under its pretensions, No Country is effective in a campfire-story sort of way, and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon has its anthropological merits. But these movies’ overwhelming acclaim could, in large measure, be attributed to intellectual pettifogging—Black Swan had me gagging on its existential feathers. (Risible though it was, I can’t hold the film responsible for the grotesque review it wrenched out of me.)
In short, the essential sham of the horror-chic cycle was that it tried to claim depth by wallowing in the ineffable: Chigurh was a monster born of our suspicion that human life is meaningless. He killed people because … the universe. Depending on your perspective, No Country is the statement on the human condition or a cop-out that sidesteps anything so frivolous as character motivation or a serious view of life from the ground. The thing is, thrilling is easy—it’s the psychological part that’s hard.
One would like to think that we—as a culture—are moving beyond the helplessness of the Bush-Obama transition years, and that their psychic choke-hold was to blame for the highbrow-horror boom. (Not that what one would like to think is always the same as what is true.) Looking at the Best Picture contenders from last year and the year before, it’s safe to say that the trend has subsided. Or maybe evolved into something better: Room had horror-adjacent subject matter, but not ideology; and true-blue scary movies like The Babadook and The Witch are getting serious praise.
But probably the most positive evidence I have seen of John Carpenter’s influence on the art-house is in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. Set in an English countryside villa battered by zephyrs and mist-soaked moors, this modest production has the look and sound of incipient terror. It is, however, put in the service of psychological tension, namely a brick being removed from a sturdy marital foundation. No boogeymen are required to play this round of Jenga; the real storm is brewing inside Charlotte Rampling’s head.
A week before their 45th wedding anniversary, a retired couple has their serene, static existence interrupted by a Lynchian detail: the immaculately preserved corpse of a woman who disappeared in the Alps, in 1962. We do not see the body. All we know is that while Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) met, fell in love, married, and grew old, Katya was there, lying in wait, young beneath the ice. She had vanished into it while hiking with her then-lover Geoff. Now, her unseen image keeps Kate up at night: Katya never died, and Geoff, who would have married her, never lived.
Perhaps the most disturbing facet is Kate’s own frozen youth. Movies tend to ignore the elderly, or at least remove them from the center of the story, for a variety of reasons. There’s a case to be made, even if it’s superficial, that the audience (or at least the key demographic that Hollywood would fain consider its audience) prefers to see people like them—or people like them but prettier. But old age isn’t just off fleek. Often, as it was for the couple in Haneke’s Amour, and seems to be for the couple here, old age is seen as the result of youthful struggles resolved and objectives attained. Films about elders who’ve failed to achieve those ends, like Nebraska, can serve to upend the preliminary goals and gains that most movies are all about. But a movie like Amour, shot at twilight’s last gleaming, has only one place to go. It opens on the “ever after” in “happily ever after”—which comes right before The End. 45 Years, in a way, subverts even that.
Back to Kate. Her defining line of dialogue is a retort to Geoff’s sympathetic “You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?” Kate’s answer: “No. I think I was enough for you. I’m just not sure you do.” That “no” is either a writer’s conceit (it doesn’t ring, at least to my ears, as conversational) or it’s a blessed insight into a woman toughened up by countless decades of indomitable self-esteem. As wielded by Rampling, whose eyes look down on you from every angle, whose bones are ivory and skin is hide—the sun will never set on her empire; twilight be damned—the line is a dagger.
And this is exactly what is so disturbing: the notion that someone who has so thoroughly won at life can have that victory stripped away—or, more to the point, called into question—so late in the game. It’s a blade that pierces pride, penetrates trust. Are there parts of Geoff that are yet unknown, and are, possibly, unknowable? Has he, in one of those parts, been with Katya all this time? 45 Years may be a horror film that aims for the heart.
I could end it there, but wish to interject a little doubt of my own. In a way, and in a way which, please make no mistake, I intend very gently, Haigh’s laser focus on Kate’s inner drama is a cheat. This is manifest in somewhat obvious ways that relate to what I perceived as shortcomings in Amour as well. For example, this film is composed almost entirely of reaction shots, which is a means of limiting the range of the audience’s own reactions. I could watch Rampling watch the grass grow, but the erstwhile model may want for variety. Kate keeps grimacing at the same intrusive thought; her faces all start to look like “blue steel.” Ironically, one of Rampling’s finest moments comes when Kate vies to be empathized with—to be reacted to. Her mother died the same year that Katya disappeared; she proposes that, like star-crossed lovers, she and Geoff were suffering in parallel.
Of course, Geoff doesn’t react to Kate as she hoped he would. Kate is meant to be transparent, Geoff opaque. What’s remarkable, however, is how well Courtenay’s performance is geared toward being reacted to. This old lefty, who rails against Thatcher and the toffs, seems a natural extension of the roles Courtenay played 50 years ago, such as his angry young man in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and the idealist who hardens into a partisan in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. Edging 80, but living in comfort, Geoff appears peaceably resigned. His grievances have fragmented into an old fogey’s introverted quirks—scars from a more active self.
Clearly, the goal was to foster the impression that Geoff—who is about a decade older than his wife—is past being picked apart. He isn’t senile, but he has lost a few marbles that are never going to be found. To be fair, Geoff and Kate may share a bank account, but they don’t share 45 Years. The film belongs to her. But it may have been a richer, more challenging work had we witnessed their life together before the interloper emerged. It is on this point that Haneke and Haigh diverge. In Amour, we meet Anne before her illness sets the plot in motion; when we meet Geoff, he’s already reading the news about his frigid old flame’s discovery. He’s already gone.
Part of me eschews one simple explanation for the divergence, but I think it’s worth bringing up. Haneke was 70 when Amour came out, Haigh is 42. I don’t point this out to claim that a younger man can’t have insight into the lives of seniors, just as I would never say that Haigh—who is gay—couldn’t have insight into the affairs of straight people. But it raises the question of whether a woman past menopause would react to this situation the same way a younger person would—whether four decades and a half of happy marriage wouldn’t get the smoke out of her eyes. Being younger than Haigh, I do not know the answer. And perhaps I’d rather not.