Five films that reveal the darkness of an empty life

mondays-in-the-sun-movie-poster-2002-1020208551We are in the cold dark days. We are in February.

Look, I know if you want to get all sciency on me that here in North America, December is technically darker. And January is technically colder. But screw all that. February is the worst. Why else did they have to make it the shortest month? Why else would they stick Valentine’s Day smack in the middle? Why else bequeath the world Washington and Lincoln, Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, Kurt Cobain and Dr. Dre? Clearly, the universe knew it went too far and is trying to apologise.

But I don’t mind a little darkness. It’s a good thing too, because over the past few months, I’ve seen some pretty dark moments on film. Start with the death of Macduff’s family in Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth. Any time you burn someone at the stake, you’re getting into some dark territory. Toss some innocent children and a screaming mother onto the pyre and you’ve entered a black hole.

The two best live action shorts on this year’s Oscar list – Shok and Everything Will Be Okay have two of the darkest conclusions you will find, one due to the casualness of senseless physical violence, and the other due to unavoidable emotional devastation.

This is not a new phenomenon. Movies have been probing the darkest corners of human existence since their inception. Here, then, is the type of tribute only mid-February can bring. Five of the darkest moments in cinema.

I’m excluding actual death, be it accidental, natural, or murderous. That’s too easy. Tarantino, Ritchie, or any one of a couple dozen South Korean directors notwithstanding, death is usually dark. My favourite dark moment in all cinema is the execution of Fredo in The Godfather: Part II. It is as emotionally devastating as any moment I know of. Executions, like those of Anna in Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Mathilde in Melville’s Army of Shadows, are never light and airy.

Death by fire is sure to snuff out any lightness you may feel. The aforementioned Macbeth joins a long list – be it the burning of an individual, such as the elderly Herlofs Marte in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, or the incineration of an entire village, as happened to the town of Perekhody in Klimov’s Come and See. These are sequences that you see once and never forget.

But you need not witness death to feel darkness. Here are five scenes which suggest that an empty life can be even darker than ultimate demise.

Sansho the Bailiff – Zushio finds Tamaki (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954)

Zushio and his sister Anju endure all manner of injustice during Mizoguchi’s epic story about man’s cruelty to man. And that cruelty is felt even more acutely by women in mediaeval Japan, for men at least can hope to one day fight back. Anju chooses death over torture and betrayal, but Zushio exacts some measure of revenge on those who injured him and his family. At the end, in what might have been a joyous reunion, Zushio finds his ancient mother Tamaki. But Mizoguchi does not allow for happy relief here. If there is some manner of redemption at the end of the struggle, Mizoguchi reminds us that some violence cannot be undone. Some scars never fade.

Walkabout – The Rest of the Girl’s Life (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)

This is a very different kind of final scene from Sansho. A more obviously emotional sequence precedes it wherein David Gulpilil’s Aboriginal boy kills himself after his proposal is rejected by the white girl. The denouement leaps forward in time to the girl, now grown and tending house in a suburban apartment, going through the drudgery of her daily routine. The camera on the apartment stays wide and sterile as she dreams of the life she gave up many years ago.  The death is bloodless. The despair is palpable.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God – Aguirre, Lord of the Monkeys (Werner Herzog, 1972)

Madness has its own suite in the darkest corners of the mind. There have been countless powerful depictions of insanity on screen, but this final scene of Herzog’s towering tale of ambition gone astray, is indelible. Don Lope de Aguirre, a conquistador with an indomitable spirit and the ambition to become a god, travels into the deepest Amazon in search of El Dorado. He bullies those around him, friend and foe alike, until all have starved or fallen victim to disease. But Aguirre remains, floating down a river of death to the emptiness of eternity. The final shot, camera swirling around Aguirre’s raft, monkeys his only companions, probes the darkness of madness as well as any single shot I can recall.

Night on Earth – Mika’s Story (Jim Jarmusch, 1991)

“Things could have been worse.” So begins an anecdote shared by a Helsinki cab driver with three drunken fares who bemoan the misfortune of one in their party. Mika then tells his tale as he drives them home through the deserted streets. By the time he is done, the men have come to understand that losing your job and your car and your wife and daughter in one day actually is not as bad as it may seem. Because things could have been worse. This scene, which closes out the final chapter of Jarmusch’s magnificent portmanteau, features a memorable delivery from Matti Pellonpaa, whose deadpan shows cracks just beneath the surface.

Mondays in the Sun – Santa Tours Amador’s Apartment (Fernando Leon de Aranoa, 2002)

Santa is a life force. As played by Javier Bardem, he towers over tragedy of poverty and unemployment in the impoverished town of Vigo in North Spain. But not all of his friends have his spirit or his will. At the other end of the spectrum is Celso Bugallo’s Amador, another laid off shipyard worker who is drinking himself into oblivion. Though Amador continues to talk about the day his wife will return from her extended time away, his friends know that Amador is full of it. But none of them know just how low he has sunk until Santa brings him home after a night of heavy drinking and sees the filthy, dark shell of an apartment Amador now calls home. As Santa slowly moves through the ramshackle rooms, even his mighty resolve seems to crack. Amador will die later in the movie, but that moment almost comes as a relief after seeing how unbearable his life had become.

All right – Spring looms up ahead. One more spin of the moon and we will enter the season of rebirth. Flowers will bloom and the sun will visit longer and longer each day. Darkness may be banished. At least for a while. But it will be back. Lest you forget, pop in one of these movies and delight in the darkness.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at

8 thoughts on “Five films that reveal the darkness of an empty life

  1. Marvellous, thanks Jon. It really is time I got into Jarmusch, and I think you’ve just given me that last little push I needed to do so.

  2. Despite the sun appearing over the last few days, winter has been dull and grey here, so this is a suitable theme indeed. I haven’t seen all of them, but I have never forgotten the shot of Kinski and the monkeys on the rsft, or the contrasting life at the end of ‘Walkabout.’
    I am also reminded of the scene in ‘Donnie Brasco’, where Pacino’s character empties his pockets, and takes off his jewellery, before leaving his apartment to an appointment with death at the hands of his Mafia colleagues
    Best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

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