Existentialism is a 20th century philosophical theory concerned with human existence, finding oneself and the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal responsibility. An existentially themed film is effective in illustrating existentialism and it usually addresses the human race in a dramatic, profound and thought-provoking way. Given that there are a variety of films dealing with existential circumstances, those films; however, do focus on different aspects of existentialism. Revolutionary road, Black Swan, Life of Pi, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Dark Knight represent five very different kinds of existential films; however, all these films go hand-in-hand in allowing the audience to witness the self-reflection and growth of the characters in each film.
To begin with, the most common type of existential films deals with people’s basic desire to search for or create meaning in their own lives under overwhelming external forces. In the film Revolutionary Road, a couple tries to escape their trivial lives and seek for a more meaningful, exciting future in Paris but eventually fail to withstand social pressure and expectations. As a series of events occur, they come to realize that they were not the same individuals that fell in love many years back.
The main characters are a young couple with their two children living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s. Frank, the husband, commutes to New York City where he works in an office job while his wife April stays at home as a housewife. They should have felt satisfied with their family that “appears to most as being perfect” yet they are still unhappy because both of them realize that their lives lack of dream and passion. Thus, one day the wife suggests that they can move to Paris to get away from the "hopeless emptiness" of their repetitive lifestyle. After contemplating, Frank agrees to move. However, Frank gets a promotion and his wife is pregnant again so he reconsiders moving. Moreover, Frank and April have many arguments because she is terrified by the burden of another child, and wants to have an abortion but Frank strongly disagrees. After several altercations, their relationship simply breaks apart. April performs her own abortion without letting anyone else know and she eventually dies due to complications that resulted from her abortion. Frank and April wanted very different things in life, thus resulting in the unravelling of their relationship.
The sharp contrast between expectation and reality foreshadows the tragic ending of the film, explaining society’s attempts to give meaning to their same old lives but how most people fail to achieve their existential goals. In the beginning of the film, the young couple plans to move to Paris, a famous romantic city, in hopes of regaining their vitality and reigniting passion in their lives. Nonetheless, April’s pregnancy and Frank’s promotion, two symbols of inevitable external forces prevent them from escaping the futility of their beings, dragging them back to the reality that they need money to support the family and they will have a newborn to take care of. At this point, their attitudes towards moving diverge. April fiercely insists on having an abortion and goes with the plan while Frank rejects her idea and accepts his promotion. Their conflict results in the separation of their family, leading to the sad and ironic ending. Initially, they hope to embrace a more meaningful new life but end up losing much more. This film is a profound example of two individuals realizing their desires through experiencing adversity and self reflection. Frank and Alice grew apart because they no longer wanted the same things in life, and at the end of the film, both had to deal with the consequences of their actions.
In addition, another kind of existential film describes a human condition that protagonists must confront their true selves and choose whether or not they should to stay honest with themselves. Black Swan conveys an existential view on humanity: that is, it depicts a human situation in which an individual copes with his/her internal chaos and finally figures out who she truly wants to become.
Nina, the protagonist is a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her obsessive former ballerina mother Erica who exerts a suffocating control over her. Swan Lake is the opening production of the new season. Specifically, it requires a dancer who can play both the innocent White Swan and the sensual, guile Black Swan. Nina fits white swan role perfectly but fails to master the role of the Black swan. However, the director Thomas decides to give her the opportunity of play the lead and he will do anything to evoke her dark passion. As her understanding of the Black swan role becomes increasingly through, she loses control of herself and descends into madness before recognizing her true self.
Nina’s tragic ending is caused by her excess obsession with perfection, the desire to be perfect, and the hope that she never has to face her inner flaws. In order to play and understand the Black swan’s character, she goes to pub, she tries her best to compliment the director Thomas, and for the first time in her life she challenges her mother’s authority. However, she cannot control herself when she gets more in touch with her dark side: her jealousy of another ballerina Lily who can perfectly interpret the Black swan role; her hatred toward her mother who has been controlling her. Gradually, Nina begins to love the feeling of playing the Black swan, both in the theatre and reality. At that moment, her desire to be confident, powerful and strong is growing. In her hallucinations, she kills her mother and Lily so that no one will bother her anymore. However, in the final scene of the film, Nina finally awakens from her illusion and realizes that she had really stabbed herself instead. Based on that realization, she doesn’t ask for help or stop the performance after she stabs herself in her hallucination. She continues and consummates her life as the returning White swan and dies on the stage. Nina’s awakening from her hallucination allows her to see that her feelings of confidence and strength were not true and she is essentially the fragile, innocent White swan that dies on the floor of the stage.
Nina’s self-reflection and character realization unfortunately was unable to save her from her tragic death, much like Frank and April’s self-reflection were not able to alter the result of their inevitable end. Nina and the Wheeler’s both aim for “perfect” lives, but their obessesion with perfection leads to their downfall. Nina becomes consumed in the role of the Black Swan, and loses sight of herself, while Frank and April’s wish for a passion filled relationship ironically resulting in the seperation of the couple. All in all, both films exhibit strong ties to the existential theme that life events evoke self- reflection and growth, or in the case of these two films, the failure of the individuals.
The third kind of existential film focuses on an existential belief that one has to confront absurdity in order to transcend it or to deal with it. The absurdity of human existence is the necessary result of one’s attempts to live a life of meaning and purpose in an indifferent, uncaring universe. Life of Pi illustrates the idea of absurdity in a surreal, isolated setting.
The film tells a magical adventure story centering on Pi Patel, the precocious son of a zoo keeper. When Pi's family business fails, they embark on a sea voyage to Canada to begin a new life. Unfortunately, the ship sinks and Pi survives in a lifeboat with a fearsome Bengal tiger. In a struggle to survive, Pi and the tiger forge an unexpected connection that gives him daily motivation to live. Throughout his adventure, he encounters a variety of animals including the tiger and other carnivores on a floating island. When he is rescued and people ask him what happens, his story of sailing and not falling prey to the tiger, is not accepted or believed by others. Pi later offers another horrific, cannibalistic explanation of the events that lead up to his resucue. This harsh story was more realistic and acceptable for his rescuers and investigators. The two stories Pi offer to the investigaters offer a subjective view on the plot of the movie, the audience is forced to contemplate if the animals on the floating island were a part of Pi’s reality, or if they were an hallicination from his isolation induced insanity.
Pi is an existentialist because at all times he adheres to Sartre’s definitive, existentialist proposition: “existence precedes essence”; he puts his life as a priority over all other morals. Pi’s confrontation of death, of bereavement, of the sinking of the cruise, and of his Pacific-isolation as a metaphor for his insanity all mirror theis existentialist theme. Viewing the film with the realistic and canabalistic theme in mind, Pi’s savage side, symbolized by the presence of the tiger, causes him to act without inhibition and morals and devour all the humans travelling with him on his sea voyage. All existentialistic characters view their own absurdity as normal, and live an existence with no logical consequence or reason; the way they deal with this absurdity is what is important here. For Pi, his mind makes up a justified story involving talking Bengal Tigers, blind French men, and a carnivorous island. After being saved, Pi is forced to face the truth, Pi provides two explanations, one colorful while the other dark and cannibalistic. However neither of them can answer the simple questions, why did the boat sink? And where is his family? Therefore, the two explanations Pi provided are equally absurd. Pi confronts his absurdity by finally admitting the harsh and cruel story that occurred on his ocean journey. After facing the reality of the insanity that occurred on the boat, he is relieved of all burdens, and able to live a normal life whilst starting his own family.
What’s more, the fourth kind of existentialist cinema bases on discussions and explorations of the notion of personal freedom. The Shawshank Redemption is a classical existential film that features a series of in-depth discussions about the protagonist’s ultimate pursuit of freedom and independent authority even if it meant going against one’s social morality.
Andy Dufresne, a young and successful banker who is wrongly convicted of the murder of his wife and her lover, is sent into prison. Soon after arriving at the Shawshank institution, Andy approaches Red, a man who can smuggle almost anything into Shawshank from the outside world, and asks him to procure a rock hammer simply because he is interested in rock collecting and carving. Although he never intended for the hammer to serve as his method of escape, Andy discovers a way to dig through the wall of his cell, and the hammer became a tool that lead him to his freedom. Andy also pays Red to smuggle in some polishing cloths and a large poster of pinup Rita Hayworth in order to cover his escape route. Later after discovering Andy’s previous financial background, the warden of the institution asks Andy to launder his illegal income in return for some personal freedom and better treatment. However, when another young prisoner, Tommy, claims that he can testify on Andy’s innocence, the warden kills him so that Andy can no longer leave Shawshank. After hearing the news of this event, Andy was driven to work harder to escape the prison and take revenge on the warden. One day he talks to Red, about how although he didn't kill his wife, his personality drove her away, which led to her infidelity and death. He says if he's ever freed or escapes, he'd like to start a new life in Zihuatanejo, a beach town on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Then, during one stormy night Andy successfully escapes the prison through the hole he digs in the wall with the stone hammer. After he escapes, he steals the warden’s money and cunningly reveals what the warden has done to the public by writing an anonymous letter with proof to news reporters. Andy secretly leaves to Zihuatanejo and is finally able to embrace the freedom he has been longing for.
A prison can be the best metaphor for one’s isolated, lonely condition. However, Andy manages to makes the best of his life in the institution, by showing his unique financial talents to the warden and the guards in order to gain freedom and fair treatment in the dreary institution. Since Andy was given a single cell to stay in, his breakout plan went unnoticed; also, the warden gives Andy the privaledge to run the library in the prison so that Andy can use the books as a psychological escape from the prison. It is ironic that when Andy is innocent, people send him to a prison; but when he actually breaks the law he is rewarded by freedom and the warden’s money. The Shawshank Redemption outlines the existential idea that the pursuit of freedom should be prioritized before all else, even if the mechanisms involved in obtaining freedom are immoral and unjust. Andy exhibits this existential trait by manipualting Rad, the guards, the warden, and other inmates to ultimately obtain his desired freedom. He became consumed with the idea of freedom, which lead him to partake in illegal activities that he would not have otherwise been involved in, like breaking out of Shawshank, and stealing the warden’s money.
The last kind of existential movie discusses one’s attitude towards social morality and the importance of taking responsibility for the consequences of every action. In The Dark Knight, Batman and The Joker are the most obvious existential characters, who create their own code of morality and acts independently of any pre-established laws.
Gotham's new district attorney has been elected. His name is Harvey Dent, and he has a radical new agenda that threatens to take down Gotham's organized crime underworld once and for all with an iron fist. Meanwhile, Batman (Bruce Wayne) has reached his limit in crime fighting, and was been looking for someone to take his place of the guardian of Gotham city; he chooses Dent. With the help of Lieutenant Jim Gordon and District Attorney Harvey Dent, Batman sets out to dismantle the remaining criminal organizations in Gotham. The partnership proves to be effective, but they soon find out their new enemy, a rising criminal mastermind known to the terrified citizens of Gotham as The Joker. The Joker brings out the worst in Dent, and ultimately the worst in the Batman.
To understand how existential theme works out in The Dark Knight, one has to look no further than the relationship between Batman and The Joker. Batman creates his own code of morality that he lives by, which exists outside of the traditional legal system. For instance, when he uses force to kidnap Lau, the Chinese accountant of Gotham criminals from Hong Kong back to Gotham Police Station. Batman plays by his own rules and uses morally unacceptable methods to catch Gotham’s criminals. The Joker also acts independently of laws and rules and he just wants to “watch the world burn”; he is the representation of chaos. The contrast between Batman and The Joker is highly existential; Joker attempts to reveal the dark side of people because he hates living in a world under so many pre-determined rules and embraces his dark nature. He is responsible for bombing the hospital, and convincing the bright knight of Gotham, Harvey Dent, to avenge his girlfriend Rachael’s death, eventually “[bringing] him down” to the criminal’s level. As a series of events lead Batman and Dent to their doom, Batman survives and realizes his purpose. He is “not the hero [the citizens] want, but the hero [they] need”.
The Life of Pi, Shawshank Redemption, and The Dark Knight all outline the fine line between what is right and wrong. In The Life of Pi, Pi channels his savage nature, while being stranded in the ocean. His instinct to survive surpasses his ethical morals, thus resulting in his canabalistic actions told from his story at the end of the film. The dark and gruesome tale is the most true respresentation of the events that occurred on the boat. This savage and dark side of Pi is exactly the side that The Joker in The Dark Knight tries to bring forward. As The Joker chats with Batman in interrogration room, he says “when the ships are down, these civilized people, [they will] eat each other”. Pi literally eats his fellow ship mates, when his “ship is down”. Additionally, in Shawshank Redeption, Andy feels that the justice system has let him down, as he is wrongfully convicted of killing his wife and her lover. Andy takes matters into his own hands, and breaks the law in order to gain freedom, much like Batman in The Dark Knight. Both Andy and Batman are displeased with the justice system, and live by their own code of morality. All three films juxtapose morally acceptable ideas with morally morbid behaviours. Pi, Andy, and Batman all exhibit a “dark” side in their seemingly sane and ethical personalities.
The central ideas of existentialism in films have been discussed and expanded at large. Basic existential themes including search for meaning of life, honesty with one’s self, the absurd nature of universe, the pursuit of personal freedom as well as personal choices of whether or not to follow the pre-determined social morality. These five fundamentals of existentialism naturally work together and establish the framework of modern existential cinema and are pronouced in the five films. Revolutionary road, Black Swan, Life of Pi, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Dark Knight clearify the existential theme by showcasing a series of adversity that the characters must oversome in order to find themselves.