#2. Prisoners: Torturing People Is Hard, But You've Got to See It Through
One Academy Award nomination, $122 million box office
Prisoners is the Academy Award-nominated drama starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as a pair of gritty, shouting males drawn together by a horrific crime committed in an idyllic small town full of serial killers where it always rains.
Jackman is an intense, tortured father whose kid gets kidnapped under mysterious circumstances, and Gyllenhaal is the intense, tortured cop in charge of finding the perpetrator, who (spoiler alert) turns out to be an intense, tortured woman. The tension builds as these two intense actors tensely race the clock to find the kidnapped girl ... before it's too late. So far, so good.
"You should keep some extra underwear handy. We have three acts' worth of intense poop-faces to make."
But Jackman's character quickly decides he knows who kidnapped his kid: a local pervy dude who drives an RV and who was in the exact spot at the exact time the kid disappeared. The guy even taunts Jackman with hints about his daughter to eliminate all doubt. The police let the perv go, however, so Jackman takes the law into his own hands and imprisons the guy, brutally torturing him and demanding to know where his daughter is. Jackman spends the rest of the film's runtime devising more and more horrific and imaginative torments for the perv, eventually imprisoning the man inside a makeshift sensory deprivation chamber that alternately hits him with random scalding and freezing blasts of water. But over time we see that Jackman seems to be suffering more than his captive -- trying to torture answers out of this man leaves deep scars on Jackman's soul, causing him to have a mental breakdown and relapse into alcoholism.
Jackman called upon memories of Russell Crowe's singing to help him sell this.
At that point you figure "OK, that's what this movie is about -- how torture is wrong, regardless of the circumstances, and corrodes the souls of everyone involved. So it's really some kind of political statement about torturing terror suspects or something, right? Give the crew some little golden movie trophies, damn it!"
But here's the thing: At the end, it turns out that Jackman was right. The captive perv absolutely knew where the little girl was: at his goddamned house (the kidnapper was his mother*). After days of torture, the guy finally breaks and gives Jackman the clue that leads him to his child. So the moral of the movie is literally "Yes, torture is horrible and ruins lives and rends the soul of the torturer, but if you want results, you just need to get over it, pussy."
"More Wolverine, less Waaaverine."
Throughout the movie, we see everyone beg Jackman to stop -- his wife, his son, his neighbors who threaten to turn him in to the cops, even his own conscience gets the better of him several times. The ending makes it clear, however, that if he had listened to any of them, his daughter would have died a horrible death. Because he ignored those pleas and his own conscience -- and only because of that -- his daughter lived. It's like the two leads do such a great job of acting out the scenes that it doesn't register that what they're doing and saying is fucking insane.
*To clarify, part of the twist is that we find out the woman is not actually the pervy guy's mother. She was part of a husband and wife team who spent 26 years abducting children and killing them in their underground torture chamber (because they're waging war against God), and the pervy guy is one of the children they abducted years earlier, which no one noticed even though they live just blocks away from where they abducted him. Then the husband of the husband/wife child-murder cult goes to confess his sins to a priest, who by blind coincidence turns out to also be a psychopath with his own underground torture chamber, and he takes the husband into it and tortures him to death, leaving the wife to commit the crimes on her own. Also, another man in town is found stealing children's clothing, soaking them in blood, and turning them into nests for his rattlesnakes. Goddamn, I'm thinking these people should consider moving.
"Why did we ever think Infanticide, Pennsylvania, would be a good place to start a family?"
#1. The Incredibles: Technology Is Bad Because It Helps the Weak
Won two Academy Awards, had two more nominations, $631 million box office
Superhero movies always have kind of a weird message -- they seem to come down to "Wouldn't it be great if some godlike being would come save us from the bad guys so we could fire the shitty public servants doing that job now?" But it's not like they rub it in our faces -- on the surface, they're still just about the mindless fun of watching a superhuman punch a flamboyant villain through a wall. The Incredibles, however, is all about its message and bashes you over the head with it in nearly every scene. And that message is: "The strong are the strong, the weak are the weak, and evil occurs when you try to make the weak strong."
The film opens with a world full of superheroes with natural magical abilities that they were born with and did not learn or earn. In the opening sequence, the most powerful of these heroes, Mr. Incredible, runs into a kid who wasn't born with any physical superhuman abilities, but who was born with a genius for inventing things. He makes gadgets for himself that allow him to fly and do other superhero shit. Mr. Incredible dismisses the kid, since his abilities aren't "real" -- they're merely based on intelligence and hard work. And we the audience are meant to agree with him. That young inventor becomes the villain. We're told to hate him for inventing things to make himself stronger, and to applaud when the naturally gifted villains humiliate him, re-establishing the proper order of things.
"I'm sorry, but Batman and Iron Man are worthless piles of shit. Genius billionaire playboy? Is that the horrible life you want?"
They even give the inventor the name Syndrome, as if he's supposed to represent the sickness currently plaguing society (and before you tell me I'm reading too much into the names, a later villain is dubbed the Underminer -- they're not exactly subtle about it). The kid demonstrates his evil by making billions off his inventions, building an island, and creating more incredible technologies that will give him godlike powers. He starts eliminating the remaining superheroes of the world, because he has an evil scheme involving giving his technology to the regular folk who weren't born with godlike powers. His big supervillain monologue literally concludes with:
"I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can have powers. Everyone can be super! And when everyone is super ..." (evil laugh) "... no one will be."
"And wait until I cure cancer and famine!"
"YOU TWISTED SON OF A BITCH!"
Yes, his evil apocalyptic vision is what the rest of us call utopia: The disabled will walk, the weak will be made strong, everyone will fly. And the film wants us to root against that, because that would be unfair to all of the people born with extraordinary abilities right now. If everyone can have what the genetically gifted and powerful have, well, shit, we might as well just burn the whole thing to the ground.
And thus we spend the movie rooting for the hero and his family to stop Syndrome, each of them using the superhuman physical abilities they were born with due to genetics. Lots of critics pointed out that the movie contains several references to Ayn Rand's philosophy ("They're constantly finding ways to celebrate mediocrity!" laments Mr. Incredible, almost staring directly into the camera to say it to the audience), but that's not really fair -- Rand would never have advocated against innovation because it might be used by genetic inferiors. Shit, I don't even think the Nazis were against that.
No one prefers a world without rocket boots. No one.
The audience roots for Mr. Incredible because deep down we think we're one of the elite good people being surrounded and undermined by the leeches and incompetents. And of course every person sitting around us in the theater thinks the same. It'd actually be a pretty cool moral if, at the end, we all found out otherwise. But no, the genius inventor gets sucked into a jet engine and torn to pieces, and everyone applauds. A valuable lesson was learned by all!
Note: The original version of this article began with 12 Years a Slave as the first entry, referring to the acclaimed epic as "gratuitous, exploitative trash with poor production values and a bizarre, toxic moral about interracial sexuality." I have since learned that I had inadvertently rented the porn parody 12 Inches a Slave. The entry has been removed.
David Wong is the executive editor of Cracked.com and a New York Times best-selling author. His most recent horror novel is This Book Is Full of Spiders, the paperback of which contains a 50-page preview of his next book, titled Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits.
Related Reading: Hollywood is ALL ABOUT utterly insane morals in children's movies, as this Cracked video will show. If you'd rather stick to the Wong Wisdom Train, read his expose of the ugly lessons hiding in superhero movies. And if you like that, check out these flawed life lessons taught accidentally by movies.