Kim Nguyens War Witch played at the Music Box in March.
  • Kim Nguyen’s War Witch played at the Music Box in March.

“Good is not real, but evil exists!” shouts the protagonist of Alexander Sokurov’s Faust (which recently played at the Music Box), but that line could have been uttered in quite a few other movies this year. The Act of Killing, Bastards, Heli, The Missing Picture, Narco Cultura, Pain & Gain, A Touch of Sin, 12 Years a Slave, and War Witch all center on acts of dehumanizing violence—evil, if you believe there’s such a thing. These movies are concerned not only with atrocities, but with the amoral mindset that allows people to carry them out. (This is also true of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, even though it doesn’t contain any murders.) They vary in the explicitness of their violence, but they seem unified in the mission to confront these subjects head-on. It was a more draining year than usual at the movies—I wonder how that affected concession sales.

Most of the movies I listed above inspired charges of sensationalism and defeatism, which is understandable: moving images have always played on viewers’ desire and fascination, and to represent anything through moving images is to risk making them seem alluring (in fact, this is one of the things that Act of Killing is about). It only clouds the issue that every movie, regardless of its makers’ intentions, generates a certain amount of hype through advertising, reporting, and word-of-mouth—and the Internet age is chockablock with all three. Looking at them generously, this recent crop of nauseating movies could be described as a rebuke to all that. These things actually happen, they proclaim. They’re not headlines or ideas.

I suppose that isn’t news to the victims of such atrocities, and it’s worth noting that most of these movies focus on the perpetrators of the acts under consideration. It’s also worth noting that they’re complicated (some would say compromised) in their indictments of amoral characters by presenting them as products of their social environments. But if one of the reasons why movies exist is to heighten our sensitivity to what we see and hear, then all of these movies could be defended as aspiring to make the rest of us more sensitive to the brutality of the world.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.