Newtown may open a debate about killing in entertainment. But the best works of entertainment are already having that debate.
The tragedy that unfolded in Newtown last week likely can't be relegated to having a singular cause, and if it can, that cause certainly isn't a work of entertainment. Still, when a crime like this happens, people, quite understandably, start to question the culture it happened in. "America leads the world in massacres in life, and in film too," wrote Nick Thompson at The New Yorker this past weekend. "...It's time to talk about guns; but it's also time to talk about a lot more." Here at The Atlantic on Monday, Laura McKenna wrote that the shootings made her reconsider giving Halo 4, a shoot-'em-up video game, to her son for Christmas.
These pieces have been thoughtful and measured in their consideration of violence in art; we're a long ways away from the days when Marilyn Manson and Dungeons & Dragons were breathlessly blamed for making otherwise good people do unspeakable things. But even so, calls to open a conversation about mayhem in entertainment sometimes miss the crucial fact that that conversation is already taking place—within the entertainments themselves. Looking back at this past year in film, some very good, very violent films stand out as examples of how fiction provides a safe space to examine violence and mankind's inability to move past it.
We'll begin with Looper. The time-travel action flick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Joe, a hitman from the future who learns the hard way about violence's long shadow. His job is to kill strangers—blindfolded men who are sent back from the future—but one day, he is tasked with whacking his future self. That's how the organized crime outfit that employs him erases evidence of its misdeeds, and writer/director Rian Johnson uses this set-up to explore the cyclical nature of violence.