The question came up a few weeks ago, when I was speaking to a high-school class. A student asked if movie critics ever walk out of movies...
The question came up a few weeks ago, when I was speaking to a high-school class. A student asked if movie critics ever walk out of movies. I told her that I never had — movies can change course midstream, and it’s my job to give each one a fair shake by watching the whole thing.
And then, just days later, I walked out of a movie.
That movie was “Wolf Creek,” and this is not a review of it — it’s not fair or appropriate to give an assessment and a rating when I only saw its first two-thirds. But what I saw caused me to think about where I draw the line, and at what point a movie becomes punishment.
In Greg McLean’s film, loosely based on true events, three unfortunate young people on holiday in rural Australia accept help from the wrong person: a sadistic serial killer. Little happens in its first half, while the second half is geared toward the most hardcore of horror fans. The three travelers are tortured, the women sexually. One, bleeding and helpless, screams as she is threatened with repeated rape; the killer laughs as he toys with his victims, who have seemingly no hope of escape.
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McLean toys with his audience the same way, allowing such scenes to go on and on like a nightmare from which you don’t wake up. What I saw was sadistic, punishing filmmaking: violence as thrill ride, presented without artful distance or point of view.
As I sat in the theater, barely able to look at the screen, I thought of how someone’s real death inspired this “entertainment” — opening in theaters, ironically, on a holiday that traditionally reflects joy and goodwill. And I realized that, unlike the characters, I did have a means of escape. To stay, I would have had to become numb: to look away, to remind myself repeatedly that this wasn’t real, to remove myself from the experience entirely. And that’s not how I ever want to approach a movie.
Sometimes people ask me if critics get hardened to movies — if we never laugh, cry, or gasp in horror; if the images that we see are simply passing before our eyes, to be noted rather than experienced. I can only speak for myself, but the answer is no. What I see in a dark theater often stays with me long afterward, for good or ill. “Wolf Creek” sickened me, to the point that I couldn’t be in the same room with it any more.
Perhaps that means McLean’s film did exactly what it was intended to. So be it — there’s room, in the world of cinema, for “Wolf Creek” and its bloodstained ilk. Just because the film isn’t to my taste doesn’t mean it won’t find an audience, or that it shouldn’t exist.
Having walked out once, I’ve no intention of making a practice of it. But I’m not sorry I made an early exit from “Wolf Creek.” I only wish I’d done it sooner, so the sound of that screaming wouldn’t still be echoing in my head.