Monday, October 19, 2009

In Defense of 30 Days of Night

I would like to be completely open and honest from the beginning: I don't think 30 Days of Night is a great movie. I'm not setting it on any pedestal of cinema. It doesn't even break my top 25 as far as best-of-the-year lists are concerned. 30 Days of Night is a movie that has, no doubt, been forgotten by the public. Upon its 2007 arrival, it was largely declared a misfire. Its Rotten Tomatoes rating currently sits at a poor 50%, with its Metacritic rating at a infinitesimally more impressive 53%. The film is now relegated to the B-Movie shelf in the horror section of Blockbuster. Why do I rehash its painful history? It's not because I enjoy pouring salt into open wounds (though that is, admittedly, an exciting way to spend a Friday evening). No--belated as it may be, I'd like to stand up to defend this poor, defenseless film: to do my part to turn the tide for it, to elevate its standing in the public opinion. Or at least write about it.

The biggest mistake critics and audiences made was to expect a traditional horror film. Admittedly, the film's marketing (its trailer, particularly) didn't do anything to dissuade this misconception, nor did its subject matter (vampires attacking Alaska) seem to indicate any departure from the norm. Approached as a horror film, I must agree: 30 Days of Night is unsuccessful. It contains a small collection of tense moments, but it had nothing that continued the time-honored horror tradition of crawling under your skin and dying there. If we're not watching a horror film, you ask, what could we possibly be watching? For God's sake, Josh Hartnett just beheaded a little girl? Surely this isn't Little Miss Sunshine! Indeed. Frequent readers will remember my undying admiration for Hard Candy, the film David Slade made prior to 30 Days of Night. Both films share a similarity: they use extreme, nay, ridiculous situations and heightened violence to examine contemporary societal roles.
Allow me to translate: 30 Days of Night is not a horror film. It's a contemplation of men's role in today's nuclear family.
The film opens in Barrow, Alaska, as the majority of the populace flees the titular period of perpetual darkness. Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), the town sheriff, is quickly established as the last vestige of authority in the growing dark. If something goes wrong, it's Eben's job to fix it. When the vampires attack, as vampires are wont to do, the town's population rapidly shrinks into those under Eben's care: the mother figure: his ex-wife. An adolescent. An infirm old man. The middle-aged loner that no one talks to any more. A few more scared citizens. Eben becomes the father of his new bizarre family, thrust into a position of leadership, along with his ex-wife. The majority of the film then chronicles Eben's attempts to bring home the bacon, so to speak. We see his struggles to provide food, shelter, safety, and peace of mind.
The movie's true masterstroke? The group of vampires have a patriarch as well, played by Danny Huston. David Slade, the director, throws Eben's Barrow family against the vampire's own clan, watching as each try to provide the necessities that every family needs. The film is audacious enough to ask what separates Eben from the vampire. Indeed, the major difference seems to be that the vampire is willing to go to any length to protect his family, while Eben can become sidetracked. Watch the film closely: Notice that, at first, Eben attempts to extend protection to the people outside his family unit (ie the people around town who didn't make it to his safe-zone), and, as a result, people are killed. Notice how squeamish he is with death at first. He tries to hold on to a sense of decency and pacifism, but it only leads to trouble. The people are picked off like flies.
The turning point comes when his family unit is attacked by a little girl who has been turned into a vampire. A little girl: the picture of innocence's embodiment on Earth. She threatens his group, and he chops off her head with a blunt ax. From this point, Eben becomes more ruthless, and the vampire leader's family takes heavier losses. Soon, Eben is even willing to push one of his own family members into a gigantic meat-grinder to protect the other members of the family unit.
At this point, 30 Days of Night provides its thesis statement (Spoiler Warning.). Two members of the Barrow family unit, Eben's ex-wife and a little girl, seem doomed. All hope is lost. To save them, Eben infects himself with the vampire blood, turns into a monster himself, and fights them off. When they're safe, he waits for the rising sun, and incinerates himself. (You can come back now, I suppose.)
The film's thesis, I believe, is as follows: in today's world, a man must reject common ideas of morality and decency to adequately protect his family. The further he can separate himself from morality, the safer his family becomes. However, to do this, he runs the risk of becoming the very danger against which he defends. If this occurs, his family may be safe, but he'll never be able to be with them. The question the film poses is whether or not this transition is necessary: whether a father can be ruthless without losing his family. A very similar question is offered in Apocalypse Now. While it seems like cinephile heresy to compare the two films, they do tackle similar thematic issues.

Have you seen this film? If so, am I reading too much into it? Is it just a bad film? If you agree with my interpretation, do you think that a man must sacrifice his essence to successfully protect that which he loves? Hell, even if you haven't seen the film, how do you respond to the last question?

No comments:

Post a Comment