I still haven’t seen Parasite, which I gather touches on similar topics, but several of my favorite movies of the year so far have had one unshakable central theme in common: Rich people are bad, actually.
It’s not a terribly different theme from many of the movies that I grew up on. Flicks like They Live and RoboCop were certainly not pro-wealth, but they tended to be more broadly focused on the social condition. They were satires, as willing to indict us for our complicity in society as they were those who used that complicity to prey on us.
These films more closely resemble something like Brian Yuzna’s Society, though none of them have quite such a … gooey central thesis.
This year’s crop of movies have seemed more pointed, their focus sharper. These are not films that are broadly critical of capitalism or American society – though they are sometimes that, too – these are films that take specific aim at the wealthy themselves.
Which makes sense. While the ’80s were the “me generation,” the age of Reaganomics and the kinds of broad social policies that have led us to the place where we are now, this is the age of the 1%. The payoff of those decades of greed and corporate malfeasance, which have seen more and more of the world’s wealth concentrated among a smaller and smaller segment of the population.
The anti-capitalist propaganda of the past warned of the dangers of greed and consumerism. This year’s crop of films are all about sharpening the blades on the guillotines.
In Ready or Not and Satanic Panic, perhaps the least nuanced of the bunch, the rich are different from you and me – they’re literally Satanists. While Ready or Not takes aim at inherited wealth in a way that will be echoed in Knives Out, Satanic Panic seems more interested in the nouveau riche, couching its Satanic litanies in corporate buzzwords and the language of the self help guru or the Instagram influencer.
Both have a similar punchline, though: the rich are not wealthy because they earned it, they’re wealthy because they made a (literal) deal with the devil, and they’re willing to do anything to anyone else in order to keep their wealth and station.
The many-layered metaphor at the heart of Jordan Peele’s Us takes different aim at the distinctions between haves and have-nots, but there’s no doubt that among the many thematic strata in that film is one about how prosperity is built (literally, once again) on the backs of those who do not have it – and about the naked self-interest necessary to abandon someone to that fate when you could lift them up, instead.
Even Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark contains a wealthy family that is poisoning the town’s water supply for profit – shades of Flint, Michigan, perhaps – and letting their own daughter become the scapegoat. Not to mention broader anti-war themes and the best use of nostalgia to come out of this current wave of “nostalgia porn” that we’re seeing.
The sharpest of these many pointy implements, however, may be Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, a film that is wearing the clothes of a cozy whodunit over the body of a vicious skewering of wealth, privilege, and, as I said in my review, the fragility and hypocrisy of rich, white neoliberal allyship.
In common, when you scrape away the genre trappings from all these films, is one shared message. We say a lot that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. These films seem to argue that there is also no ethical wealth without equality.