Frozen River (2008) – Liberal Guilt and Button Pushing

I remember going to see Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) in the cinema.  I remember the experience not because I have any particular affection for the film but because there were two of us in the cinema and the other guy was a Goth who would groan with outrage every time the little girl appeared on screen.  I can empathise with the reflex.  When I went to see Neill Blomkamp’s horrific District 9 (2009) I rolled my eyes and tutted when, after having spent half an hour making the Prawns look hostile and Other, the film wheels out a sympathetic Prawn.  We know that he’s sympathetic because he has a child to look after.  What annoyed me during the screening of District 9 is what annoyed the person I shared a cinema with back in 1994.  In both cases, the director has decided to influence audience sympathies not through the careful use of characterisation or narrative structure, but through a direct appeal to certain emotional proclivities the audience brought with them into the cinema.  Namely a desire to not see children needlessly harmed.  To me, these kinds of appeals invariably feel lead-footed and lumpen.  At best, they strike me as manipulative and rub me the wrong way.  Other times they backfire and force my sympathies in the wrong direction out of spite (as with Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan, which becomes ten times more fun once you start rooting for the creepy murderous child). But are these attempts at appealing to audience sentiment invariably a bad thing?  Courtney Hunt’s thriller Frozen River suggests that they need not be.

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