It may be our, the audience’s, fault for being too fickle and stingy with our own money but it seems like some writers (or directors or producers) are hesitant to make any kind of claim about their own work and never explicitly say who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. I can think of three of the most grievous (in my mind) offenders when it comes to laying a stake in the ground and committing to a point of view:
The Wicker Man (1973)
I might be coming to this with a bias but I don’t know who I’m supposed to be rooting for here. On the one hand, Sergeant Howie is ignorant, belligerent, and unsympathetic until the very end. On the other hand, they kill ’em.
In The Illiad there are sympathetic characters on both sides, sure, but Homer was Greek, speaking to Greeks. He was rooting for (wait for it) the Greeks. The movie makes no such distinction. There are good Greeks and good Trojans. There are even pretty people on both sides, so no shortcuts there. There are bad characters sure (Agamemnon), but they’re fighting side by side with the good characters (Brad Pitt). So even if the bad guys lose, some of our good guys lose too. That can’t happen. But we also can’t allow Orlando Bloom and the Trojans to perish. Not when he’s got Galadriel’s bow. (What?) So for all battles the biggest emotion is “…Go …Rah? … Don’t kill em too hard!” For the love of god(s) (which are not present at all for some reason) don’t let anyone die ugly!
Ides of March
(And here be mild spoilers)
Ryan Gosling, our brilliant hero, in trouble for something that’s not even a big deal (seriously, I don’t understand why a meeting is that important, he didn’t even SAY anything), wronged out of proportion to the act. George Clooney, democratic candidate fantasy from heaven (handsome, pro choice, pro gay rights, anti war, sex scandal that isn’t really that bad, c’mon). On the flip side, Ryan Gosling jumps ship immediately and George Clooney sells out his ideals. A confrontation at the end where both characters are in the wrong and the right. And a speech in the beginning where a character literally says “nothing politicians do matters.” Why would you tell us this?! You have stated, at the beginning of your movie, that anything that follows is completely inconsequential.
I’m not saying that a movie has to tell us what to think. But the movie has to know what IT thinks to leave us free to agree or disagree. In these examples, the movie tries to split the difference, never making the good guys too good or the bad guys too bad just in case someone gets offended (even though we love a really bad bad guy). All that makes is a bunch of bland characters that no one cares for one way or the other.
Look at The Prestige. Two (three?) flawed characters but flawed in different ways, at different times. The sympathy shifts midway through and makes the audience reset their assumptions but guides them through the whole way, though always one step ahead.
So, what other movies try to play both sides and wind up canceling each other out?