If it’s true that art reflects current culture and society, then film represents a powerful microscope that allows us to really dig in deep and expose all the small, occasionally icky details. In years of film, themes rise to the top as the priorities of certain demographics get highlighted. 2019 was no exception to this rule, and it appears that one strong theme of the year was shining a harsh light on class warfare and wealth inequity.
What makes 2019 and its focus on class warfare particularly interesting is that the theme's prevalence was not limited to certain circles. Criticisms of the wealthy were flourishing at many levels of cinema, indicating a discussion that is resonating with different kinds of audiences.
To talk about class warfare in 2019 film is to look at the sliding scale of three of the year’s best films – Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Knives Out (the Rian Johnson whodunnit), and the less known but very popular among its fans Ready or Not, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. Three films that represent the full spectrum of cinema from the festival darling, to a typical mainstream Hollywood entry, to the more “low brow” execution of a horror-comedy.
Parasite, Knives Out, and Ready or Not could not be more different in structure and in the audiences they attract, but what they have in common is much more important. Each film savagely criticizes wealth inequity and uses the upper class as an identifiable boogeyman to blame for not just socioeconomic crimes, but criticism of politics and environmental disaster. In 2019, the millionaire is the monster du jour.
Ready or Not is pretty simple. A gory good time built on the straightforward elegance of a Satanic cult, and not all that deep, Ready or Not isn’t pretentious and it’s not asking much of its audience. A big part of that is the blinking sign over most of the film that reads “Wealth Class = BAD.” The film focuses on a bunch of rich people that happily gained wealth by selling their souls to the devil and pay the blood of the innocent to keep it. Their staff is slaughtered to humorous effect and all the love and goodwill in the world can’t overpower their desire for power and wealth. Ready or Not most explicitly shows the common thread each of these films feature: with obscene wealth comes gross undervaluing of others and the notion that the worthiness of human life can be measured in dollars and cents.
Upon first viewing of Knives Out, it appears to be the most subtle of 2019 films in terms of class critique. Not surprising for a big budget, star-studded Hollywood film. However, Knives Out calls out the wealth gap within a political context. For all of the fun and mystery of the film, Knives Out offers a subtle commentary on immigration issues, critique of conservative politics (and its figures), and wags a finger at the phenomenon of intergenerational wealth.
Even though the world of Knives Out is built on larger than life personalities, the film overall offers the most realistic take on what wealth inequity and class related aggression actually looks like in America. The millionaire monsters of Knives Out are perhaps not as on the nose, but they are individuals warped by the system and are ultimately driven by that entitlement and the expectation that they will come out on top.
Finally Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. The name gives it away. Parasite acts like a terrarium for the wealth problem, a microcosm that can be meticulously studied. It scrutinizes concepts like trickle-down economics and beautifully illustrates environmental catastrophe with the hard truth that it is the poor that will be the most impacted. Devastation will occur long before those at the top of the figurative hill even know what is going on.
Parasite sneers at defenses of class inequality and is perhaps the most scathing of all the 2019 films to tackle this subject matter. The divide is more severe, the “otherness” of the classes shown at its ugliest, and there is a rage behind it that reached out and grabbed audiences by the throat. The film’s characters must grapple with the impulse to idolize and aspire to the lifestyles of the wealthy, but even the most earnest boot-licking can be met with cruelty. The wealthy of Parasite are aloof and non-discriminating gods.
What’s especially interesting about Parasite is that, as a foreign film that gained traction on the festival circuit, it’s the sort of film experience usually only reserved for an elite crowd. Parasite is a prestige piece, but that doesn’t stop the film from attacking the very demographic it points toward.
Blame the age of information. Blame a generation that prioritizes social justice. Blame that the world appears to be going to Hell in a handbasket and we’re all trying to get it back on track before it’s too late. As a society, we’re becoming more critical of these old institutions of power. The wealth gap and the institutions corrupted by its reach impact everyone and we’re hyperaware of it. Whether your relationship with this fact is to scream or to turn a grimace into a smile, 2019 in film appears to document a critical point in the timeline. What a strangely unifying and equally stress-inducing idea.