On the face of it, the gritty comic-book blockbuster “Joker,” the hit female-led crime drama “Hustlers,” the darkly comic Korean-language thriller “Parasite” and the upcoming Agatha Christie-style whodunit “Knives Out” would appear to have little in common beyond the fact that they’re all, well, movies.
Scratch beneath the surface of genre, though, and you’ll find that these films share a common preoccupation. In different ways, each tackles issues of economic disparity, exploring the gulf between society’s haves and have-nots that has widened dramatically since the 2008 financial crisis. While steering clear of overt partisan politics, their depiction of individuals, families and entire societies buffeted and warped by the impacts of wealth inequality wouldn’t be out of place in a stump speech on the 2020 presidential campaign trail.
Generally speaking, of course, Hollywood entertainment is designed to provide audiences with a temporary vacation from the real world with its endless parade of gloomy headlines. But as the gap between the rich and poor has grown ever wider — hitting a record in the U.S. in 2018, according to data released last month by the Census Bureau — it should come as no surprise to see filmmakers taking it on.
“Films always respond to the world that they are born out of,” said writer-director Rian Johnson, whose “Knives Out,” in theaters Nov. 27, is a murder mystery centered on a dysfunctional moneyed family and their decidedly less-well-off staff. “It’s unavoidable right now that we are in a world dealing with increased income disparity and you can feel it. At the same time, the tub of boiling water of the public discourse has been cranked up to 11. It’s no longer something that we all are in the privileged state of being able to dip in and out of. It’s very much the ocean that we’re all swimming in.”
And audiences seem to be responding. Released in March, Jordan Peele’s horror film “Us,” a pointed commentary on class division in which a family is terrorized by their doppelgängers, earned $255 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing non-franchise film of the year thus far. Meanwhile, on the small screen, arguably the buzziest current show, HBO’s “Succession,” skewers the cutthroat machinations of an ultra-affluent clan headed by a Rupert Murdoch-like media baron.
Actress Park So Dam on stage during The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences official Academy screening of "Parasite" at the MoMA, Celeste Bartos Theater on October 7, 2019 in New York City. (Getty)
In director Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” which opens Friday, an impoverished family schemes its way into the employment of a rich one with increasingly dark and surprising consequences. The genre-scrambling film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has Oscar ambitions beyond the foreign-language category, and Bong believes it will resonate with audiences well outside his native South Korea, where it has already proven a box office smash.
“The topic of the gap between rich and poor lends itself to being so universal,” Bong told The Times recently at the Telluride Film Festival, where the film earned a rapturous reception. “Every country has its own structures and conflicts regarding class, but when you really delve deep into the cave of capitalism and explore the infinite darkness of it, you find a similar sort of mechanism flows throughout. We’re all obsessed with class. Whenever we pass by people, whether they’re rich or poor, even if we only see them for three seconds, we see what kind of clothes they’re wearing, what watch they have, what phone they’re using, what car they’re getting out of.”
In “Joker,” which broke box-office records this past weekend on a wave of controversy, the gap between the haves and have-nots becomes the breeding ground for chaos and violence, as the alienated, disturbed Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is driven to horrific acts of murder by an uncaring society. Though the film has the outward trappings of a comic-book film and is set in the fictitious city of Gotham circa the late ’70s-early ’80s, its depiction of a world bitterly divided between a marginalized underclass, personified by Fleck, and a callous elite, embodied by billionaire Thomas Wayne, felt deeply topical to director Todd Phillips.
“Movies are often a reflection of where we are,” said Phillips, who co-wrote the film with Scott Silver. “We could say this movie was set in 1979 or 1981 but we wrote it in 2016 and 2017, so that stuff does come through.”
A female-centric answer to films like “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Goodfellas,” “Hustlers” views the issue of income inequality through the lens of gender, following a group of strippers who, struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the financial crisis, begin drugging Wall Street types who visit their club and running up their credit cards. Released last month, the film has grossed in excess of $100 million globally, roughly five times its budget, striking a particular chord with female audiences at a time when women in America earn on average 80 cents for every dollar earned by men.
“Stories like this had been told with men at the center but never with women,” said “Hustlers” producer Jessica Elbaum. “It spoke to themes of money, power, greed, control, the American dream. But it really started with what men and women are valued for and how different that is, just exploring that and breaking it down to the simplest terms. Women are valued for their bodies and men are valued for their wallets.”
Though the film, directed by Lorene Scafaria and based on a true story, aims to avoid preachiness, “Hustlers” producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas said its implicit message is nevertheless clear.
“The last line of the movie is, ‘The whole country is a strip club — some people are throwing the money and some people are doing the dance,’” Goldsmith-Thomas said. “It’s hard not to see it through the prism of the craziness of the reality we’re living in.”
With “Knives Out,” Johnson set out to make an homage to the whodunits he had loved growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, including films like “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Death on the Nile,” “Murder by Death” and “Clue.” But while the film plays as a fun, twisty romp through an old-fashioned genre, he also wanted to invest it with timely themes about the ways in which money and greed can warp people’s values.
“This isn’t a message movie, but whodunits always have a strong moral point of view,” he said. “Growing up reading Agatha Christie’s books, that’s something I got straight from her. She’s known for building these elaborate mousetraps, but there’s usually a moral center of the universe in her books.”
That moral dimension was also on Bong’s mind when he was conceiving “Parasite.” Rather than create a piece of agitprop about the evils of concentrated wealth, he aimed to deliver something more nuanced, examining the human foibles that can be found at both extremes of the income spectrum.
“The story is basically about infiltration,” he said. “You have the poor family who’s trying to feed off the rich family’s money and you have the rich family exploiting their labor. So they’re both parasites in a sense. There aren’t any complete villains or complete saints in this film. I think this gray zone more resembles the people we see in our daily lives.
“The poor family are not perfect people, but they’re also not completely bad people. The rich family is the same — you see the disgusting sides to them, but you never really hate them. So who do we feel anger toward? That’s the question I wanted to ask.”