(Original post can be found at Bloody-Disgusting.com. This editorial contains spoilers for Tigers Are Not Afraid, It Chapter Two, The Nightingale, and The House That Jack Built.)
Issa Lopez’s poignant and revelatory Tigers Are Not Afraid has made such an impact on the horror genre because it differs from so many others films that are given to us: its narrative is told through perspectives that we never see enough of in mainstream cinema; its fantastical elements often add to the film’s sense of peril, as opposed to solely bringing the characters comfort; and, most interestingly, it contains a fearlessness to incorporate grim (but necessary) portrayals of child violence into its storytelling.
Horror fans can generally stomach a lot— we’ve witnessed so much inhumanity that we’ve nearly become jaded. However, blatant depictions of brutality against children are still something that many studios and filmmakers will not go anywhere near, so when filmmakers like Lopez do include this kind of violence within their genre films, it tends to make more of a lingering impact. Fascinatingly, there has been a recent trend of portrayals of child violence within horror and horror-adjacent films lately, with some of these depictions more affecting than others. But what justifies appropriate cinematic representations of violence towards children, and why are we willing to forgive some of these films for it more than others?
In Tigers Are Not Afraid, we follow a group of orphaned children that, within the context of the film, are likened to a pack of animals. Together, they roam the streets, starving and searching for food, trying to avoid the murderous, kidnapping, human trafficking Huascas gang, and armed with merely their world-weariness, a gun, and a beloved stuffed tiger. In various scenes throughout the film, one child is pushed into a wall by an adult twice his size; some are found in cages; a few of the kids are recipients of bullets, which they do not survive. In one of the film’s most jarring moments, the only girl in the group, Estrella, is a victim of both verbal and physical violence, as a gang member threatens to rape her and calls her a “slut,” before ultimately smacking her. And the children in Lopez’s film are not just exposed to physical violence; the emotional trauma of the vicious deaths of their parents, as well as finding videos of their murders, and walking passed dead corpses on the streets takes varying tolls on each of them.
What makes the violence displayed throughout Tigers so profound, even when it can often be difficult to watch, lies in Lopez’s faithfulness to both realism and the human drama at its core. Anyone who finds these scenes unnecessary should tell that to the children and families on the outskirts of society who need their stories to be told, as Lopez immediately reminds us that 160,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug way since 2006 within the film’s opening moments. Lopez begs us to wonder how, as Variety ‘s Peter Debruge perfectly worded it, “a society can allow such callousness: both the urban warfare that claims their missing mothers and fathers and the inhumanity that follows, as these kids are left to make their way without support in the world.” But for every moment of brutality, another showcases these kids glowingly regaining their innocence to balance it out— as they laugh, play games, dance to music playing on their tiny TV set, and stumble upon random koi fish. We won’t remember these characters solely as just victims to despicable crimes; they are more than that. They are still delicate children with fantasies and hopes of which we may never get to see come to fruition, which is the real devastation for us.
Another difficult (but integral) viewing experience is Jennifer Kent’s recently released The Nightingale, a period piece set amongst the harsh backdrop of colonialism, that not only displays horrific depictions of violence against women, but also scenes in which a newborn is killed for crying and a boy of no more than 10 years old getting shot, point blank in the chest. Though some filmgoers were reported to have understandably walked out during their screenings, nothing about Kent’s choice to include child violence feels exploitative. In fact, every moment of barbarity feels like she is trying to teach us something, very similarly to how Lopez wants us to walk away thinking about Tigers and its themes of societal repercussions towards how we treat our youth as well.
Like Lopez, Kent was also committed to accurate depictions of these forms of violence, as she reportedly researched for years before completing her screenplay. Additionally, both directors end their films with some semblance of hope: Lopez allows Estrella to walk away from the rubble, mostly unscathed, into a green, open field filled with possibilities; while Kent allows her protagonist to grieve the loss of her young child through the befriending of a man who assists her on her journey to freedom and self-actualization.
While Andy Muschietti’s new sequel It Chapter Two doesn’t necessarily revolve around violence against children as much as its predecessor It did, there is no shortage of carnage displayed against its youngest characters. Surprisingly, not just one, but twochildren under 10 are explicitly devoured by Pennywise. He lures one little girl into bonding with him over their allegedly mutual bullying, and, while this is somewhat of an empathetic scene, it doesn’t quite pack as much of a lasting punch, as we didn’t get to know the little girl enough prior to her demise. Secondly, the boy who Bill attempts to save also meets his end to Pennywise’s many rows of teeth as well. Both of these child deaths are gory in a sense, even though the camera cuts away in both instances. Perhaps these particular scenarios of child violence are less effective than the previous films mentioned, since the violence is performed by a fantastical entity instead of a flesh-and-blood human, which audiences typically have an easier time processing.
In comparison, in last year’s controversial The House That Jack Built,director Lars von Trier provoked skewed reactions when his serial killer-centered film featured a sequence of a mother and her two young boys get sniper-style hunted by the titular Jack in a way that felt more cold and contrived. One even gets brutally shot in the head, as his mother watches and screams in agony. No less realistic than Tigers or Nightingale, as the monster in this film is just as scary (if not more so) as the ones in those films, but this scene does not necessarily add anything to the plot other than more bodies for Jack to use for his “house” that he eventually constructs. While The House That Jack Built differs from the others because it is told through the perspective of the villain, you could still argue that this scene was von Trier simply pushing buttons for shock value over legitimate merit— chillingly effective, nonetheless, but perhaps child violence for the mere sake of child violence.
A peer of mine made me aware of his different theater experiences for The Nightingale versus It Chapter Two, as he explained that the theater displayed warnings about violence against children for The Nightingale, yet the one that screened It Chapter Two had nothing of the sort. While these films have very different approaches towards their depictions, you have to wonder why both would not share caution to their audiences, for sensitivity sake.
Is it possible that some women-driven films approach their violence towards children more empathetically than those directed by their male counterparts? This is obviously too broad of a generalization to make— but in terms of the recent slew of child violence in horror, the female-led movies, such as Tigers and The Nightingale, seem to be less about entertainment and shock value, compared to the others. Of course, some degree of exploitation within horror films serves a purpose as well, but it never feels nearly as gut-wrenching as depictions that walk us through its violence with heart and depth attached.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is now playing in select theaters and is available to watch on Shudder.