Mean-spirited, nihilistic, spiritually bankrupt.
And more tension-filled and nail-bitey than any film I know of. That's Wages of Fear.
Watching Yves Montand's Mario transform, from hopeless lout to shameless toady to smug hero, is to watch the human spirit crush itself out of existence. Sure, there's all the scary stuff, but is Mario's fate the only one available to humanity? Faced with scary stuff, do we have to turn into savages?
You can say, "Yeah but look at everyone back in the town. They're partying, they're happy together, even that schmuck Smerloff is grinning and cheerful."
But I say, "Sure, but they're ignorant. They don't understand what's happened, and they have no idea what their former comrade has gone through, the things he has done in order to succeed."
But here's the thing: the ending. Now, I don't want to give too much away, but the ending is kind of a cheap shot. I mean, everything important has already happened to this character, right? He's already given up everything, so what's up with this goofy ending sequence?
Without that sequence, there's still hope in the film. Without that last sequence, there's still the notion that survival, whatever the cost, is worth something in and of itself. But Clouzot seems to want to strangle even that, to take us back to those tied-up bugs from the beginning (The Wild Bunch, anyone?) and hammer home the point that nobody has any power over their destiny, that survival only means delaying the inevitable, and that human selfishness, bravado and short-sightedness will win out over any more 'refined' sensibilities.
But I think Clouzot over-reaches himself here; he's so eager to make his point, that we're all doomed and all we can do is grin like idiots into the maw of death, that he lets movie-land melodrama eat away at the power of his story.
"Ah," but you say, "but the whole POINT is the arbitrariness of life and death and how there's no telling when the blow will fall."
"Yes," I smile sadly, "but we KNOW this story isn't arbitrary. Stories are NEVER arbitrary, they are the result of conscious decisions on the part of the storyteller. So we know that this choice, this ending, is the result of a deliberate decision by Clouzot, and not some random act of a disinterested Fate. And knowing that, we cannot give the ending the weight Clouzot would no doubt like us to give, since it is clear he could have just as easily chosen another ending. Unlike the rest of the film, there is nothing inevitable about this ending, about this fate. It is nothing more than the hand of Clouzot attempting to draw a picture for us, saying, "See? See? Witness the arbitrary! Comprehend the incomprehensible!"
But it is all too comprehensible, and that is where the film, for all the power of the first hour and forty minutes, becomes a parody of itself. Had we ended amidst the flames and chaos and collapse, this story would have allowed us to interpret what we saw in our own minds, but this closing sequence tries to EXPLAIN to us what the story is REALLY about, to dictate to us how we are meant to interpret what has gone before.
In another sense, the story is already over; what do we care what happens? Perhaps this is why the arbitrary choices throughout the story don't offend -- they are part of the story. This final choice, in contrast, stands apart from the emotional journey, and sounds like nothing so much as the hoarse braying of canned laughter on an unfunny situation comedy.
Wages of Fear is an intense journey of suspense. But it didn't have to turn into a cartoon.