Nobody’s listening: a film that takes the pulse of a steadily crumbling component of American society

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Character is destiny, Heraclitus said. Know yourself, or watch helplessly as you are torn to pieces by the latest hurricane to sweep through society. You need a bedrock to cling to when that storm comes, because like a noisome wedding guest descending upon the table where you had been quietly enjoying your meal, it will try its damndest to sweep you off your feet and ruin your evening. (I’m kidding. Sometimes I do like dancing. It depends on my level of intoxication. But darnit, this isn’t about me! I’m not some self-obsessed…oh never mind.)

What a decade ago had been regarded as nothing more than humdrum varieties of the dreary quotidien quickly become (sometimes overnight) the sort of thing that, should you support it—or even remain silent about it!—will see you reduced to the level of persona non grata. Non-entity.

And culture is now disseminated primarily through the various forms of social media—and to a lesser degree through the legacy media desperately clinging to its last thread of legitimacy. But social media has largely supplanted the “news”—Twitter in particular.

Information now comes in flood-form. React, react, react is becoming engrained—no time for reflection, lest the moment pass you by. I mean, those retweets aren’t gonna wait!

Like so much of modern life—what to buy, where to go, what to do, the sheer breadth of choice exerts its own kind of stranglehold. And always that asphyxiating sense that, should you dither, you’ll be missing out. On what, we’re never exactly sure…but something.

The point is to create an overload, not just from excess information but also in the way we react to it.

Watch the pile-on when the next person is accused and summarily convicted—of wrongthink. An avalanche of activism comes to sweep the offender away. Sentinels swooping to carry some poor soul out of sight, out of mind.

This is where another important cultural norm is revealed, one that has been embedded into the collective psyche: the mythology in vogue in the endless superhero sagas clogging up theatrical releases, where the forces of good and evil are neatly delineated, and the good guys beat the bad guys to a pulp.

The film ends, and you never have to think about what happens to the baddies because they’re either all dead or so beaten down they will never resurface.

Any mature meditation upon the nature of evil would, of course, quickly reveal that this is absolute horseshit, and like anything even remotely related to power just a cynical move to consolidate controlling interests, but that’s neither here nor there because we’re told that people—at least, Americans—don’t have the mental capacity to handle complexity. What’s the going attention span these days? Zero point three seconds?

Who is telling us this, we’re never sure. Why they seem to ignore the explosion of popularity in longform podcasting: a mystery! But the point remains! The world is cut into good and evil, not shades of grey with everyone trying to do their best, doing a little good, and some bad. It all evens out into the emptying out to the sea of civilization. And what matters most is that we are told who is good and who is evil. Come election time, vote(!) with your feet, but make damned sure you take them in the direction you’ve been told, implicitly or otherwise.

When the System points its finger, and wants somebody gone, you have to believe that they are evil; an existential threat to the security of your community. That is the spoonful of rhetorical sugar that helps the medicine go down.

It also allows power to perpetuate by shape-shifting every few years and turning attention outward onto another group we’re supposed to hate. Another crisis that needs to be averted. Cultural norms are always being shifted and lifted in and out of place by our betters: it’s a game of Tetris to keep the hoi polloi squeamish and squirming and unable to find their footing and make their way in the world.

What remains unchanged is the expectation that, when you are told what to do, you will do it—and not ask questions.

Think of some of what you did today. Pick one task that you didn’t think twice about completing. Got it? Good. That’s what you’ll be canceled for by a future generation. This sudden realization grants you a bit of perspective, and from perspective comes a sense of calm. The point of the present is to believe itself the greatest manifestation of humanity yet come to pass; thus, anything that came before is subpar, and ripe for destruction.

This gives me a sense of confidence in navigating the shoals of modernity. Everyone’s doing his or her best in an era that will almost assuredly be regarded with disgust by our progeny, who will marvel at how we could have grown accustomed to such disgusting excess. So, no need to worry about your legacy. It’s completely out of your hands, totally subjective to the whims of the moment.

It’s one of the most admirable traits of Dan Carlin, of Hardcore History fame. Sufficient immersion in the past has granted him the wisdom to withhold judgment of the cast of characters—and, to a greater extent, the mass of people—who make up the tales he tells. From his perch above the murky fog of war, he can render an opinion upon the good and evil done. The trick is incorporating his greatest lesson—that good and evil is always committed by by normal people.

Of course, condemn evil where and when it is committed, but realize that the majority of people were churned up in the gears of the moment. They were doing the best that they could.

So do the best that you can, in the short time you’re here on this earth. Read some history, digest a bit of psychology and philosophy, and try to develop a moral compass based upon the lessons learned.

Disregard what people are saying about you—compliments or criticism. It’s just noise. Sure, we all have parts of our personality we’d prefer to hide from our peers. But suppress them long enough, and you’ll not only strengthen their hold upon you, twisting and tightening until you (metaphorically) asphyxiate—you’ll almost certainly end up tumbling into an orgy of unaccountability as your id spills forth.

Added to this potion is the intriguing notion that as you grow older, it is not so much you that changes as the world around you that, like the globe spinning on its axis, continues to move away from you at a pace that is as staggering as it is imperceptible. And it is from this meditation that Ilya Naishuller’s new film, Nobody emerges.

The film is set in an unnamed American city riddled with decay. A creeping discontent, too. Beneath this thin veneer of civilization lurks an Alien, in the form of a collective pain that has been steeping and festering and awaiting the the opportune moment to burst through the communal fabric and wreak havoc. Nature abhors a vacuum, and like a wayward Millennial, it can’t stand not being able to express itself.

Into this troubling void steps our protagonist, Hutch. Long before he becomes a vigilante, Hutch is introduced as your standard suburban dad, that hapless archetype foisted upon us in every artistic endeavor these days, feet tethered to the slow-moving, mindless walkway of tedious routine. Merely tolerated by his wife and teenage son, and while he remains a hero to his young daughter, you know it’s just a matter of time before she begins to resent him, too.

One night, he is awoken by a home invasion. The crooks are desperate, and even when they quickly realize they’ll make off with nothing more than petty cash, Hutch’s watch, and his daughter’s bracelet, one of them threatens Hutch with a gun.

Hutch had armed himself with a golf club before creeping toward the burglars, and he could have taken a swing at the one wielding a gun, only to stop short—in full view of his son, who tried to intervene and received a black eye for his troubles. Now, he sees his dad in the same light as a cop who arrives at the scene, questioning Hutch’s manliness in full view of his family.

We soon learn why Hutch withheld that swing. Just as he was about to bring the club down on the perpetrator’s skull, he saw there were no bullets in the gun’s chamber.

It’s one of the first instances of morality in the film—know when to spare a life, and all that—expanded upon when Hutch tracks down the burglars. They’re living in a desolate apartment, making do with instant ramen for dinner, the mother nursing a newborn suffering from respiratory problems. Rather than wreak havoc, Hutch simply takes his leave. These people are suffering enough.

We finally see the extent of Hutch’s martial expertise in the next scene, when he defends a young woman who is harassed on a city bus—Hutch takes the bus everywhere, it seems—by a group of boisterous young goons. So forceful and thorough is Hutch, he sends them to the hospital.

Here is the first maxim elucidated by Naishuller: that there is a time and place to use your fists; that this would be considered controversial is a perspective that could only exist in the modern age. And yet, that is what caused Nobody to be met with disdain by the well-heeled film critics who dismiss it as nothing more than revenge porn that champions an unseemly vein of toxic masculinity.

This misses the point entirely. Nobody is no mindless superhero action-porn drivel, which is strangely championed by many of those same critics, but rather a debilitating deconstruction of the pointless, atomized version of reality we’re trudging through. Take the “villain” of the film, Yulian Kuznetzov, played by Aleksey Serebryakov, a Russian mafioso tasked with overseeing a vast network that pays out handsome sums for those involved.

He sleepwalks his way through this scam, but what Kuznetzov really wants is to be in showbiz—of course, he lacks any of the talent or drive to do so—and here you have the terrible beauty of the present moment. Those who continue to send society barreling down its pathetic side of a mountain do so out of resolute boredom. Might as well, you know.

But that’s where we’re at as a society. Self-ownership is frowned upon the second it involves standing up for yourself. Self-betterment, of course, does not fall under the same category. When Hutch locks his family away before taking on the assassins, it’s with the message, “Don’t call the police.”

Nobody, as a concept, straddles the line between overt specificity (you are Nobody) and vagueness—the latter granting the sort of perspective so rare in this day and digital age. We don’t step back, we aren’t encouraged—certainly—to take stock of our situation and wonder how we got to this point. What we are given is the cues disseminated by television and social media to bend us to the will of whoever’s in control of the System apparatus.

Hutch is Nobody, Hutch is everyman. That’s a dangerous concept, and it could lead to a lot of very uncomfortable questions I’m not sure the powers-that-be will want to hear. Expect a social media silencing campaign on the topic sometime soon.

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