My journey with social commentary thrillers is very fresh, starting less than a year ago when I returned home mid-semester with packed bags, college assignment deadlines (to be met from home), cancelled spring break plans, and suddenly a lot more free-time on my hands. It seemed as good a time as any to hop onto the Parasite hype wagon, which I had resisted for 5 months at the time. My immediate reaction to the movie was, like everyone else, shock and awe. I was in awe of the seemingly infinite depths of Bong Joon-ho's vision, the scientific precision with which the film had been crafted, and the way that the message had totally snuck up on me. It's important for me to stress that I was in awe of the way that the message had snuck up on me, and Bong's novel interpretation of the message, but the message itself, about class divide and capitalism, didn't ensnare me as much. Coming from a privileged, upper-class background myself, the class divide wasn't anything I wasn't already acutely aware of. For pre-pandemic, March-2020 me, my commentary on capitalism started with rooting for Bernie in the 2020 Democratic primaries and ended with marvelling at Parasite for a few hours before moving onto the assignments for my overpriced college education.
What prompted me to reassess my relationship with Parasite was watching another social commentary thriller (six months and eight K-dramas later). It was late September, in the thick of the BLM protests, post COVID spike #2, the calm before the election storm. My sister and I were doing girls' night, and our options were down to Enola Holmes and Knives Out, the latter of which had been proposed by my sister. Something about the way that she was imploring me to watch it (she had seen it before) combined with the deviation from her usual genre choice of rom-com, made me hesitantly go against the woman-starrer that would normally be better suited for a girls' night, and give Knives Out a chance. Looking back, I really think fate made me choose Knives Out, or that maybe Knives Out specifically chose me.
August and September were when I started shifting from just being a newly graduated software engineer living from one work meeting to the next, to really asking myself difficult questions about politics and society, and undertaking the exhausting intellectual labour of unlearning and relearning. In the deepest recesses of my amygdala, I think I had finally grasped the impending global threats to the institution of democracy, and I realised that I had to do better. But I felt lost and confused. I didn't know what to do or where to start. It seemed like everyone on social media was already convinced about their truths and beliefs. The millennials and gen-z of the liberal left-wing, including myself, were entrenched in yelling purist nothings at everyone all the time in all caps, and I won't even pretend to know what people from other political wings were doing, since they never showed up on my feed. The labels for the "other side" were just increasing in number and intensity. The news cycles, even the reputable ones, were just mining my clicks, following news trends and offering precious little in the way of analysis or vision. Search as I might, high and low, there wasn't a solution in sight to unite the wings, or to foster a more productive political discourse, one sans labels or insults. I was struggling to find any meaning in the chaos.
Watching Knives Out helped me make sense of my confusion. There's this one profound moment in the film, when Meg Thrombey calls Jacob Thrombey an "alt right troll" and Jacob, without missing a beat, quips back, "liberal snowflake". That one fleeting moment proceeds to get overshadowed by the family's bickering over the will, while their cousin Ransom – who we are led to believe is a cynical outsider criticising the Thrombeys in the movie and The System™ at large – tells everyone to eat shit. But the Meg-Jacob exchange had me reeling for the rest of the movie. Meg's politics were, at its core, performative liberalism, adopted by her only to feel morally superior to the "alt right trolls" and "Nazi pieces of shit". Not to say that there's anything wrong with aspiring to better morals. But moral superiority, which is what Meg's "alt right troll" implied, and which I am guilty of with my usage of "Trumpet" or "bhakt" or any political label (read: insult), enables no healthy discourse and does no one any favours. Moral superiority and virtue signalling are cancer for political discourse.
I indulge myself in moral superiority all the time. I am Meg. I work for a tech company that directly competes with Facebook and Twitter, two companies that can be held accountable for significantly hacking our social fabric with a flagrant disregard for ethics. I view the egomaniacs who helm these companies as the Ransoms of the world (here I refer to the Ransom revealed after the delicious climactic plot twist), but does being in the very orbit of these Ransoms make me a Ransom in my own right? That is an ethical question that designer Mike Monteiro attempts to answer in Ruined by Design, which I recommend to all my fellow techies and Ransoms, but the truth is that one way or another, I am all of the Thrombeys.
The profound effect that Knives Out had on me led me to retroactively reassess Parasite, the only other social commentary thriller I had ever watched. But this time it was September, not March. I was acutely aware of the healthcare benefits and the work-from-home employment that my family and I had access to, unlike the millions of Americans and Indians on the other side of the class divide. I am constantly reminded of that one pivotal rainy night in Parasite, when the Parks came home to luxurious pastimes such as playing in a tent or indulging in sex, while the Kims went home to a flooded apartment, and spent the night in limbo at a shelter. This pandemic is one long extended rainy night.
Subsequent to my big awakening to social commentary thrillers, I watched Get Out, and in the interest of word limits, I'll just say that it too fundamentally shook me, and it couldn't have come to my life at a better time, mid-BLM, post-Hathras. But I'm more fascinated with why these movies that I have repeatedly described as "social commentary thrillers" stood out to me more than other political movies I watched and profoundly loved during the pandemic, such as The Trial of the Chicago 7, or documentaries such as The Social Dilemma and A Life on Our Planet.
I think the reason for this is the same as the reason that I had once chosen to nurse my heartbreak by bingeing the tragicomedy Fleabag rather than a romcom like New Girl or Fight for My Way. It's the same as the reason that my big pandemic coping mechanism has been to replace over-consumption of news articles with steady absorption of lengthy books on sociology, history, political science and ethics. Movies that directly reflect our broken system show us what we already know, before telling us exactly what we need to hear. But thrillers, on the other hand, tease us with the illusion that we know exactly what's going on in the movie, and in the end, upend everything with a big surprise "BOO!" message that opens our eyes not only to the obvious truth that had been dangling under our nose the whole time, but also to the possibility that we had willfully chosen to be ignorant of the truth all along, for the sake of our own sanity. Social commentary thrillers boldly tackle the question, "How did it all come to this?" and answer it with, "You damn well fucking know how."