By Kristy Strouse
Over time we’ve been blessed with many amazing couples on screen. Sometimes, the film is incredible, but the relationship? Not so much. Depending on the film, the toxicity of the coupling can accentuate some of its intentions, other times, it’s not even recognized as such. I think the sense of awareness for the subjects makes a real difference. There are a lot of ways to look at toxic relationships in films, and these are several that should get attention, but as you’ll see, it’s for differing reasons.
Those Who Know They’re Toxic, But Do It Anyway
There are a few films I’m going to mention that feature some twisted, but ultimately fascinating displays of toxic relationships. It also begs the question, can two people- by all accounts- be screwed up, but be right for one another?
In two of David Fincher’s films, “Fight Club” (1999) and “Gone Girl” (2014), the characters choose their toxic relationships, knowing it as such. One could argue that in each of these intriguing and terrific films that there wasn’t necessarily a choice made given some of what happens, but regardless, the self-awareness brings it to another level (regardless of when that arrives).
With “Fight Club”, Tyler Durden (Norton, Brad Pitt) and Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) are both irreverently damaged. They each have their own demons and work through their struggles in their own…destructive, ways. When they are together they don’t “fix” the other, but rather further aggravate their own negative life choices. Still, it’s hard, as the city falls around them in the final scene, to not love their messy and strange coupling. Maybe they’re perfect for one another after all. I understand that the relationship is tainted from the forefront, but it’s challenging not to feel the pull of this particular pairing. There is something powerful in destruction, even when it is uneasy to watch.
With “Gone Girl” Nick and Amy Dunne were toxic from the onset (played to perfection by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike). As you discover, as Gillian Flynn’s tale unwinds itself with a knife-like sharpness, combined with Fincher’s moody and suspenseful trademark… the manipulations were always there. They take a more dire turn as the couple’s marriage gets worse and what transpires is truly the definition of a toxic relationship. By the end, the two have brutal honesty (and brutal is the perfect word for the excellently devious Amy Dunne) and they’re locked in a vice-like entanglement.
Maybe that mix of obsession and love is enough to keep stoking the fire in a way that a healthy relationship can’t. I do know that all of these make for terrific cinema, and interesting conversations and observations.
Their relationship is something truly unseen in film, and the intricacies of their situation makes their marriage one that is both immensely intriguing and uniquely disturbing. Amy has Nick under her pointed, dangerous thumb, but you also have to wonder, maybe in some small way, he wants to be there. Why do some of us gravitate toward toxic relationships? Who can say, for sure? Maybe it’s a compilation of intrigue and our own insecurities, either way, it’s real. In film, it’s especially provocative.
Another I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” (2017). In a way similar to “Gone Girl,” Daniel Day-Lewis is aware of the manipulation by Vicky Krieps but he stays, as there is also mutual gain with his enjoyment of her taking care of him and vice versa. Is it part thrill? Each of the women does a lot to stay with their men, so is that flattering somehow? Maybe that mix of obsession and love is enough to keep stoking the fire in a way that a healthy relationship can’t. I do know that all of these make for terrific cinema, and interesting conversations and observations. Especially regarding our own perceptions of what makes up a successful relationship, and how we gauge this. Is cinema there to help teach us about what we shouldn’t do, or inspire positive change? It is tough to say, but it’s an amazing thing to discover on screen.
The Natural Evolution of A Good Relationship Gone Toxic
Why do some relationships work and some don’t? Maybe one loves the other more fervently, maybe life and its challenges and surprises take hold and don’t let go, leaving irrevocable fissures. Or, maybe people just grow and change. In “Revolutionary Road” Sam Mendes crafts a beautiful, but heartbreaking tale. Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet are a married couple who are both unhappy in their lives. We know that things weren’t always like this, they were once full of life and love, but now they’ve become stuck in their monotony.
When things are enlivened, enamoured with some changes for their future, we catch a glimpse of how things could be. Both actors are so incredible here, giving us some gut-wrenching arguments (such as in “Marriage Story“(2019) but sometimes, things can’t become healthy again. The same is said about “Blue Valentine” (2010). We see their beginning, their initial and cute start. Then we see the marriage as it is now, and the shift in their spirits, their passion. It’s clear that the relationship has become unhealthy, and the film contemplates whether or not it’s worth fighting for. And sometimes, that answer is different for each person.
The Unhealthy & Unknowing
Sometimes, the toxic relationships are obvious to some and yet escapes others. It may be a draw of fate or something greater that is used as an argument for the forming of certain couples. Regardless of how you perceive it, there are elements in these two that make it tough to remain oblivious. In “The Twilight Saga” (2008-2012) Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) became a globally known couple. The books and movies were immensely popular, and for many fans, they were considered destined. However, there is a toxic side to their fantastical whirlwind. Edward is controlling (obviously he’s a vampire too, so let’s not forget about the dangers that come with that), obsessed even, and is attracted to her by her very blood. Bella is consistently in peril and talk about co-dependency…She barely holds on when Edward leaves, and while I understand the hold of love, it severely detracts her from life.
It brings to mind another story, “Beauty and The Beast” (1991). I grew up on the Disney classic and still love it to this day, but let’s not ignore the fact that she’s his prisoner, to begin with, in exchange for her father’s life. Yes, it’s akin to Stockholm Syndrome. She falls in love with her captor (who is also an “animal”, so yeah, let’s not completely overlook that either). Does he change? Yes. Does he grow? Yes. Does it delete what came before? No. It’s still the basis for their experience.
Sometimes, the toxic relationships are obvious to some and yet escapes others. It may be a draw of fate or something greater that is used as an argument for the forming of certain couples. Regardless of how you perceive it, there are elements in these two that make it tough to remain oblivious.
At the end of the day, Belle falls for someone who imprisoned her. I understand the magical element of both of these stories brings about its own complications, because it does, and we all want to believe that true love can conquer all, but it makes you wonder: why did they hang around?
There are many others that could be acknowledged and dissected, “Ruby Sparks” (2012) and the concept of creating your own perfect woman – and by extension, the ultimate fall of that idea- could probably warrant its own piece. With so many to consider it is a challenge to touch on them all. Something similar can be said about Harley Quinn and The Joker (“Suicide Squad”) or Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015). And this…is just film.
In TV? That’s a whole other, long and tortured story. Ever hear of the Lannisters? I think that the attraction to see these representations on screen come from our innate desire to believe in hope and love. It’s a double-sided coin, and while this doesn’t seem like it may apply genre-wise I’m going to end on a quote I love from Two-face himself, in “The Dark Knight” (2008): “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Maybe for some couples, the same can be said about love.