Morals and Subtext: What This Year's Best Picture Nominees Try to Tell Us

I always try to boil a movie down to its essence once I’ve seen it. If I can do it according to the principles in Aristotle’s Poetics, then chances are the movie had a theme and it was probably a pretty good movie, as well. Generally, only crappy movies lack theme.

So I took a look at this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Pictures to determine the overarching theme, as well as guess at the subtext (intended or otherwise). Sometimes the latter reveals some deeper revelation about society, the filmmaker, or the story that illuminates.

(Regrettably, I did not see The Fighter and The Kids Are All Right)

Black Swan

Moral: The quest for perfection kills.

Those that achieve perfection are sometimes regarded as superhuman, rather than just human. Nobody’s perfect, as the saying goes. In one reading of the film’s climax, Nina sacrifices her own life for perfection.

Subtext: We find our true selves in artistic expression.

What permits Nina to reach perfection is the assimilation of her dark side into her being. Carl Jung spoke of the Shadow, the part of ourselves that we repress because it represents the baser, more unflattering parts of our personality. However, it is also the seat for creativity, representing the “true spirit of life as against the arid scholar”. A pretty perfect description for Nina, if you ask me. The movie can be read in many different ways, which is why it’s a great choice for Best Picture. One reading is that this is actually a story of a woman confronting her Shadow, which Jung indicates is the path to fully realizing the Self, the unified conscious and unconscious of a person. Thus, Nina does not actually die in the end. Her previous psyche has died — the one that was only half-alive, controlled by her mother, neurotic, and angst-ridden.


Moral: Salvation lies in reality, not dreams.

Dom is grappling with the suicide of his wife and separation from his kids. He chooses to hide in the dream state rather than grapple with the grim truth of reality. He eventually confronts his own complicity in her death, and reunites with his children.

Subtext: We never really know what is reality and what isn’t.

Mr. Nolan certainly didn’t intend the interpretation I’m about to spout, but the truth is that it’s the only thing that comes to mind. I refer to the Internet, which has become our collective waking dream. How many times have we been fooled by an Internet hoax? How many times have we formed opinions, especially political ones, based on information we read on the Internet — that is later proven false? Always be vigilant. Test the reality with your own personal totem — your mind.

The King’s Speech

Moral: “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together” (Woodrow Wilson)

It isn’t simply Lionel’s devotion to helping others that permits King George VI to transcend his stutter, it’s his friendship. At the critical moment of the big speech, it is just these two men facing each other — Lionel standing beside his friend — to deliver a speech that firmly sets Britain’s resolve against Hitler in WWII.

Subtext: Speak truth to power.

It is George’s inability to stand up to his father that is the source of his stammer. He is completely unable to muster any fight against the man. He literally loses his capacity to speak. Right from the start, Lionel speaks truth to power — to George, the Prince. He treats him like any other client. The result is a slow, grudging respect from George until friendship, loyalty, and trust develops between the two. The ultimate goal: speak truth to the ultimate evil power, Hitler. It is so accomplished.

127 Hours

Moral: Live alone, die alone

Aron has had a history of failed relationships. His inability to connect with others, to give of himself, leads him to believe he doesn’t need anyone. Then he gets trapped alone in a remote canyon. Oops.

Subtext: Our increasing disconnectedness will doom us.

Interestingly, three films in this year’s list are related to human communication. The King’s Speech is the most direct treatise on the significance of direct, compassionate human interaction, and its power in bringing hope to the masses. With 127 Hours, Aron’s disconnectedness nearly dooms him. It isn’t just his will to survive that gets him out of his jam, it’s his desire to connect with people for real.

The Social Network

Moral: Revenge isolates

Facebook is born out of Mark’s desire to humiliate the girl who breaks up with him. Everything that comes after is fruit of this poisonous tree. His self-worth becomes entirely tied up in becoming a big shot, to show everyone that he’s Da Man! And in the end, he’s all alone, having alienated the one true friend he had. The end of the film recalls the end of In The Company of Men, where Howard is left shouting at the deaf woman he fell for, “Listen to me! Listen to me!”

Subtext: The Internet is not your friend; real people are.

Yes, the Internet can bring people together, but it won’t keep them together. It’s interesting that communication is what brings the characters together in The King’s Speech, but that the invention designed to enhance communication tears the characters apart in The Social Network. Some may read the film’s conclusion as a step forward for Mark, in that he’s reaching out. I read it as a sign that he has so alienated everyone and so scornful of human interaction, that he’s left to stew in his own loneliness.

Toy Story 3

Moral: Friendship saves

Another recurring theme: friendship. All the Toy Story movies have been about this, and what is there to say — Woody and pals survive only by sticking by each other. What a bummer that a movie about toys provides the most powerful statement of friendship.

Subtext: Growing pains

What makes all three Toy Story movies so wonderful is that the subtext is so beautifully crafted in the very DNA of the story. The movies each show us the pain of growing up, of being forgotten, left behind, drifting away from friends, mourning our childhoods…if I keep going, I’m going to cry. You get it.

True Grit

Moral: Persistence will see you throw any challenge.

The title tells the tale. So do the characters, and the story.

Subtext: Justice has no boundaries.

It is fitting that the pursuit of Chaney takes our heroes into the wilderness. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, in Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In both films, the participants enter a no-man’s land — a purgatory — where justice and crime will duke it out. Justice will pursue a man to the farthest reaches of both geography, and the soul. The characters, weather, and terrain Mattie and Rooster encounter are heavily symbolic. They don’t know it, but they are on a mythical journey. The pursuit of justice takes a person deep into the blackest territories, so one best be prepared.

Winter’s Bone

Moral: Disloyalty kills

The movie is all about family. Everyone in the film is related by blood in some fashion. Ree’s father snitched, and he is murdered for it. And even though folks do a lot to dissuade Ree from pursuing the truth, in the end, they come through for her.

Subtext: True Grit

A second film about a teenage girl completely committed and resolved to achieve her goal. This time it isn’t about justice, it’s about keeping her family together.


There’s a lot of Hollywood-bashing here at BH. Yet, the morals and subtexts presented by these films are something Hollywood should be rather proud of. They are life-affirming, driven by communication, friendship, loyalty, justice, and family.

But on closer examination, few of these films are pure Hollywood — produced by a studio and directed by a regular studio filmmaker.

The King’s Speech – British

127 Hours – British

Winter’s Bone – Indie

Black Swan – Indie-studio hybrid, directed by indie filmmaker

Inception – Hollywood, directed by a Brit (and the weakest of the films)

True Grit – Hollywood, directed by indie filmmakers

Toy Story 3 – Hollywood (from the “family” studio, Disney)

Social Network – Hollywood

What does this mean? You tell me.


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