It was fascinating to see my good colleague Valerie Complex describe, in her review of the Antoine Fuqua/Will Smith slavery drama Emancipation, having almost walked out of the film, not because it was unworthy, but because she found the depiction of Black suffering and death almost too much to watch.
In the end, Complex stuck with it. But her review ended with perhaps the most moving plea I’ve ever seen from a critic. “There has to be another way to tell these stories,” she wrote. “There has to be another way.”
Sometimes, if you take movies seriously enough, you actually have to look away. Even the good ones—especially the good ones, perhaps—can be too intense, or too direct, or too emotionally unsettling for a thoughtful viewer.
So, very occasionally, you have to walk out. Many, I know, regard this as a crime against cinema. Every movie, after all, is somebody’s baby. To snub one, or appear to snub it, amounts to a public insult. And at the very least, it is a discourtesy to fellow viewers, one that can be mitigated only slightly be sitting in an exit-adjacent seat when you know that a potentially overwhelming experience lies ahead.
But it happens. At least, to me it does.
I’m pretty sure my first, dimly remembered walk-out occurred in 1984. I was reporting on movies for the Wall Street Journal back then, and considered it my professional duty to come to terms with A Nightmare On Elm Street. I made it through about twenty minutes at a theater on or near Times Square in New York, then stumbled out, gasping for breath. Clearly, my revulsion did no damage to Wes Craven, or to the makers of hundreds of horror films that have made many hundreds of millions of dollars since. It just wasn’t for me.
A few years later, I had a less forgivable encounter with a much better picture, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs. By the time I saw the film at a theater in Santa Monica, it was well on its way to the Best Picture Oscar. Everyone knew it was great. But my son at that point was just over three years old, and I’d developed the unfortunate habit of looking at the world through his young eyes. Viewed through the filter of innocence, I couldn’t bear the presence of so much evil. At the very climax, maybe five minutes from the end, I broke and ran for the exit. Shame on me.
Probably my funniest walkout occurred in 1994, again in Santa Monica. My wife and I were pretty close to Nikki Finke at the time. So the three of us decided to see Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Halfway through one of its more demented scenes, Nikki announced, at the top of her (considerable) lungs: “This is disgusting!” She got up, elbowed her way to the middle aisle, and marched out of the theater. We followed, as did six or eight fellow patrons, if I remember it right.
Since then, Nikki has died, and Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (violence and all) has turned into one of my favorite films. Go figure.
There was another crazy one in 2005, this time on the Warner lot. At the time, I was the New York Times movie editor, and I managed to walk out of a very private advance screening of the James McTeigue’s V For Vendetta. The publicity apparatus, of course, blew up. But I just couldn’t take it. So I stepped aside, and The Times ran a lovely preview piece, handled by another editor.
All of which reminds me that we are still dealing with the Great Walkout of 2022, November having seen the third-lowest box-office ticket sales in the last 24 years (without adjusting for inflation, which would dig the hole deeper). This comes after a similarly weak performance in September and October, and despite an ongoing boost from Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.
Unlike my good colleague Valerie, the audience, having sampled the seasonal fare, doesn’t seem inclined to stick with it.