I have been sitting on a review of Blackfish for a couple weeks now.
Typically it doesn’t take me long to figure out if I like or esteem a film, though it might take me longer to figure out if I think it is any “good” in a more conventional sense.
An exposé about the capture and mishandling of marine animals, particularly whales, for public amusement, Blackfish has some of the most horrifying footage I’ve seen in a documentary. It’s not graphic the way you might expect from, say, a serial killer drama, but it is real. While I never quite felt like I was watching a snuff film, I could also never shake the suspicion that I might soon be.
One clip in particular, of a stunt gone wrong during a show, continues to haunt me. It stands out for two reasons. The first is that the film itself is built around talking heads, and many of them are former “trainers” who themselves are surprised at their own surprise at the footage. While not quite in the same league with The Act of Killing, this documentary is very much (like that one) about how people suppress and repress their own uncertainties by constructing narratives that allow them to do what they otherwise could not. We, perhaps, need to see the footage because they need to see the footage. Seeing the footage makes us not only give credence to those constructing the argument that is confirmed by it, it also makes us question why we listened so long to the alternate narratives constructed out of little more more than wishful thinking. It makes us wonder why we are so gullible and what else we might be gullible about.
The other reason the clip of the trainer being crushed by a whale stands out is because it is so brief and is embedded within the larger narrative. It is neither the up-front attention grabber that is the suicide in How to Die in Oregon nor the climactic exclamation point towards which the film is building. Cognitive dissonance abounds in watching the movie, and that is because we can never quite reconcile the degree of the shock we feel with the film’s inexorable march forward. The show must go on and on and on…
If I were convinced that this dissonance was sought after, an intended effect of the formal choices going into the structuring of the film, I’d probably call Blackfish a masterpiece. Because the biggest overall horror of the story is that it is an exposé about something that wasn’t really hidden. We live in an age where tragic outcomes more often incite a bunkering down than they do a postmortem assessment designed to teach us a lesson. In such an age we feel moral and social paralysis more than outrage, impotent frustration more than righteous indignation. Blackfish is a film that doesn’t make us wonder what to do so much as wonder what would have to happen for anyone to do anything.