If I can’t watch films that scare me, can I still be a film critic?

As a rule, I am pretty strict with myself about what I can and can’t watch. The reason is simple: some topics make me really upset and I end up not being able to sleep or think about anything else for days.

Yesterday night I went to see Prisoners (directed by Denis Villeneuve, out this weekend) with two friends who are way less impressionable than I am. In short: the film is great. I love everyone in it – Paul Dano is one of my favourite actors, and can spell “Jake Gyllenhaal” properly without having to google it. Despite sensing from the trailer that Prisoners just wasn’t for me, I went in hoping that I could keep it together for two hours and maybe – just maybe – actually have a good time.

Obviously, a film about children being kidnapped is not meant to be enjoyable and/or relaxing, but for me it was different. About half an hour into the movie, I couldn’t stay still on my seat. I was behaving like a five-year-old because I was so scared I was in physical pain. I started turning towards my friend every five minutes and thinking “I want to go home”. The only reason why I didn’t get up and leave is because I hate when someone walks in front of me during a film, so I didn’t want to do that to the other people in the cinema.

I don’t know where to draw the line, precisely. I watched The Shining five times – scared the life out of me, but I went back every time and loved it. I can watch Saw – it grosses me out, but what happens is fairly outlandish. I can watch period horror films – the costumes and settings make it so that I can separate myself from what I’m watching. But stuff like Prisoners? It’s beyond me how the rest of the audience, including my friends, managed to get to the end of the film and think that it was good.

I am generally the one who has opinions about everything she watches/reads, but not this time. If you ask me about the general plot of the film, I could probably make sense of it; when it comes to the details, it’s all a jumble of fear and clenching and not wanting to be there. I don’t have an opinion because despite having watched the film beginning to end, I was so upset that I didn’t register anything critically. When the film finished, my friends were exchanging thoughts about the performances of the actors. I was staring at the floor of the cinema. I felt as helpless as the woman sitting next to us, who cried through the entire film and today probably has the worst headache of her life.

I couldn’t tell which one is the last film that put me in this state; my avoidance of upsetting movies is systematic and almost unconscious. It’s not the crying – I’m the one who cries desperately and shamelessly at press screenings. It’s the sense of complete terror that doesn’t let me get up from my seat, that makes me unable to go home by myself. It’s waking up in the middle of the night thinking that the children I don’t have have been kidnapped.

I have been writing about film for quite a while now, and this has not been an issue so far. But I’d bang my head against a brick wall repeatedly rather than having to review Prisoners. If it came down to it, I don’t even think I could find anything to say: I was too busy trying not to lose my shit to actually pay attention to anything that could be of interest.

In these years, I have never heard of a film writer who refuses to watch certain things. Surely senior critics can pick and choose what they review, but if they had to, they could write about anything. They could sit there, watch the movie and get the job done. Not me – not in twenty years, not ever. I can’t watch certain films because I can’t let fiction ruin my life, however temporarily.

I can watch the shittiest of romcoms, I have trained myself to get through anything from superheroes to warfare to fairies and have something to say about each of them. But I can’t deal with thrillers that bank on getting the viewer to the brink of a nervous breakdown. I can’t do some things because I won’t sleep for weeks even after watching a trailer. In my position I can’t allow myself to be fussy, but what if I really can’t deal with some stuff? Will this make me less credible as a film journalist? If I can’t watch films that scare me, can I still be a film critic?

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