What is truly evil, and how do we define evil as a concept? It’s a question many philosophers, psychologists, historians, leaders and people in general have tried to define for centuries with many different answers and theories raised. Art has also tried to explore this question of evil in various different forms, including films. Films such as Schindler’s List and Come and See bring to bear some of the worst atrocities the human race has ever committed and are daring in their revelations. But when Steven Spielberg and Elem Klimov made their respective films, they both had a clear idea that what they were depicting were morally heinous acts that most people would agree on as evil. Ever since I watched Dear Evan Hansen, an “uplifting” musical that tries to deal with mental health, teen suicide and general anxiety, I’ve started to consider maybe, just maybe, true evil is when people believe what they’re making or the decisions they make are positive and productive, when in actuality their decisions are in fact harmful, offensive and horrifying. I’m sure most if not all the people involved in this film approached the project with the heart in the right place, but that makes the resulting horror even more shocking and, yes, evil.
The story of Dear Evan Hansen, this work of evil in the same way Damien is evil, is about the title character Evan Hansen, supposed to be in high school but as he’s played by most certainly not-teenager Ben Platt I just get the feeling he’s been held back a lot. He suffers from tremendous anxiety issues and has a difficult time making friends, and is assigned by his therapist to write letters to himself because he thought that would help. A troubled emo kid (is there any other kind in movies?) reads one of his letters, rages on him and then a few days later commits suicide. And what ensues afterwards is almost beyond words, as I was in a constant state of bewilderment, ironic enjoyment and genuine horror. Because what happens, dear readers, Evan Hansen’s anxiety is so bad he can’t bring himself to tell the truth of his relationship to the kid to his family, and starts telling lie upon lie.
There is so much wrong and evildoing here I barely have a clue where to begin. Maybe I should start with the concept which lies at the core of the film and the Broadway musical of which it is based on, because believe it or not I don’t think it’s the smartest idea in the world to try to build an uplifting and heartwarming musical around issues such as mental illness, anxiety and teen suicide, especially when you have an entire number from the point of view of the dead teenager where Evan Hansen and his friend type fake letters to make it look like the two of them hung out all the time and were best buds. Not only is it bizarre and uncomfortable but it also makes you question your entire being and moral universe, how anyone could think “yeah this sounds like a good idea I’m gonna put it in my work.” But even more creepy than that is the whole presentation of the rest of the film, because it always retains that “sweet” and “beautiful” aesthetic throughout, even when Evan does truly abhorable things that the film expects us to sympathize with and understand, as he lies and deceives to everyone, including the dead kids family, purely for his own benefit. We’re meant to feel sorry for him but all I was through the entire film was creeped out by his very presence and indeed face alone. Watching the movie I think I finally understand how the people who hate Todd Phillips’ Joker felt when they saw that film. This is my Joker. But I of course would argue this is even worse, because even if Joker was nasty and nihilistic, it was at least aware of its own tone and what kind of film it was trying to be. This is so wrong-headed and believes so much in its own beauty and sweetness I felt like I needed to take a shower afterwards. I was literally more terrified of Evan Hansen than I was of either the Joker or Hannibal Lecter or any other villain in film.
I don’t think I really need to mention how cringeworthy the film is, because yeah it’s that too. So to further add upon my suffering it had to be cringe, so cringed I often wished to escape and shut the film off because so many of the scenes were so awkward and uncomfortable to sit through, though admittedly they were also pretty funny too sometimes so I could at least laugh at the film’s lack of self-awareness. For instance, a recurring stylistic trademark in the film is that whenever Evan struggles with his anxieties he breaks out into song, and although I can understand what the idea is, it comes across as comical when everyone else around him is speaking in their normal speaking voice, making me think Evan belongs in a mental institution (which he does regardless). But that’s also part of the darkness and evil of the film, because when the filmmakers themselves can’t tell how wrongheaded and immoral their work is, it makes you question the moral compass of everyone involved how they could sink this low.
As much as I have criticized and tore Dear Evan Hansen a new one, the one thing about it that makes me glad that I decided to see it (or was bullied into seeing it by a co-worker who shall remain nameless) is that I feel like I have confronted the darkness in some way. I ventured into the dark abyss of awfully produced songs and saccharine sentimentality, and although it was a rough journey and I suffered some casualties along the way (the film is just ten minutes shy of the same length as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey), I’ve now come back to the other side a changed person. I know now what that dark abyss feels like, and can hopefully recognize it for what it is faster without succumbing to the very same darkness myself. Dear Evan Hansen has been my journey to Mordor, but alas the evil of Sauron has been defeated, and peace can reign in the land.
I have one more thing to say before I close: Julianne Moore and Amy Adams, please get better agents, you’re both so much better than any of this and don’t deserve to end up in a movie worse than The Woman in the Window.