Back in my college years, I was required to watch Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear for a class on 20th-century European philosophy. Like the novels The Stranger and Nausea, Wages of Fear, made in 1953, was seen as an artistic expression of the defining themes and concepts of existentialism—a post–World War II movement that pictured life as utterly Godless and, as a result, thoroughly meaningless. The universe has no reason, and life no certainties or future after death. This bleak view of human existence was perfectly captured not so much by Fear's main plot (men are hired by an oil company to drive trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin across a South American jungle) but its surprise ending. Existentialism was not about taking risks (risks, to use Rummy's language, are known knowns), but about things beyond your control or comprehension (unknown unknowns), things that were supposed to be in the hands of God.
Today, the existentialism in Fear does not pop out as much as its critique of what will be recognized at the end of that century as neoliberalism. No one has ever missed the significance of economics in the plot; but with our eyes, eyes that have seen the end of social democracy (1973), the destruction of the welfare state and unions (1984), and the ideological collapse of the free market (2008), what we see above all is that the drivers of these dangerous trucks are not unionized (the unionized workers refuse to risk their lives for a paycheck) and the company that hires them is a greedy energy giant—Deepwater Horizon and the Gulf of Mexico, Halliburton and Iraq, record profits for Exxon. In short, the plot of this movie has become more important than its surprise ending. SIFF Cinema at the Film Center, Feb 17–23