An existential thriller is a story in which the protagonist is doomed from the git-go, but struggles to survive with ingenuity and an indomitable spirit. The two greatest examples are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, and William Friedkin’s remake, Sorcerer.
The Wages of Fear is a 1953 French-Italian drama film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand, and based on the 1950 French novel “The Salary of Fear” by Georges Arnaud. When a Mexican oil well owned by an American company catches fire, the company hires four European men, down on their luck, to drive two trucks over mountain dirt roads, loaded with niotroglycerine needed to extinguish the flames.
Sorcerer is the same story, bookended by Roy Scheider’s criminal mastermind stealing mob money, which sends him into exile in an unnamed South American hellhole where he rots for years, until the oil company makes its desperate offer. Wanted: four brave men to pilot two dilapidated trucks across hundreds of miles of impassable terrain, carrying loads of nitroglycerin. After The Exorcist, Friedkin could do anything. He chose to do this. It is mesmerizing, but because of the subject matter it was not a hit.
Sam Peckinpah directed two of the greatest existential thrillers, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The Wild Bunch needs no introduction, but alas, many young film goers have never heard of it. A gang of aging outlaws, led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, hold one last heist in hopes of retiring to Mexico. The heist goes wrong and they flee, an army of Pinkertons on their trail. The Pinkertons L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin at their most scrofulous. “Gutter trash!” in the words of Robert Ryan, who leads them. The Wild Bunch itself includes Lyle and Tector Gorch, played by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson.
The gang ends up hijacking a load of weapons for a Mexican warlord, but the warlord, played by Emilio Fernandez, cruelly executes one of the Bunch’s own. The Bunch has already collected their money and realized their dream. But in an explosion of nihilistic rage, they choose to go down shooting, killing half the warlord’s army. The Wild Bunch redefined cinematic violence with its slo-mo shoot-outs and the incredible body count. It is one of the greatest Westerns ever made.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is sui generis, a thriller unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Warren Oates is Benny, a down-at-his-heels lounge pianist scraping by in some Mexican hell-hole, when he gets words that El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez again,) will pay one million dollars for the head of Alfredo Garcia, who impregnated his teen-age daughter. The scum of the earth, including Gig Young and Robert Wenner, crawl out of their holes to claim the prize.
Benny sets out with girlfriend Elita (Isele Vega.) A couple of low-lifes bushwhack them. The biker (Kris Kristofferson!) rapes Elita while the other covers Benny. Benny brains the guy with a cast-iron skillet and shoots the biker. Benny delivers Garcia’s head to El Jefe, gets his money, and is free to go. But once again, overcome with grief and an existential madness, he chooses to go down blazing, taking half El Jefe’s army with him.
Among modern existential thrillers, there are none better than The Grey, starring Liam Neeson as an oil-company roughneck whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, leaving six men alive. Their struggle to survive a pack of hungry wolves is as grim and absorbing as The Revenant.
In Runaway Train, conceived by Akira Kurosawa, two cons escape from a maximum-security Alaskan prison and inadvertently stow away on a train with no conductor. Jon Voight, coming off Midnight Cowboy, went in the opposite direction. His Oscar Manheim is a terrifying lifer who has been welded in his cell for three years. He takes along irritating sycophant Buck (Eric Roberts,) dispensing hard-won con wisdom. Director Andre Konchalovsky ratchets tension to the max, and the final scene will chill you to the bone.
Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey deviates from the template in that his nameless white hunter lives, but not after one of the most harrowing and brutal chases in cinema history. You will not believe Wilde’s depiction of Africans in the opening sequence. He would never be able to get away with this today.