Swearing is a bit like porn. We all do it. We all know we all do it. We just don’t do it or admit to it in polite company. And since so much high quality cinema is about pursuing honest depictions of life, you won’t find swear words (along with cigarettes, domestic violence and urban poverty) in any media quite like you will in movies.
There’ll always be a great aunt or 70s era critic who tut-tuts about how unnecessary ‘all that swearing’ is, but you can always counter because that’s the way the people depicted in the film talk and behave.
But as everyone with an impish streak and bad temper knows, sometimes swearing is just fun, and scriptwriters the world over have given us some of the most inventive colloquialism based on swear words we have (‘Shut that cunt’s mouth before I come over there and fuck-start her head’ – ”Way of the Gun’, 2000). When your conservative Great Aunt starts complaining about ‘these filmmakers and their language’, frame your argument around the gritty realism of ”Menace II Society” rather than the stylised panache of ”Reservoir Dogs”.
This isn’t a list of the movies with the most swear words, because that’d be too easy. We’ve chosen films where the language – like the rest of the dialogue, the performances and the production design – contributes to the story.
1. Nil By Mouth
Loosely based on debut director Gary Oldman’s childhood in working class London, this is more unsettling than the goriest horror movie. Rather than using his innate male aggression to shield his family from the horrors of poverty around him, father Ray (Ray Winstone) gives in to his uncontrollable ferocity in the worst ways.
It’s excruciating waiting for this bristling monster to strike, because you know when he does his poor wife Valerie (Kathy Burke) is going to be on the receiving. And when he spits the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ liberally throughout his sentences, it’s the voice of an uncontrollable and dangerous animal pressing against the bars of a cage.
A flashier younger brother to Scorsese’s piece de resistance (”Goodfellas”), the story of the rise and fall of a mobster casino owner in Vegas edges out the antics of Henry Hill and friends because it upped the ante of the enfolding of profanity into common everyday language.
Swearing was a way of life for these men (it was a story seldom about women) and not just an expression of anger or contempt. With their entire lives and reasons for being based on force and violence, forceful and violent language was absorbed into general communication like any other linguistic syntax. Hence psychotic hit man Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), during one of the many voiceover monologues, calls our attention not to ‘just another fat guy leaving with a suitcase’, but ‘just another fat fuck’.
3. Pulp Fiction
Tarantino’s always been as good a writer as he is a director, and he’s famous for exploring the school of cinema stylism rather than the cinema verite of real-life drama.
The ”Pulp Fiction” script has its share of throwaway, anger-based profanity, but in the case of hit man Jules (Samuel L Jackson) it took black urban culture of fast trash talking into the stratosphere with lines it would take a dozen stand up comics a dozen years to write, much less think up on the spot.
In a fit on temper, would you be able to dream up ‘I’m a mushroom-cloud-layin’ motherfucker, motherfucker! Every time my fingers touch brain, I’m Superfly TNT, I’m the Guns of the Navarone’, much less say it coherently?
4. In Bruges
Profanity as high comedy. As in ”Goodfellas” and ”Casino”, we’re dealing with bad people for whom bad language is as natural as walking. But Martin McDonagh’s film is a screwball comedy of errors, so clashing personalities and circumstances are the framework against which a twisted code of honour is much more important than the words used.
When Ken (Brendan Gleeson) calmly tells mob boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) what he thinks of him (‘Harry let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.’) – the cockney gangster is much more incensed at his children being mentioned than the language used to describe them – ‘Leave my kids fucking out of it! What have they done? You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids! Insult my fucking kids? That’s going overboard, mate!’
Schoolkids, huh? Get them away from their parents and there’s no telling what they’ll get up to. Fake ridiculous IDs, joy ride with understanding cops, spend the whole night trying to get booze for a party and missing most of it as a consequence.
But mostly, they’ll be flexing newly adult muscles by doing one of the easiest things you can do but were never allowed to growing up –swear. You might not remember the Apatow-produced 2007 coming of age comedy being so full of swearing, but unlike ”Goodfellas” or ”Raging Bull”, the language was rarely a stand-in for anger, it was just kids discovering their grown up voices. It’s actually on many a list of most profane movies all over the web.
6. Zack and Miri Make a Porno
It could be about the kids from ”Superbad” when they’ve grown up and realised there are bills to pay, jobs to keep and you probably won’t own a cool car. Zack (Seth Rogen), Miri (Elizabeth Banks) and their friends and contemporaries have grown up with the F word all over TV, movies and popular culture. Like the screen violence most thirtysomethings are now desensitised to after watching scratchy VHS copies of ”Dawn of the Dead” as 10 year olds, foul language becomes parlance as common as any other slang.
7. Alpha Dog
Middle class whites have long taken cues on cool from urban black lifestyle – at least the version peddled by record company executives, clothing brands and other cultural gatekeepers. While weed, forties and AKs might not be too easy to get hold of for the average whitebread American kid, there’s one thing they can adopt to make themselves bad-ass, and that’s the compound-worded, instant-cred-givin’-ass terms of profanity to describe and express their lives. Top Dog Johnny (Emile Hirsch) and his homies adopt the media version of impoverished urban black communication effortlessly.
8. Glengarry Glen Ross
Witness men in the modern age. ”In The Company of Men” might have shown the masculine psyche lashing out against emasculation by a feminist-led world, but the real estate salesmen given dud leads in the David Mamet-scripted (from his own play) dramatic powerhouse don’t have ulterior motives, they just want to make a living.
But with no mothers, wives or other women around innate aggression is off the leash. They’re more civilised than to lay into their enemies physically so they resort the next best thing – barrages of language that stand in for blows to prove just who’s got the biggest swinging dick.
9. In The Loop
Like ”Pulp Fiction” this is profanity as slapstick, with a host of characters – most notably the terminally angry Scottish trade minister Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) – spouting complicated terminologies of vulgarity that could only be pre-written. But unlike mere expressions of anger, the barbs thrown around in Armand Ianucci’s tour de force of politics’ grimy details are some of the best comic writing you’ll ever hear.
10. Terminator Salvation
huh? There might have been a few ‘fucks’ in McG’s so-so update to the classic mythology, but surely no more than any other movie. No, the secret sauce behind Christian Bale’s shouty, angry John Connor can be heard in the outtake when cinematographer Shane Hurlbutt started adjusting lights in the middle of shooting. With the sound still rolling, a dutiful, unsung recordist uploaded it straight onto the internet, letting us all enjoy an insight into Bale’s process from ‘Don’t just be sorry, think for one fucking second’ to the immortal ‘what the fuck… are you… DOING?’