Sunday, June 22, 2008

Iceberg Arena: Revenge Is a Three Course Meal

Ms. 45 (1981) vs Bang (1995) vs The Brave One (2007)

Filmmakers, the movie-going public and I all have something ignoble in common: we never tire of revenge thrillers. The roster runs so long (list idea!) that it’s worth analyzing their appeal for a moment. It’s not terribly surprising that the notion of achieving quick, uncomplicated justice in the classical eye-for-an-eye sense is one that can be savored by anyone who ever felt hurts or abused. Especially now that people like Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Due Process have spoiled our sense of entitlement to revenge.

Films can help provide a pleasantly vicarious vent for everything from the flash of anger at a minor personal snub to the communal outrage at high-profile criminals slipping through the legal system. On the silver screen we can lay things out in simple, consequence-free terms and celebrate vigilante righteousness where we would, hopefully, be more skeptical in real life. Or we can have our vengeance and decry it too, by backing any number of tormented, morally-ambiguous anti-heroes who get killed in the end.

There’s something a little bit shallow and blood-minded about admitting to liking revenge thrillers, but I almost always find them fascinating and involving. The era and genre have hardly mattered to me, with cinema moving from westerns where mysterious strangers perpetually search for “the man who killed my brother” (or father, family, etc.), to the existential gangsters of “Point Blank” and “Get Carter,” and to today’s modern crime-horror cocktails. A fine example from the current decade comes from South Korea, where director Park Chan-wook has made a provocative Vengeance trilogy that carefully dissects the minutiae of spiraling, subliminal and collective revenge respectively.

Cinematic vendettas are often situated along discrete and personal quests, symbolic of nothing but a need for the protagonist to achieve their own redemption through a bloody purge or, alternatively, a final act of forgiveness. Occasionally a character acts, at least implicitly, as a representative of a wronged or oppressed community, with the film having wider implications about social roles, class relations, power structures and so forth. Today’s Iceberg Arena will focus on a specific subgenre of this second group: the female revenge drama.

While I enjoy “The Bride Were Black” and its postmodern remake “Kill Bill,” I’m leaving them out of the debate since I feel they are more involved with style and methodology than in the thematic potentials of revenge. The contenders will be Abel Ferrara’s “Ms. 45” (1981), Ash’s “Bang” (1995) and Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One” (2007). Although the recent reviews and press about “The Brave One” have already alluded to its relationship with past female vigilantes, I haven’t seen many that explore the topic in much depth.

Plot Summaries

“Ms. 45” is a good starting point, not only because it’s the earliest of the three, but also because it is the purest. Ferrara had made only one other feature film, the crude and violent “Driller Killer,” about a disturbed artist who uses his trusty power tool to dispatch drunks and hobos. “Ms. 45” has the same grainy, New York vibe and the same sense of casual urban violence channeled through loneliness and insanity.

Thana is a mute Manhattan clothing designer whose shyness locks her out of healthy social interactions. While being raped for the second time, she manages to kill the latter assailant with his own automatic .45 handgun. She disposes of the corpse with grim detachment and then rides the pistol to empowerment under her alter-ego of Ms. 45. Though starting in self-defense, she soon seeks out chauvinist prey and crosses the line into killing men with less and less cause. In the famous Halloween costume party finale, she dons a nun’s habit and puts on bright red lipstick for a ballistic purge of male domination.

“Bang” is far and away the least well-known of the bunch, directed by the monosyllabic “Ash” with money he raised working as a male stripper. In high contrast to Ferrara’s sordid New York nighttime allies, “Bang” is set is sunny L.A. It co-stars Peter Greene and has Lucy Liu in one of earliest film roles (playing a prostitute), but the focus is on a struggling Asian actress named Darling. She is submitted to humiliation and abuse by her landlord, a crazy hobo, a sleazy producer and a cop.

When the officer offers to drop some trumped up charges in exchange for sexual favors in the nearby woods, she snaps. She gains the upper hand, in addition to his gun, uniform and motorcycle. Leaving the cop handcuffed to a tree in his underwear, she explores the city through the eyes of the dominator. Darling attempts to balance her newfound freedom and power, with her underlying goodness and the city’s diverse complexity.

“The Brave One” is a Hollywood take on the woman’s revenge story, diluted enough to accessible and relatable. Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a NYC radio host who is attacked by muggers along with her fiancé and dog. After her partner dies and the police make no headway, she sinks into depression, stews in her frustration and eventually purchases a gun on the black market. Soon after, she witnesses a grocery store robbery and is forced to defend herself, providing her first taste of murder and revealing a penchant for cleaning up scum.

The crime spree captures the attention of the media and general public (who discuss the matter on her radio show), not to mention the police, who resent someone “doing their job for them.” Though she never seriously doubts of her rightness, the killings do take their toll on Erica’s personal life, especially when she forms a relationship with the detective in charge of tracking down and arresting the vigilante.

Execution and Themes

Despite the similarity of premises, each of these films deals with their revenge tales in a different fashion and with different thematic concerns. “Ms 45” is an exploitive action-horror film, designed to be raw, disturbing and over-the-top. It avoids dialogue and focuses on images, often the gore, but also the alienating quality of the dingy interiors and menacing cityscapes. It celebrates its own trashiness and freely mines the potential for irony and symbolism (as in the satire of gender roles inherit in the lipstick + nun’s habit outfit), but remains generally grave and confrontational.

The central questions getting mused are “Where is line between vigilante justice and murder?” “Is armed empowerment an inevitable slide towards the abuse of power?” and “Is normality, or even sanity, possible in an environment of fear, danger and violence?” Of course, these issues are just the genre basics, but they are expressed with a unique, counter-culture boldness.

The world of “Bang” is far less brutal and nightmarish, ultimately closer to reality and its daily hassles, crudities and offences. Sexual acts are not forced in the sense of explicit rape, but expected as a matter of commerce: a means of paying off debts, getting ahead in your career or escaping punishment. Darling experiences the ways that being female, a minority and poor make her vulnerable to exploitation and harassment. There is something more frustrating and infuriating in the abusive power structure that ensnares her than in the violent assaults by two-dimensional criminal thugs in “Ms 45” and “Brave One.”

Darling’s empowerment also travels a much different course than the other films. Though she dons a stolen police uniform and packs a pistol, she isn’t out for blood. She finds the experience of role-playing the authority figure exhilarating, and she is at least as eager to use her power compassionately as to abuse it for revenge. Her adventure involves letting embarrassed lover off the hook, smoking pot with a pair of Hispanic brothers who lend her roadside assistance, and trying to catch a drug dealer in an underserved block in Compton. The absence of murder is both surprising and initially unsatisfying (in a genre-expectation way), but the level of realism and honesty in her day as a cop is both compelling and poignant.

The questions floated throughout the film include “What is the role of the police?” “What are the flaws in the [power] structure of our society?” and “How can justice be achieved for everyone in city of such size, history and diversity?” One of the major themes is that there are no simple solutions to complex problems.

“The Brave One” has the shiny gloss of a big-budget action or crime film, but director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game,” “Butcher Boy”) and leads Jodie Foster and Terrence Howards invest it with more intelligence and thoughtfulness than one would expect. Unfortunately, the morality is often oversimplified: the villains abuse a dog to help the audience reach a critical mass of hatred, Erica Bain finds herself in daily situations where she manages to be “acting in self-defense” right before she kills and her foes have no personality and little dialogue outside of cursing and humiliating innocent people. Plenty of critics dismissed the film because the actual vigilantism was just too pre-packaged as unambiguously righteous.

Where “The Brave One” gets interesting is in the performances, particularly the relationship between Erica Bain and the detective who begins to suspect her of conducting the criminal clean-up. You can feel the level of respect and sympathy they secretly have for each other, and appreciate the way that law and order, justice and duty get muddled as a result of their friendship. Jodie Foster is the best lead actress of the three films and her nuanced performance makes relating to the character uneasily easy. While her character could use more healthy doubt and inner turmoil over her actions, she does struggle with the inability of revenge to fill the hole inside her.

The key questions in the movie are “Does every citizen have a responsibility to fight back against crime?” “Can decisive individual violence be more right than due process, trial by peers and legal red tape?” and “Should a well-meaning vigilante be allowed to get away with it?”

Bottom Line

“Ms 45” is a gritty, culty B-movie with surprising punch packed behind its schlocky exterior. Its low production values and somewhat predictable arc make it a below-average viewing experience, but it compensates by providing both guiltless bloodbaths and food for thought (a rare combination). There is both authenticity and insincerity in its attempts to deal with topics like revenge, vigilante justice and feminism with potential to alienate those seeking both entertainment and enlightenment. I find the film interesting, but a little too obvious for long term debate and a little too unpolished for technical appreciation.

“Bang” comes out the most original and thoughtful, with the widest scope and most honorable intentions. It has the ambling, episodic indie feel of a film that tries to tackle too much and looses some of the momentum, continuity and cohesiveness in the process. Yet it works as a meditative love letter to L.A. in a scribbled, but sincere, handwriting. This also fits with the low-budget sets, taking advantage of shooting in the streets and using people who look and sound like life. Moments of humor and kindness make it more entertaining than your typical revenge thriller, though it’s less gripping, visceral and violently gratifying (which will be a plus to some and minus for others). I think it is the deepest and most rewarding, though also the most scattershot.

For technical prowess and all the visual, casting and set design advantages that a budget provides, you can’t beat “The Brave One.” The screenwriters triy too hard to legitimize vigilantism and manipulate the audience into their point-of-view, but when Foster and Howard speak they make the script sounds good. We get deeper inside the characters in “The Brave One” than in the other films, but we just scratch the surface of the social implications that the material suggests. The film is often so concerned with providing the pleasure payoff of revenge, action, mystery, tension, romance, etc. that it doesn’t really challenge the audience or investigate the ambiguous issues. It goes through the motions, but borrows too heavily from other sources and peddles such simple answers to hard questions that it leaves the conscientious viewer still hungry.

Subjective Numerical Breakdown
(I did not actually use these numbers for deciding the winner, but they might be of interest in deciding which movies to see.)
Winner: Bang

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

Although I enjoyed the other two, Bang's different take made it more memorable as well as interesting to think about and discuss.

I have to agree with your decision on it being the winner.