Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wanted: A (Rather) Critical Review

WARNING: Loads of spoilers for the film 'Wanted'.

I saw Wanted for the second time over Christmas, and I was able to piece together just what had bothered me the first time round. That time, my view of it was rather overshadowed by disappointment at what it wasn't: It clearly wanted to be the Matrix, and thoroughly failed. However the second time, expecting somewhat less of it, I realised just how pernicious and destructive the film's core message is: Modern society turns men into pussies (women). Real men (and real heroes) are those who refuse to bow to this and instead live their lives in an orgy of violence, vengeance and hedonism.

Bear with me, I'm going to try to justify all of my comments above.

So, I said that Wanted fails to be the Matrix. This is despite the fact that it follows closely to the structure of the Matrix, at least for the first half: We start with an action packed opening involving incredible physical feats. Then we meet our protagonist, a schmuck stuck in a dead end white collar job. This all changes when he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman who takes him to meet her boss, a mysterious and knowing black man who opens his eyes to the abilities he has inside himself, and trains him to use them. Once this is done the protagonist goes out into the world to fulfil his true potential.

After this, the plots diverge somewhat, and credit is due to Wanted for this. However the whole time Wanted attempts to maintain the same mystical feeling of wonderment that the Matrix pulled off with style. That it can't do so is largely due to the story: In the Matrix, the big secret is world-shaking, and Neo's power is curious and exciting - is he The One? In Wanted, the secret will have little effect on the world as a whole - there's a secret order of assassins who apparently take their orders from Fate, and Wesley has heightened - but mostly human, and quickly explained - abilities. Okay, so bending bullets is odd, but it comes off as more ridiculous than miraculous. The result is that no matter how well it was done, Wanted could never have been the Matrix, and really shouldn't have tried. It just isn't deep enough.

But hey, not everything can be the Matrix. And despite that, the visual and sound effects, the direction and the pacing were all excellent. So if that was my only complaint, there would be no need for this review. What's more interesting, and disturbing, are some of the ways in which it differs not only from the Matrix but from almost every heroic action film.

As mentioned, Wanted goes down the somewhat standard route of setting out how modern life can be soul crushing and depressing. So far so good - it's a rich seam to mine: The suppression of imagination and individuality is widely identified, and may be a large part of the popularity of 'escape from reality' stories like this. But most other such stories, at least the relatively straightforward ones, will have the protagonist end up fighting the good fight, so to speak. Perhaps saving the world, or some section of it, or at least unambiguously helping people. Think of any superhero film, or most films where people end up in another world, as well as any number of more mundane stories. Here however, Wesley's new vocation has only a tenuous connection to helping anyone, and he doesn't care anyway.

Sure, the Fraternity apparently get their killing orders from Fate. But Wesley doesn't seem to find this out until he has gone through the whole grueling training ordeal, and is deeply enmeshed in it. All he appears to know when he giddily signs up is that they are a group of elite, highly skilled assassins. Wesley doesn't join to save the world or fight the good fight (even if he implies this at the end of the film). He joins because he gets a taste of power over other people (telling off his boss and smashing in his friend's face) and loves it. He wants to be better than others, to hurt people and to revel in it.

Doubtless, he also wants to avenge his father. But it's quite clear that this is only in the back of his mind until he is first given targets, when he wants to settle his score quickly. After his initial doubts Wesley seems to love his new job: The evil smile on his face as he shoots the man in the limo is meant to contrast favourably with his 'cowardice' in an earlier scene, showing that he has become 'a man'. The implication of the film is quite clear: Wesley never feels as alive as when he is involved in the hunt and the kill.

Even once he knows about the Loom of Fate (or, as I prefer, the Loom of Doom), he doesn't seem to care much: He never seems worried about the possibility that his name might indeed have come up. In fact, there is only one glimmer of Wesley's ethical side in the entire film: His hesitation before shooting his first target. How does he know that it's right, he wonders. He is, however, very easy to convince. Fox relates the story of how she was tortured as a child by a man whose name had come up and yet hadn't been killed. It's clear how this experience would lead to Fox's devotion to the Code (about which, more later). However, to anyone more objective, it would have to give pause for thought. That one piece of data is supposed to make it not only acceptable but desirable to kill every name that comes out of a dusty piece of weaving equipment? It's certainly enough for Wesley, however, who just wants an excuse to shut off his conscience and revel in his new lifestyle. No good fight for him: His new purpose is hedonistic and destructive.

Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing in a film. Wesley appears at best morally grey, and this could have been very effectively dealt with. The whole idea of assassins acting on the whims of an apparent instrument of fate, and furthermore escaping their humdrum lives to engage their inner bloodlust, could lead to a brilliant anti-hero picture. Wesley is the ultimate anti-hero: His actions may inadvertently save people's lives (although quite often they do the exact opposite - note the train sequence), but he is so damaged an individual that what he cares about are the monstrous methods he uses. Like in Dexter, the TV show where the man with murder in his soul diverts it to the purpose of killing murderers and so inadvertently saving lives. Dexter is an anti-hero, and a very effective one.

The problem is that Wesley is never recognised by the film as an anti-hero. It paints him as a white knight, blowing away the rot at the heart of the Fraternity (which he claims at the end was an act of saving the world). His single, rather frail conscience pang is set up to confirm this image, suggesting that he does fit the protagonist mould, but everything else about his character suggests otherwise. And, critically, the last lines of the film confirms his view: The most important thing that he has done has been taking back his life for himself through his indiscriminate killing spree and by cutting himself free of his old life. Then he turns to the camera: "What the fuck have you done lately?" His challenge to the viewer is not to better themselves in the usual sense of doing something to make the world a better place, but to break free of society and become like him, ruthless, violent and virtually amoral. There's more than a hint of Nietzsche about the whole thing: Morality and society constrain us - our destiny is to exert power over others and bend the world to our will.

I also claimed in the opening paragraph that there was a gender element to all of this. This may be a controversial reading, but I think it was made quite clear in the film. As far as I can tell, there were a total of three female characters in the film: The first was Wesley's bullying and oppressive boss Janice. Well, there's nothing wrong with playing with the gender of the standard oppressive boss stereotype. The second was Wesley's girlfriend Cathy, who managed simultaneously to be the epitome of the whining girlfriend stereotype - emotionally blackmailing him to try to force him to change his life, talking when he was trying to get well-earned sleep, constantly emasculating him, and ignoring his own numerous problems - and to cheat on him with his best friend in their house, further emasculating him. The third was Fox.

It's very noticeable that almost the entirety of the way that modern society is presented as oppressive and mind numbing is through two women. Janice symbolised the rigid vertical oppression of the workplace, while Cathy symbolised the horizontal oppression of societal and personal expectations. The only other character to throw in is his best friend Barry, who indirectly partakes in the oppression. Notably, after Wesley's transformation, Barry enthusiastically shows his admiration, stating 'He's a man!' This is after Wesley smacks him in the face twice, and kisses Fox in front of him. Sex, violence and escape from office life are what impress Barry, who implicitly admits that he too is a victim of the oppression, and just too cowardly to escape it like Wesley. Cathy by contrast is sickened by Wesley, and expressly states it. The whole way through, the oppressive societal order is associated with women, and it is clearly implied that the great evil of this oppression is not so much conformity as feminisation.

During his training, Wesley is repeatedly chided as a 'pussy,' suggesting that that is what modern life has made him. A pussy: Not only does it literally evoke the very definition of femaleness, but it is a word inextricably linked with womanliness. No-one would call a woman a pussy, because it just wouldn't make sense (compare with 'cunt', which signifies instead a disagreeable personality and is gender-neutral). This womanliness has to be literally beaten out of him before he can become a member of the Fraternity, a society which in name and in fact is very much about being a man.

Ah, but what about Fox? Not only is she a woman, but she is a member of the Fraternity and a badass to boot. Does this not undermine my point? Well, not really. Unless I've missed something, Fox is literally the only woman in a massive secret society. And indeed, if there was no female presence, the rather closeted all-male world might give the wrong impression to modern sensibilities, somewhat: All that...weaving... And we can't have that, that would be even less manly! Moreover, Fox is quite clearly presented as psychologically damaged by the events of her childhood. She is an honorary man because her femininity has been irreparably damaged - this is the only way she could possibly break free of her gender and end up in the Fraternity. Because the Fraternity, and the entire film, is about men breaking free of the oppressive feminising influence of modern society and engaging in a masculinity characterised by violence and hedonism. Almost the only outward-looking value entertained by the film is vengeance, which is labelled as the only ethical concern to count as manly and acceptable.

I say almost, because the character of Fox reveals another value in a way which leaves me with just a glimmer of hope for whoever wrote this film. Fox is, to me, the only even vaguely principled character in the film (Cross might also be, but it is hard to tell). Sloan is hopelessly corrupt and Wesley is basically amoral. Fox however truly believes in the rightness of what she does. She believes that killing those whose names come up is for the greater good and indeed a moral duty. To that end, when their names come up not only does she kill a large number of (presumably) her friends in the Fraternity, but also herself. As mentioned above, such a course of action would never have occurred to Wesley, nor probably to any of the others (they were on the verge of throwing aside the Code). Fox showed a devotion to her beliefs notable in so amoral a film, and I give the writer credit for not taking the easy way out on that score.

Outside of her story arc, which is mostly played out in only two scenes (where she explains her past and where she kills herself), I find almost everything about this film grim. I haven't mentioned the gratuitous cruelty to animals (shooting the wings off flies, using huge numbers of rats as moving bombs) - after all, giving a damn about animals is distinctly unmanly. I also haven't mentioned the curious exclusion of Wesley's mum from the film, which is odd given the role of his father - perhaps she would have provided too much of a sympathetic, identifiable female figure? Finally, I do wonder why such an unashamedly hedonistic and adult film, - full of swearing, violence and some nudity - shies away from its protagonist actually having any sex. The only sex in the film is between Cathy and Barry, and may well be a way to spite Wesley, and the only kiss (between Wesley and Fox) is to evoke a reaction from Cathy and Barry. I wonder whether Wesley and Fox having sex would have reminded us too clearly that women are people to be respected, and that tenderness is not such a bad thing.

The film is misogynistic, hedonistic and heartlessly amoral, and wraps it all up in the trappings of a heroic fantasy adventure filled with "Fuck yeah!" moments. It's hardly a new idea that modern society is feminising and that men need to revolt and re-assert dominance, but I was surprised and rather horrified to see it propounded so vigorously in mainstream fare like this.

Fuck you, Wesley Gibson.

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