Daddy’s Little Monster, by Scott Nye
In the world of action cinema, there are two major categories into which most films fall. One presents action as movement, in which the choreography, music, and beats of the scene elicit the same thrills as a fast-paced dance number. The Wachowskis are the reigning masters of this form, but John Woo held that title prior and this was all over Tarantino’s approach to Kill Bill. The other, more common form is the action of the unstoppable force, often in the collision of two forces. This is characterized by battles between people in which skill is helpful but not required, but the chief thrill is in seeing a person as a pure force of nature blazing his or her way through dozens of enemies with anything at their disposal. Paul Greengrass perfected this for the modern era with the Bourne films, but Die Hard is still probably the foremost example and this has been James Cameron’s wheelhouse for most of his career.
I say all this because given the history of Joe Wright’s rigorous aesthetic, I really believed he’d be more of a dance guy. In fact, he’s said as much in the press, but his entire aesthetic here is based more around delivering the most propulsive, adrenaline-pumping action film in years. So, you know…not a bad trade. The story isn’t simple by the end, but the set-up certainly is: Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) has been raised in the forest by her father, Erik (Eric Bana), who trained her from birth to be a killing machine. At age 16 she’s finally allowed to leave with the understanding that once she does, the government will be after her all day and night. And sure enough, they are. It seems a high-ranking government official, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett, reveling in every second she’s onscreen), has some sort of reason for going after her – won’t spoil it here – and Erik in turn has a score to settle with Marissa (again, no spoilers). And none of them will stop until they get what they want.
And so with the literal flick of a switch, the film is off and running. And boy does it run. With a pounding, truly awesome score courtesy of The Chemical Brothers propelling her forward, Hanna goes on a run for her life, willing and more than able to take down anything in her path. Every confrontation is shot differently, from the surreal sensory overload of Hanna’s escape from government custody to the single take fight scene between Erik and a group of thugs to the chop-socky, slightly Bourne-esque sparring sessions between father and daughter, Wright’s clear vision for this film drives it home to one of my favorite endings in a while. These disparate elements never feel that way – their differences keep the film fresh without veering off the track.
Action films starring women can be a tough sell sometimes, chiefly because we have to believe that a young girl can take out supposedly well-trained, certainly physically capable men. This isn’t a matter of “sisters doin’ it for themselves” – there are just certain physical and biological principles that come into play. And the film does have a narrative device to cheat this somewhat, but the fights are also wisely staged so that Hanna can use a variety of weapons. The fights, then, come down to agility and skill rather than making us assume that a 16-year-old girl has the brute force of a man in his late 20s. And Ronan certainly does her part to sell it, as well as all the character beats. It’s tough to play someone totally cut off from the rest of the world, but Ronan has an innate, removed quality to her that suits the part well, and there is a natural curiosity in her eyes that makes her thirst for the outside world totally convincing. We don’t need her to ask what music feels like; her first experience with it tells us everything.
Then there is a whole other fairy tale element to the film that only barely peeks its head out early on but emerges a full-fledged aesthetic late in the game. It’s not a shift easily explained, but in experience feels just right. The film has had a slightly surreal element to it for most of the running time – this is by far the most heightened reality Wright has yet played with, and he does it so successfully I hope he never comes back. The burlesque-manager-turned-whistling-hitman and his gang of cronies mixed in with a beyond-her-years globetrotting teenager whom Hanna befriends (never mind Blanchett’s southern accent) make it clear that nothing here is playing in the same reality we are, a welcome change from a decade of action films insistent on “gritty realism.”
The sound design plays a huge role here – we’re never far removed from Ronan’s heavy breathing in her physical scenes, keeping us in her headspace without obscuring the choreography, and the punches and kicks land with real force. When we get a POV shot from a door getting kicked down, the sound shakes the room. And then there’s the matter of that score, which is really something else (and also will give you reason to hope your projectionist has the sound cranked). Like the film, it dips into a surreal headspace while still keeping it propulsive.
I can’t say enough how much I loved this film, and it’s heartening to see more people come around on Wright with its release. It’s tempting to get upset that it took an action film for the geek contingent to see his talent, but the fact is this may be his best film. As much as I get looks when I tell fellow cinephiles about my love for Bad Boys II or Speed Racer, I maintain that the action film, when done right, is as pure a cinematic experience as The Passenger or The Mirror. All of them rely on camera movement, editing, physicality, and blocking – in other words, classic mise en scene – to create an emotional response. Joe Wright clearly understands that on an innate level, and it’s a thrill to see him approach the action picture with the respect it deserves.