Tag Archives: Lisbeth Salander

Best performances by a non-actor/inanimate object

This “best of” list is by no means an original idea. I first came across a similar such superlative in the NYTimes Magazine around Oscar season.  It seemed like a fun diversion from my usual “close-reading” reviews, and as I have been short on time for creative dabbling, it is ideal for a time-efficient blurb-type post. Most of these films, I believe, were release in the past year.

If any readers out there have any more suggestions, don’t be shy! This is an ongoing list.

Hokay, here we go!

1. The hot-pink script credits in “Drive.”

The obvious route to take here would have been The Driver’s (Ryan Gosling) notorious scorpion jacket. But the neon-pink  opening credits that come across the screen over the shot of the L.A. highways sets the tone for this inscrutable movie. “Drive” is either making fun of itself or boldly inhabiting a dated early 1990’s genre of undercover cop fair such as “Point Break” or “Miami Vice.” It is a clever move to begin “Drive” in such a fashion because from this moment on, because as we are gaping at the hot-pink script, we are wondering just how seriously we are supposed to take this movie. And, when/if we do start taking it seriously, we are either being skillfully manipulated or realizing that “Drive” actually may be, in all of its super-stylized, silent hero-without-a-name glory, a serious movie. The beauty of this is you can watch it both ways and it still works. It’s not perfect, but it works.

2. The planet measurement device in “Melancholia”

It’s been named “the doom-o-meter” and “mortal coil” by Michael Vazquez of The Huffington Post. I like to call it “the downward spiral.” A rudimentary device crudely fashioned out of wire by a young boy, this apparatus is repeatedly utilized towards the end of the movie and is at firs the source of comfort, and inevitably, dread. It’s method of use is to hold the circular coils to the sky so that it frames the planet Melancholia, thus revealing it’s distance from the planet Earth by its size in relation to the tiny coil. The doom-o-meter spends most of its screen time clutched in the spindly, tense fingers of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who anxiously peers through the mortal coils only to see that Melancholia is looming larger, and getting closer and closer….

3. Sigmund Freud’s cane in “A Dangerous Method”

“Fascinating,” proclaims a sardonic Mr. Freud (Viggo Mortensen) through a mouthful of cigar as he observes a young female patient of emerge from a “therapeutic” bath. In this scene at a psychiatric hospital and in virtually every scene in the movie, Freud is clutching his faithful cane–and (he would be the first to admit), his penis. In one later scene, after the defiant Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) liberates himself from Freud’s overbearing patrimony, Freud becomes ill and collapses. His cane can no longer steady him and he flings it through the air, almost comically, leaving Freud prone on the floor. The father–and the phallus–have been castrated.

4. Lisbeth’s Salander’s t-shirt in David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”


5. The shelter door  in “Take Shelter”

At the climax of this haunting film from director Jeff Nichols, Curtis (Michael Shannon), his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter, who is deaf, are sequestered in the storm shelter during a tornado. Curtis has been suffering from terribly lucid visions/hallucinations (the difference is the crux of the film) of an apocalyptic storm, which is his reason for building the shelter. After the duration of the storm, Samantha is more than ready to emerge from their subterranean refuge; the paranoid Curtis refuses, believing the storm–or something much worse–is still raging above. Throughout the film, Curtis’ visions and paranoia make him a frightening and fallacious figure–whenever he is on screen, he is the subject of uncertainty, of dread–the lines between delusion/dream/reality  are always  blurred. The shelter door represents this boundary between what is real and imagined, sane and insane. The moment when Curtis refuses to unlock the shelter door, he is at his most terrifying–the suffocating fear that he has stifled inside is ready to explode, and this  fear makes him so unpredictable that it is entirely possible for him to do a number of things–including trap himself along with his wife and daughter in this shelter for the remainder of their lives. What lies outside that shelter door  is the moment of truth as to whether or not Curtis is some kind of a portentous soothsayer or a paranoid schizophrenic. The claustrophobia of the shelter–a sealed, impassable portal–combined with the trepidation of what may lie beyond it made this scene unbearable to watch.

6. The shattered windshield in “A Separation”

 Sin–the act of sinning, of absolving one of sin, and the self-sacrifice of bearing the burden of a loved one’s sin– is one of many profound themes in this devastating Iranian domestic drama. Hojjat, unhinged, unemployed and hot-tempered, beats himself in the head repeatedly on various occasions to punish himself for his sins. It is implied that he used to beat his wife but has since reformed, and now takes the sin out on himself. When we see a crack the size of a human head in the windshield of the car belonging to the family with which he and his wife are in a heated dispute (a dispute which is the crux of the film), it brings self-flagellation to a new and frightening realm. As the family–husband, wife and teenage girl–make the tense drive home, the wind hisses through the cracks in the windshield. When a windshield is shattered, the cracks form web-like designs which disperse to form  multiple tiny spider webs, each representing the fragmented psyches of a different character in this film and how they are interconnected.



‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Fish Tank’: Cinema’s subtle female avengers

I had recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s all-time-downer-classic, “Cries and Whispers,” for the second time when an article critiquing the latest phenomenon of young, sexualized and violent female characters in film appeared in the New York Times. A.O Scott and Manohla Dargis cite “Kick-Ass,” “Sucker Punch,” and the “Millennium” trilogy as films with young women who express themselves either through superpowers, sexuality, or heinous violence.  In “Cries and Whispers,” film nearly forty years old, I realized that the three sisters essentially express their repressed emotions in almost this same exact manner (save the superpowers, perhaps).  The only difference is that the violence is self-inflicted and the sexuality is merely hinted through gestures, sidelong glances, and the occasional touch and kiss.

My point is that it is possible to convey the “complex intertwinings of sex and violence” without female exploitation and special effects.  Furthermore, we still see examples, few they may be, of young women who assert their power through more multi-faceted and subtle means. Mr. Scott and Ms. Dargis justly but briefly mention these films and characters, I would like to expand on their observations.  Two standout heroines who broke the mold of ass-kicking, gun-slinging girls were Ree in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Mia in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.”  In “Winter’s Bone,” Ree exudes her power over others—men included—neither through sexuality or violence; her voice barely even raises above a low whisper, save for one crucial moment.  Mia, although a decidedly more brazen presence than Ree, articulates her very fraught emotions through the silence and fluidity of dance.

Both Mia and Ree do share some interesting similarities with the women of “Kick-Ass” and “Sucker Punch,” such as the pattern of what Mr. Scott calls “reassuring and creepy” father figures.  These are men who take young, vulnerable girls under their wing and proceed to sexualize them and/or persuade them into violent action.  Mia perceives Conor, her mother’s boyfriend, as father figure, but is also attracted to him, a fact that Conor eventually takes full advantage of.  What is most disturbing about Ms. Arnold’s depiction of their relationship is that initially, Conor’s actions can be viewed as either extremely inappropriate or utterly innocent.  When Mia falls asleep on the couch, Conor carries her like a baby to her room, lays her on the bed and takes of her pants, only to lift the covers over her legs and up to her shoulders, tucking her in.  The “creepy” factor is definitely there, but also the possibility of a paternal figure.  Ree and Teardrop share a similarly complex relationship, minus the sexual innuendo, although the threat of violence is certainly there at first.  Teardrop is the brother of her missing father, and despite his skinny, hangdog demeanor, he is one scary guy.  We are first introduced to him as he ambles down the staircase of his house, still in his pajamas.  A cup of coffee is placed on the table in front of him and he hunches down and slurps the coffee, hands-free, hinting at his animal tendencies and rage.  When Ree, who has come to inquire about the location of her father, asks one question too many, he lunges out of his chair and grabs Ree by the side of her head, not hitting her, but hurting her all the same. As the film progresses, Teardrop will not only become Ree’s only ally, but the one member of her immediate family aside from her younger siblings who loves and protects her.  These two important male figures in the lives of Mia and Ree prove to be more intricately drawn than the “reassuring or creepy” type that Mr. Scott depicts—they are a disturbing embodiment of both.

Mia, and even the ever-stoic Ree, also personify the “female rage” that Mr. Scott describes and take their own brand of revenge against abusive men. Mia’s revenge against Conor’s emotional and sexual abuse is especially frightening because she demonstrates that her reckless abandon goes beyond merely head-butting other teenagers.  In a bizarre but terrifying sequence, Mia kidnaps Conor’s daughter, snatching her right off her scooter and forcing her to march to cliffy seashore, where she nearly drowns.  Mia may not take an axe to Conor a la Lisbeth Salander, but she hits him where it hurts the most by invading his personal family life and staining his daughter’s innocence. Speaking of Lisbeth’s revenge on her father,  Ree also, if more symbolically, takes her own form of gruesome revenge on her already dead father not with a axe, but with a chainsaw. Ree is certainly more sympathetic to her absent father, whom she clearly still loves.  So when Ree grasps her father’s dead hands through the murky water in which his body has been dumped, and is handed a chainsaw, which she must use to cut off those hands as proof of his death,  it is a much more grueling and horrifying act than Lisbeth’s attempt at patricide.

The taciturn Ree a stark contrast to the foul-mouthed Mindy/Hit Girl of “Kick-Ass.”  Ree’s might is measured by the force and consequences of her actions and, even more so, by the thoughtfulness of her silence.  She answers every question after a long stretch of painstaking silence; you can almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Ree’s one verbal catharsis is blunt, relentless, and free of expletives.  She stridently bellows the name of the town patriarch—“THUMP MIL-TON!”—over and over again, her cries intermixing with the groaning of the cows of the auction house to where she has tracked him down.  Ree knows she will not get a reaction out of him, but she continues to holler those three syllables with dogged conviction. Ree’s verbal torrent will have grim consequences, and she knows this, and is not afraid.  When it counts, Ree uses her words, and uses them fervently.

With Mia we encounter the opposite trait: a ribald, vituperative and sometimes dangerous teenager who spits out the coarsest obscenities as if it’s her own secret language.  Above all things, Mia is a kinetic being, although her physicality is not of the action-heroine variety, such is the case with the girls of “Sucker Punch.”  An aspiring hip-hop dancer, Mia is constantly in motion, whether practicing moves alone in an empty room of an abandoned high-rise or prowling the dingy, drab streets of her town.  Mia’s physical grace is the reason why her most defining moment in “Fish Tank” is devoid of words altogether.  In a silent but tense moment of alternating confrontation and empathy, Mia and her mother dance together—not side by side, not in a loving mother-daughter embrace, but facing each other, toe-to-toe, an uncanny mirror image:

(Sorry about the weird subtitles)

Ingmar Bergman would beg to differ, but sadly, you need a bit more than cries and whispers nowadays to get by in the movie land of sexed-up-women-with-weapons. So, you foul-mouthed, pre-sexual yet inappropriately erotic superhero; you mercurial, mohawked, axe-wielder; you sword-swinging, scantily-clad prisoners of a misogynistic psycho-ward/alternate reality–Ree and Mia would like you to know that all a girl needs to get by in this cruel world is the good sense to know when to make your voice heard, and some sweet dance moves.  And perhaps, in dire circumstances, to be used only as an expression of deeply repressed female anger and grief, a chainsaw.

Work cited:

Scott, A.O., and Manohla Dargis. “Gosh, Sweetie, That’s a Big Gun.” New York Times 27 April 2011: MT1. Print.