This was originally posted in January 2014.
I noticed something after watching two films in January that I am sure others have too: male characters can have super weak characterization. I’m going to get back to this point but let me tell you how I got there. I watched a lot of films during the end of 2013 as I stated last week, these two I just happened to watch in one night. They had a surprising thing in common.
The first film was Dead Man Down, a 2013 thriller starring Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, and Terrence Howard. The film came out in March and was already on Netflix, in December, which tells you about the quality of the film. The story goes that a woman seeking retribution seduces a man, who infiltrated a crime lord’s operation for revenge. In reality, the story is actually kind of hard to describe in one sentence and that factor is just one of its issues.
The second film was Double Whammy, a 2000 comedy starring Dennis Leary, Elizabeth Hurley, and Steve Buscemi. This film is about a police detective who fails to stop a fast-food restaurant massacre struggles to regain his departmental reputation, public image and self-worth. It was actually kind of okay, a bit all over the place but pretty painless.
Now you are probably thinking, based on the posters that these are two total different films, what in the world do they have in common? Well, if you read the title of this post, you may have an idea. Both of the main characters in these films are men who have lost a wife and daughter. Colin Farrell’s Victor lost his wife and daughter due to gang violence and gets revenge by infiltrating the group. Denis Leary’s Ray lost his wife and daughter to a car accident and suffers from depression before the events of this film.
After watching these two films, I had to dive into film characterization. What is about giving men dead female love ones to give them depth? This is gross and I could go into a long diatribe about the history of “fridging” women to advance a man’s story. The practice is long and storied and important and has been told by people far more articulate than I. Watch Feminist Frequency’s Damsel in Distress in Video Games Part 2 for a overview of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toa_vH6xGqs
What I was surprised by how this tactic kind of worked in one film and failed spectacularly in the other. Yet, the entire trope is really poor storytelling and damages women and men in the process.
The dead wife +dead daughter characterization worked in Double Whammy simply because it was an aspect of the character of Ray. He was a cop who seemed to be going through a lot and had this tragic moment that has changed him and is a significant moment of his life. It was a catalyst, a moment that he and the audience could trace to his downfall. It was still unbelievable and also unnecessary yet this part of Ray’s life didn’t fuel his raison d’etre either. Yet, it fails miserably in Dead Man Down because that feels like the only characterization that Victor has. Once that we are given this information about his past, that is the only driving force of his life. He has no other likable qualities or other wants except to kill the man who killed his family.
You will also notice that when we have these widower characters, there is usually a woman to help ease them back into life. Ray in Double Whammy has his chiropractor, Ann, played by Elizabeth Hurley while Victor has his neighbor, Beatrice, played by Noomi Rapace. Both characters are not full-fledged people and are honestly just there as love interests to their main characters. Ann doesn’t really represent anything but a happy future for Ray and has exactly zero scenes that show her in an independent way. We never get to know her before Ray comes into her life. Beatrice is almost a foil for Victor who is powered by her own thirst for revenge after a drunk driver caused a car accident that caused her face to physically damaged. We get a glimpse of how she is dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy but her grief is never above Victor’s. It is more shown as that she is sad but likes him enough to stop being sad and help Victor become happier. Dead Man Down tries to make Beatrice a stronger character by attempting to show depth behind these characters by trying to show them work through their grief together but it doesn’t work. That poor writing in combination to the typical action shoot’em up results in a film that wants to be deep but also cool and becomes a convoluted mess.
The result of this instant characterization is women that are seen as disposable or only objects in men’s lives. We already have this very real problem in life with the high levels of violence against women and now a correlation in our media. It also shows that the only response to the death of your wife, either through purposeful violence or a tragic accident, is to vow revenge and kill the men who did this or to wallow and never fully grieve. What is this telling society to expect from men? What is this saying about women’s worth?
While it is obvious that I am not a big fan of dead female characters that cause man pain, characters need back story to influence their temperament and choices. This is just a choice that needs to be done organically and truthfully. It’s just good storytelling and Double Whammy does this by making sure that it is just one aspect of the character and not the only aspect like Dead Man Down.
But to be perfectly honest, if I never saw another movie with a man who had a dead wife and daughter as his motivation for anything, that would be great too.