starring Daniel Radcliffe, Samara Weaving, Natasha Liu, Rhys Darby
written and directed by Jason Lei Howden
by Walter Chaw One of my favourite stories--much-embellished, probably, by its author--is Fritz Lang's account of being called into Propaganda Minister Goebbels's office in 1933 to be told that Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was going to be censored, alas, but would Lang like to be in charge of Nazi-run movie studio UFA? It's funny because Lang had bankrupted UFA six years prior with the colossal flop that was Metropolis--an event that made UFA vulnerable to its eventual takeover. For context, during those last days of the Weimar, Leni Riefenstahl was the freshly-installed head of the Nazi Film Commission and had that year shot the annual Nuremberg Rally on behalf of her greatest admirer, Adolf Hitler. Riefenstahl was a genius-level filmmaker eventually given more resources--the support of an entire industrialized nation--than arguably any other filmmaker received before or since. She used it to coin new ways of looking at things. When you watch a professional football game now, well, Riefenstahl set the stage for that. Star Wars, too.
Riefenstahl was also an unrepentantly terrible human being: a liar, an opportunist, a prominent and effective propagandist for amoral causes. She had the great fortune of living long enough to write a misleading, self-aggrandizing autobiography and have her reputation resuscitated by major filmmakers in the United States, who treated her like a rock star and a sage. That's the secret so many powerful men have always known: wait long enough and people forget and move on to the next glorious outrage; everyone loves a good comeback story, especially if you write it yourself. Anyway, back to Lang. He recalls politely indicating that he was flattered to be offered the gig, then selling his soon-to-be-ex wife's jewelry and fleeing on the last train to Paris, where he made the extraordinary Liliom the very next year. In Liliom, based on an oft-filmed Ferenc Molnár play, an unfortunate soul tries to do the right thing but kills himself in despair when a heist goes wrong. His spirit is then given a chance over the course of one day sixteen years later to free himself from Hell by doing something nice for the daughter he's never met.
Liliom's "happy" ending isn't the promise of salvation, but rather the idea that, for most of us, eternity has more to do with legacy and the stories that others tell about you than with anything we actually do in our lives. It's enough to have someone love you enough to lie about you after you're gone. Lang came to the U.S. next, and for his first film there, he told the story of a good man wrongly accused of doing a terrible thing. A mob of righteous avengers then storms the police station where he's being held and burns it to the ground. Fury stars Spencer Tracy as the wronged man and Sylvia Sidney as the woman who loves him. In the end, it's the wronged man who begs the crowd of angry Norman Rockwell barbers, bankers, and waitresses for forgiveness for not stepping in sooner to end the mob's suffering when their misdeeds are captured on film and shown to the horror of friends and family who had supported them. That's quaint now, of course. People don't care. Well, until they're moved to care en masse, that is. Lang had a lot to say on the subject of mob justice and the Freudian Madonna-whore post-coital shame that can come fast the morning after a feeding frenzy. You can't unfuck something, though--that's the horror of it. Fury is about how difficult it is to stem the red tide of vengeance and then about how cleansing forgiveness can be, should anyone decide to offer it.
Jason Lei Howden's Guns Akimbo is about how the Internet via social media has become a vile, roiling mob that can be roused in a heartbeat to rage behind a wave of presumed anonymity. Phenomena like "doxxing" and "SWATting," once the domain of diseased minds with enough time on their hands to track down where someone lives and conspire to bring them harm, are now a literal mouse-click away. Just as the VCR moved porn from Times Square to the suburban middle-class living room, the Internet has moved vigilante horde justice from backwoods yokelism into the acceptable popular mainstream. The hero of Guns Akimbo, a brutally-damaged woman named Nix (Samara Weaving), is afraid of only one thing in the whole, ugly, violent world: fire. This is loaded, of course, racially because of its relationship to lynchings and the Klan's penchant for setting crosses ablaze, sexually because of its weaponizing against heretics like Joan of Arc and witches like, well, Joan of Arc. (Feminine power seen as infernal and so returned to fire.) Nix is the "star" of a web-series called "SKIZM" that is essentially The Running Man playing out on city streets like a bloodier "Pokémon GO". It attracts millions of viewers, whom Howden portrays, The Truman Show-like, watching from the comfort of various modest hovels. Bread and circus, y'all, but real people are getting hurt on behalf of your rapidly-diminishing attention spans.
Opening narration explains that our other hero, Miles (Daniel Radcliffe), spends every day on a handful of apps before eating by himself and going to sleep alone. At one point, Miles marvels at how everything outside looks like it was shot in 4K--he's used to filtering the world through a screen. Miles finds power in being a troll: going to places where he can feel superior to the Internet, to which he is addicted. "In real life, I couldn't hurt a fly," he says, "but behind the keys, I was the fucking Terminator." When he says he couldn't hurt a fly, I thought about fellow lonely boy Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, which led me to Alfred Hitchcock and how Vertigo is possibly the most personal expression of self-loathing ever produced for popular consumption on a Hollywood backlot. I don't know if Vertigo is Vertigo if Hitchcock were not, at that point in his life, disturbed and frustrated. Hell is here, Hitchcock says. Hell is men. The hero of Vertigo essentially bullies the woman he loves to death. Miles bullies people for liking reprehensible things--for getting off on suffering, for being utterly desensitized to the human beings tumbling down stairs, getting pranked, walking into fountains. Mel Brooks defines the difference between comedy and tragedy as the difference between the intimate pain of a hangnail and the hilarity of a stranger falling into a manhole and dying. Cyberspace is sanctioned, mob-encouraged and -sourced voyeurism, and sometimes it's deadly.
Miles happens upon the perfectly-dubbed SKIZM site and starts trolling its fans. Then SKIZM susses out where he lives and sends people over to bolt guns to his hands and force him to fight their champion, Nix. He has become, as he desired, the centre of this toxic community's attention. In Mandarin, the word for "cell phone" is two characters meaning "hand machine" or, you know, "machine hand." Indeed, in the ways that Guns Akimbo engages violence and televisual stimulation, it could easily be a sequel to Cronenberg's Videodrome or Shin-ya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, two films where this biomechanical fusion feature prominently. The Chinese get it. Traumatized by a terrible event in her past, Nix has nothing left to live for as she sees it. She's suicidal in the sense that she lacks much sense of self-preservation, although she finds strength in not allowing others to murder her before she murders them. She continues in the game because she's been promised a clean record once she completes a certain number of duels. Guns Akimbo isn't all that different from gladiator movies where the Caesar lies to his best champion to get one last spectacle out of him: a series of One Last Spectacles, as it happens, resulting, inevitably, in his death.
Radcliffe and Weaving are fantastic. Not casting Weaving as Harley Quinn is an extraordinary missed opportunity that's more than addressed, as it happens, by this film. Guns Akimbo is what the muddled Birds of Prey could have been had it indulged in the sexual violence and loss of agency it was meant to redress. Between this, Ready or Not, and Mayhem, Weaving's legacy is already assured and vibrant. While the obvious choice is to make Nix the Terminator Miles imagines himself being as an online troll-hunter, Weaving instead plays her as hilariously unhinged and, in a climactic scene of explosive martyrdom, manages a character arc that's immensely touching and cathartic. Radcliffe matches her energy as a put-upon schlub doing his best to adapt to a rapidly-shifting situation while sort of hoping to win back his ex, Nova (Natasha Liu Bordizzo). Miles and Nix are two circus acts working separate rings under the same big-top. The title Guns Akimbo alludes to both Chow Yun-Fat's favoured wielding strategy in John Woo flicks (Hard-Boiled as well as Woo's Hard Target are referenced literally) and the bonded chaos of these two characters. If the film weren't so well-balanced, it would fly apart from the centripetal force.
I think it's fascinating that Miles can't hold his dick or pull up his pants because he has guns for hands now. When he puts one of the guns in his mouth, a homeless guy (Rhys Darby) tells him that at that angle, he'll just blow his face off. Later, Howden cuts to this guy watching and reacting to what's happening to Miles and Nix on an ancient portable television, a reveal that reminded me a lot of the family huddled in front of a television-turned-fireplace in the post-apocalypse of The Terminator. The equation of TV to traditional notions of security and hearth are transmuted here to the essential madness of looking at your hand for a good portion of your waking life. Life is short, and it's getting shorter. Guns Akimbo is about dependence on others when your body fails--and if you have the good fortune to live long enough, you'll not only be able to retell your own story, you'll also probably need the kindness of strangers to feed you and wipe your ass. Miles, who believes he is alone, learns that the world is as open to an investment of interest and empathy as it is full of cruelty. If you look carefully, you might find a thread here to pull concerning the evolution of social interactions and the importance, even through its rapid mutations, of social contracts, whatever form they might take. An early scene where Miles visits his employer sees Miles confronting his broheim boss (Richard Knowles) for constant bullying and the toll it's taken on the workplace environment. "You docked my pay for attending my mother's funeral," he cries, and suddenly Guns Akimbo is even touching on how the humiliation and Dickensian drudgery of most jobs contributes to our susceptibility to micro-transactional telephone games and Instagram. Facebook and Fox--who knew the Horsemen of our current apocalypse would be so alliterative?
Guns Akimbo is finally a well-directed film, edited with clarity and a keen sense of pacing by the team of Luke Haigh and Zaz Montana. A film this frenetic shouldn't be this easy to follow, and for all the comparisons that have been made to the stunt-work and choreography of John Wick post-John Wick, this is the first film to truly deserve them. There's a moment where Nix, after shrugging off all insult, is provoked to violence by being called a "lackey" that lands as delightfully corny in the middle of bloodshed. It reminds of Sergio Aragones's Groo the Wanderer rising to offense only when someone calls him a "mendicant." In other words, Guns Akimbo never loses its sense of humour, never takes itself too seriously, and ultimately has something to say about how the world is falling down--as any quickly-erected structure without a proper foundation must. It's a miracle, really, that it hasn't fallen apart sooner. Howden suggests there are no happy endings for anyone engaged in a life of violence and response, and he shows how seeing a hero enact retributive violence leads not to a happily-ever-after, but to crippling PTSD and cycles of violence. He says that humans will make public executions the top-rated program in the land in any era in which cooler minds have not regulated them. And he says that this is a lesson particularly hard to learn for victims of aggression and trauma, since our brave new world was not built for forgiveness and grace--especially forgiveness of the self for surviving where better people, more deserving, have not. The world was never kind, though rage didn't used to spread so wide so fast, with no Parises or Hollywoods left to flee to in the dead of night. We're in bad trouble, but at least it's almost over. In retrospect, we never should've bolted those weapons to our hands.