For those of you avoiding spoilers until you’ve already seen it, I’ll do you the favor of not burying the money shot in paragraph seven, leveling my thumb skywards and upfront, providing the crux of my review here: V for Vendetta is fucking brilliant. Technically, first-time director James McTeigue offers the brand of wizardry you’ve come to expect from the brothers Wachowski (for whom he served as assistant director on the Matrix Trilogy), but more importantly (and perhaps surprisingly), Larry and Andy, who wrote and produced V, provide narrative achievements lacking in the Matrix franchise, trading in vague blue-and-red pilled plot devices for a mostly coherent storyline that actually rises above the FX gimmickry. Beneath McTeigue’s floating knives and the ballet of violence, Larry and Andy provide thoughtful (if somewhat shallow) characters, challenging-but-logical mythology, and the kind of daring political ambiguity rarely seen in a blockbuster of this magnitude. Indeed, while the film’s ideas and the motivations of its characters appear in vague shades of gray, V for Vendetta is clearly delineated by the graphic colors that stand in stark contrast to the dark palette upon which the film is painted, radiantly projecting onscreen the cinematic equal to David Lloyd’s chiaroscuro illustrations.
In short, V for Vendetta will reignite the pleasantly unexpected feelings of open-mouthed awe you felt walking out of the first Matrix, shaking your head in disbelief and thinking silently to yourself, “Seriously! Did I just love a Keanu Reeves film?” Only this time, you won’t have to hang your hat on the breathtaking way a bullet splits through the fourth dimension. Instead, you’ll leave wrestling over whether it’s OK to believe that terrorism can possess this much humanism or whether V’s vigilante-anarchist approach may actually provide the ideal solution to the groupthink convergence of corporate America and an autocracy that is emerging against our indifference, a notion that is all the more prescient in the wake of the unnoticed warnings from a Reagan-appointed Supreme Court justice who recently suggested that our country may be edging dangerously toward dictatorship.
It’s evident at the outset that V for Vendetta owes both its colorfully angry tone and its political bent to the source material, a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Lloyd. In photographs, Moore looks equal parts Charles Manson and Rasputin, and he has the apparent live-free-or-die mentality of a crazy New Hampshirite who has taken up residence on his front porch with a shotgun and an eager hankering to have his “No Trespassing” sign ignored. Though the film is as faithful an adaptation as any writer could wish (in tone, if not overall structure), Moore has disavowed his association anyway, calling the Wachowski screenplay, “rubbish,” a belief that probably has more to do with the way he was purportedly treated by D.C. comics than the actual merits of the script itself.
And, if you’re like me (someone who abhors comic books with an intensity generally reserved for the outcome of recent elections), you might approach the source material with the same reservations I had, namely that a graphic novel is literature for unkempt, virgin adults who refuse to give up their adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. However, once I got a feel for the awkward way to read a novel of this disjointed nature (read, look at pictures, read, look at pictures) and stopped muttering, “I fucking hate comic books,” aloud to anyone who would listen, Moore’s sophisticated storylines and unhinged, disconcerting worldview occasionally managed to strike a raw nerve. Indeed, his writing reads like that of a half-crazed man who believes the government has planted a chip in his brain, only the edges of his ramblings are rounded down and edited into coherent, easy-to-digest word bubbles that sometimes ring true in the same way that the core concepts of conspiracy theories often do before their advocates get to the insane bits about alien abductions and black helicopters.
Written originally at a time when conservative England was circulating rumors about “rounding up people with AIDS and putting them into concentration camps” and eradicating homosexuality “even as an abstract concept,” the film’s transformation takes Moore’s weltanschauung to a new level: After America is destroyed in an unwinnable war with the Middle East (!) and left as a “leper colony,” England rises as the only remaining superpower, now a totalitarian regime that exterminates outliers, minorities, and deviants in “medical research camps,” while der Fuhrer Adam Sutler’s (John Hurt) corrupt dominion extends into every facet of government, from the regulation of the media and healthcare to the setting of strict curfews for its citizens and the elimination of civil rights by means of covert violence — think religio-fascist Iran, only with sexy British accents.
While the book was set in a bleak post-Thatcherite, post-nuke 1997 dystopian society under the control of a repressive, authoritarian British “Head” and his thuggish “Fingermen” who worked out of “the Nose,” the Wachowskis have updated the timeline (to around 2020) and substituted a deadly plague for nuclear bombs. Still, the brothers have successfully transplanted Moore’s contumacious ideas, breathing new life into themes that resonate even louder in a post- 9/11 world, where centrally-owned media conglomerates control the flow of information under the supervision of a government that paralyzes its citizens into submission through its xenophobic culture of fear — and the Wachowskis overtly draw these parallels by using both the techniques (wiretapping and Abu-Ghraib-style black masks) and verbiage (“Coalition of the Willing”) of the Bush/Cheney
regime administration, going a bit too far, perhaps, by suggesting that the government created the deadly plague (destroyed the WTC?) as a pretense for throwing down its iron fist.
Amidst all the controlled chaos rises the Guy-Fawkes-inspired V (Hugo Weaving), a Darwinist byproduct of Britain’s human medical experiments. As you might recall from your Western Civ classes, Guy Fawkes was famous for his involvement in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to kill the King of England by blowing up the House of Parliament on the 5th of November (discussed at length in the film’s prologue). Likewise, V is orchestrating his own Gunpowder Plot, but first must dispose of the Old Bailey with the terrorist glee of The Phantom of the Opera after reconstructive surgery has removed that dour expression from his mask.
Along for V’s do-gooder misdeeds is sidekick Evey (Natalie Portman), assistant to Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), who himself is the O’Reillyesque mouthpiece of the government, charged with scaring the shit out of everyone and thus squelching any ideas of friendly civil disobedience. Evey, a 16-year-old prostitute in the novel, has been made over in the movie as one of England’s law-abiding worker bees and given an extensive — and rather unnecessary — backstory, revealing that her parents’ political activism resulted in her being orphaned at a young age. Portman, notably, brings to the role a lack of naïvete, a trait that plagued the novelized demoiselle, who figured more to be a character out of A Doll’s House rather than the new-wave feminist rebirth of Demi Moore depicted by Portman in the film.
Though characters and subplots have been excised and the exposition largely differs from the book, the source material and the film converge narratively on the occasion of V and Evey’s meet-cute, in which V rescues her from Reichstagian Fingermen, who believe breaking curfew provides license for gang-rape. In typical romantic-comedy fashion, V breaks some Fingers, spouts off some Shakespeare, name-drops a few of the classics, and takes her to a midnight fireworks show, in the form of an exploding criminal court, or “an emergency demolition,” as the government later spins it. V, however, refuses to allow Big Brother to steal his thunder, hijacking the television station where Evey works the next day and delivering an impassioned, anti-Sutler message, promising to succeed where Guy Fawkes left off — on, of all days — the 5th of November, one year hence. It also provides V the occasion to steal Evey away from the authorities, removing her into his Shadow Gallery, a converted-subway Batcave replete with jukeboxes and pre-dystopian artwork.
After that, Pete and Repeat lay the groundwork for the finale, stylishly bumping off all those who wronged V in his pre-mask days, while ensuring that each deserving victim receives a lovely red rose as a winking parting gift (who says terrorist madmen aren’t romantics?). Meanwhile, Detective Finch (Stephen Rea) spends much of the next year trying to uncover the identity of V, while Evey undergoes a ritualistic head-shaving that recalls a trauma heretofore forgotten since the second season of “Felicity.”
Through the entire ordeal, most of V’s words and actions speak to his ideology (“People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.”), but his real motivation is more singular: revenge. Indeed, at its core, V for Vendetta is another in a string of retribution flicks, only unlike Tarantino’s revenge opus, Kill Bill — two movies’ worth of gleefully kinetic, gratuitous slayings — the vendetta here is connected to something larger than masturbatory gore. Revenge in V is not just vengeance swaddled in blood, it’s a present-day countercultural statement melded to bombs, knives, and political allegories. It’s not always eloquent — at times V gets needlessly mired in melodrama, overreaches with its alliterative cliches, and often feels a little too heavy-handed — but, despite the way it unsatisfactorily bastardizes Moore’s conclusion, perhaps nothing has made me feel this exhilaratingly anti-authoritarian since Hard-On Harry asked us in 1990’s Pump up the Volume to “rise up in the cafeteria and stab them with our plastic forks.”
There is no shortage of inspiration for V, both of the acknowledged (A Clockwork Orange, If ….) and the unacknowledged variety (1984, Brave New World, Batman, Darkman, Phantom of the Opera, and maybe just a trace of The Legend of Billie Jean), but in my mind, both thematically and in the way the plot unfolds, V for Vendetta bears the strongest resemblance to Fight Club, of all movies. While David Fincher’s film is arguably much better, V tackles political dissatisfaction in the same way FC approached our cultural discontent with pre-9/11 American consumerism, and both subversively use violence to deliver a message disconnected from their immediate targets. And though the narrative and the interplay between the two principals in both films follow similar paths toward their iconoclastic conclusions, where Fight Club and V ultimately diverge is where I have to respectfully jump off the Vendetta wagon, because Fincher ultimately rejects violence as a means to express dissatisfaction, while the Wachowski brothers seem to insist that death and fiery destruction are ideal weapons in the war against government oppression. Unfortunately, it is here that V fails to realize its own hypocrisy — after all, if there is anything we’ve learned from an administration that the Wachowskis have taken such pains to vilify, it is that death and fiery destruction (or “shock and awe”) do not always result in freedom. Alas, it does no good to anyone, really, to trade in a culture of fear for one of violence, even if the end product is accompanied by fireworks and Tchaikovsky.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.V for Vendetta / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()