Something I thought while watching the film Close, which premiered on Netflix on Jan. 19: Is this feminist, or is this racist?
Directed, written, and produced by Vicky Jewson, Close is inspired by the life of Jacquie Davis, a British bodyguard who has protected celebrities including “Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, J.K Rowling, Nicole Kidman, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, teenage heart-throb Justin Bieber and the Beckhams,” according to the company that reps her as a motivational speaker. Davis was in the field for 30 years, one of only a few women in an industry dominated by men, and Close sort of touches on that isolation. Jewson herself in the media notes for Close talks about wanting the film to be “a message about female empowerment,” and each of the three main female characters in the film goes through a journey of self-actualization.
But to do that, the film also engages in the sort of racism that seems to be permeating action stories in this bodyguard genre—like the Richard Madden-starring Bodyguard, which flirted with Islamophobia, or the Carey Mulligan-fronted Collateral, which tried to combat it. Close tells a story about women increasing in strength and independence only when facing Arab men, who kidnap and hurt them; per usual, those men are presented as corrupt and violent and misogynistic and other. There’s a late-movie twist that would have taken this movie to an interesting place if explored earlier, and there’s the suggestion that this sort of violence could take place in any location, but the filmmakers still chose this location. They still thought, as so many filmmakers do, that viewers would empathize in the murder of brown bodies and could accept a story that centered around that fact. And wrapped in a narrative about female power, it’s kind of exhausting!
Close begins in South Sudan, where bodyguard Sam (Noomi Rapace) is tasked with transporting two journalists, and almost immediately, the job goes to shit. A missile flies at their SUV. Their driver is killed. And so Sam has to grab a keffiyeh, wrap it around her head, pretend to be dead, and then kill the men who come to kill her and the two journalists. She drives them out of the scene, bloody and scarred, and is still traumatized some time later, when her employer tasks her with another job: transporting a young heiress from London to Morocco.
Zoe Tanner (Sophie Nélisse) is a young woman living her life in a haze: She smokes a lot, drinks a lot, and parties a lot, still grieving her mother’s death by suicide from a decade ago and now mourning her father’s death too. She can’t stand her stepmother, Rima Hassine (Indira Varma, underused), but their relationship becomes even more complicated after they learn that Zoe’s father left Zoe all of his stocks in Rima’s family company, Hassine Mining—right when the corporation is trying to buy thousands of acres of phosphate reserves in Zambia.
Could Zoe’s messy behavior (including sleeping with her previous married bodyguard) derail the business plan? Maybe, so Rima sends her to a family compound in Morocco, which is the job Sam is hired for—and again, things go to shit almost immediately when someone hacks into the kasbah’s impressive security system, invades the house, kills the security team, and tries to kidnap Zoe. Who would want her dead? And how is Sam going to protect her in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and has no local contacts, and when she is clearly still traumatized by her experience in South Sudan?
Rapace can quite believably play a badass—she was one of the only highlights of Netflix’s intolerable Bright, as the elf extremist Leilah (guys! REMEMBER THAT MADNESS?)—and she gets opportunities here to throw her body around. The steely gaze she gives the men who punch her or slap her in the face; the way she sizes up people around her; the one time she somehow flips herself, while in handcuffs, to grab a gun and then shoot it behind her body. It’s not Gina Carano in Haywire level, but it’s still impressive.
But there’s also, you know, the fact that everyone she’s attacking is a brown person, and the movie plays into preconceived notions of how countries like Morocco must be overwhelmed by corruption and violence. A particular moment of emotional bonding between Zoe and Sam is when they kill a man together, and so much of Zoe’s characterization is that she’s trapped in Morocco, among these people. Of the kasbah, she says, “Welcome to my prison,” and the fact that she’s a young, white, blonde woman, surrounded by brown men, with only the other white woman Sam as her protector—well, that’s not great optics.
The script creates some good moments between the two women (“What happened to your face?” “Work.”), and there’s an inspired underwater sequence where Sam uses a fishhook as a weapon, and the movie does slightly verve away from the “all brown people are bad” by its concluding act. But there’s a sense all throughout Close that its feminism comes with a dose of intertwined racism, and although the film touches upon ideas of women’s isolation in heavily male spaces, it doesn’t go deep enough with its plot or characters to complicate those ideas alongside its violence.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center