‘Hanna’ Barbaric

From the Vault: Here is my review of Hanna, originally posted on my dear friend Austin’s Fabulous Apple blog. Now on DVD, and sure to rank very highly in my year-end list.

Have at it:

One word to describe the new film Hanna?

This movie is gonzo.

“Gonzo” is not a word I break out often to describe a movie, especially one made within the Hollywood studio system. Foreign movies are often kind of gonzo, because filmmakers are allowed to take more risks overseas. In the last year, Mother was gonzo, in its own restrained way, as Korean films are allowed to be; the Greek Dogtooth was more bluntly gonzo (and, like Hanna, raises a lot of questions about the dangers of home-schooling); French auteur Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void competes for the honor of most gonzo movie of all time. But here in America, only a few filmmakers really go for the gonzo gold anymore. David Lynch, certainly, and Terry Gilliam, and Richard Kelly, to a more derivative extent. Gregg Araki’s micro-budgeted Kaboom (which I reviewed here) was certainly gonzo, but could only afford to be that way because it was so, so independent. Black Swan topped my 2010 Top 10 list precisely because it was a lot more gonzo than I was expecting a ballerina movie starring Natalie Portman to be. And most movies starring Nicolas Cage tend to be at least a little gonzo, with very mixed results. But as a rule, no. Hollywood just isn’t comfortable with gonzo.

The trailer for Hanna intrigued me thanks to its rapid pace, a few striking images, and the pulsing Chemical Brothers score. Still, I figured it was just a coy piece of marketing. After all, Joe Wright previously directed Atonement, The Soloist, and Pride & Prejudice, none of which were the least bit gonzo. I walked into Hanna hoping for a slick studio thriller, maybe something as good as recent winners The Source Code or Limitless, or maybe even a little better.

What I got was gonzo.

Yes, Hanna is bananas. It’s not just because it’s about a fourteen year-old girl who is a trained as a lethal assassin by her father, because we saw an even more extreme (and kind of unpleasant) version of that in last year’s clever but soulless Kick Ass; there are plenty of stories out there that flip the damsel-in-distress trope on its head, perhaps none better than Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s also not merely because the Chemical Brothers are allowed to put their rave-inducing beats over the action here (working very much in their element, unlike Daft Punk’s moody Tron: Legacy score which was a major sonic departure from the likes of “Around the World” and such); this is one of few movies I think I might have preferred to watch standing up — in a pit full of sweaty people who are far from sober. But Run Lola Run already proved that you can have a German-speaking chick do little but sprint to a techno beat for 90 minutes and it’s still a pretty good watch. And it’s not even because Joe Wright and his cinematographer (Alwin H. Kuchler) and editor (Paul Tothill) really cut loose at times, delivering some very unconventional shots and action sequences that go along with the trippy score.

This I admire most of all, because alongside a great story, what I want from a movie is something breathtaking to look at (and listen to). There are some truly brilliant marriages of sound and picture in Hanna; this film has terrific style, including a number of striking, memorable images I can’t wait to see again. Certain scenes have the pure-cinema pop of Quentin Tarantino’s best (but there’s a lot less winking going on here); others reminded me of the arresting visual pizzazz Darren Aronofsky brought to Black Swan. There’s an impressive long-take sequence (Wright previously played with this convention in Atonement, but it’s much more appropriate here). Another sequence, in which poor Hanna is bombarded by modern conveniences and technology for the first time, is also jolting.

In a way, all this cinematic splendor distracts from the story — the tale is certainly a captivating one, but Hanna is more concerned with sensory pleasures than emotional ones. It’s not that Hanna is an emotionally hollow film, as so many from Hollywood are — Hanna, as a character, is fully-realized and utterly sympathetic. The supporting characters are as fleshed out as they need to be. And I enjoyed the fact that the film didn’t need to spell out the backstory, which is fairly standard evil-government-naughtiness a la The Bourne Identity (and so many other movies). A handful of scenes with Hanna adjusting to the modern world are amongst the film’s most effective because they’re also the most grounded in reality. There’s so much inventive, over-the-top excess going on with the cinematography and the soundtrack that we sometimes lose our bearings on how we’re supposed to feel about any of it — besides “Hey, that’s cool!”, that is. Witness Hanna’s awkward fling with a Spanish boy — here is a scene that reminds that Hanna is not only an unlikely killing machine, but also a confused adolescent girl who, until now, never laid an eye on a male besides her father (Eric Bana). Unfortunately, these scenes are too few and far between — Hanna goes for the grandiose much more often than the relatable everyday. More of a balance between these two would have been nice.

But the risks Hanna takes make the reward much greater than it would have been had Wright gone the other direction and made it safer. It’s very rare indeed for a film to be both grounded and gonzo, so I’ll take the gonzo where I can get it. (Such as in the scene where Cate Blanchett walks into a bar to ask a rather effeminate assassin for help catching Hanna, while a hermaphrodite dances to the Chemical Brothers’ circus-y “The Devil Is In The Beat” in the background.) Right — did I mention this film is also, at times, hilarious? Hanna encounters a bohemian British family in the films best attempt at anchoring this story in reality, in addition to providing a lot of comic relief. The moments where Hanna’s absurdly unconventional upbringing conflict with “normal” people’s interpretation are where this film’s odd tone works best: when asked by a sympathetic new friend how her mother died, Hanna matter-of-factly replies: “Three bullets.” And as Hanna’s motor-mouthed new gal pal Sophie, young Jessica Barden steals every scene she’s in (as she’s meant to).

And therein, in a way, lies the film’s only real problem: there’s so much interesting stuff going on, we want a little more of everything. In that way, Hanna almost demands a sequel. This story only scratches the surface of possibilities for this complex character — we expect this girl will grow up something like Lisbeth Salander from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (hints of bisexuality already intact — must every tough girl swing both ways?). Not many characters are left alive at the end of this film to join her in another installment (or are they?), but I’d definitely be first in line for the next chapter.

Oh, and one more thing: Cate Blanchett is pure, delicious evil in this movie. Like child-and-granny-killing evil. It’s not exactly that she shows no remorse — it’s just that it never even threatens to stop her from performing her duties. There’s a shot near the end of the movie that establishes her as this story’s Big Bad Wolf (even if she does also carefully mull over which pair of pumps she plans to off a sweet old lady in). She even performs some fairly intense home dentistry on herself, so you know she’s a total psycho. The grandmother, the woodsman, and of course, the intrepid lost girl — all of them go up against the strangely chipper bitch with the Southern drawl who obsessively examines her own pearly whites in her spare time (“the better to eat you with, my dear”). It’s a performance that reminds me of Christophe Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, maybe even Heath Ledger’s Joker, too. Those performances have something in common besides being creepy, off-kilter psychopaths who deviate from the standard mustache-twirling formula of screen villains; they won Oscars. Depending on how strong the remainder of this year’s Supporting Actress contenders are, I wouldn’t be totally shocked if Cate Blanchett got some love come Oscar time.

Which brings me to the mesmerizing Saoirse Ronan, one of few young actresses so capable of carrying a film (unlike many, I don’t think Hailee Steinfeld quite pulled it off in True Grit). She goes toe-to-toe with Cate Blanchett and outdoes Eric Bana. She’s convincing enough as a teenager capable of kicking grown mens’ asses, and also a vulnerable young woman experiencing life in the real world for the first time. I think she’s actually capable of even more than she pulls off here — I wish the film had given her a couple more emotional scenes, especially early in the film when she is first interacting with the mysterious government officials who find her up in that cabin in the woods. I’ve previously admired her in Atonement and The Lovely Bones — she was the best part of both movies. She’ll almost certainly be ignored come Oscar time, but Hanna has definitely gotten the film world’s attention and I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a lot more of her in coming years.

Alas, Hanna isn’t a perfect movie, but alongside the riveting Source Code and the surprisingly stylish Limitless, it’s giving me more faith in studio thrillers than I’ve had in years. (Unfortunately, the rather lame Adjustment Bureau mars 2011’s winning streak for this genre.) This film is packed full of surprises — you never know quite where it’s going, and that’s saying something these days. Even while watching it, I had the feeling Hanna would be a film with staying power, one that will be dissected in years to come. Though it is easy to compare it to a number of other properties (as I’ve done above), it’s also one-of-a-kind and, at many times, startlingly original. Some have decried it as repellent for its depiction of a young girl as killing machine, but unlike Kick Ass, there is a moral center here. Hanna, unlike Hit Girl, is someone we can really root for.

“I just missed your heart,” Hanna whispers at a crucial moment in the film. The same could be said of Hanna the film, which delivers so many visceral pleasures but just barely avoids hitting us on an emotional level, too.

But as an action heroine music video fairy tale, Hanna delivers to the eyes, ears, and gut. So really — who cares about the heart when the rest of us is having so much fun?

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