Kick-Ass, Hanna, and Let Me In: A thought purge on killer movie girls in two parts
I remember reviewing “Kick Ass” for my college’s newspaper in 2010. I hated it then and I still do today. A year later, Joe Wright’s “Hanna” came out, and was one of my favorite films of the year. Last month, I watched “Let Me In” and loved it to tiny little pieces, even more than the excellent “Let the Right One In”. And my love for the last of those films made me remember the last time I’d seen Moretz portraying a young girl who kills remorselessly, which in turn made me remember “Hanna”, another film about that subject that I much prefer, and as you can tell I began thinking in circles. And when that happens, you gotta write that down and get those thoughts out of your head so you can go back to watching “Arrested Development” for the fifth time before it launches again. Thought maelstroms increase in intensity exponentially if left unpurged. So, here is my purge, a comparison of these films about killer girls in two parts.
I’m presuming you’ve seen these films, but if you haven’t, spoilers abound:
1. “Hanna” and “Kick-Ass”
As I said before, I hated Kick-Ass. I will probably say it again before this is over. If you loved “Kick-Ass”, please stop reading. I don’t want this to ruin our friendship. I hated “Kick-Ass” for many reasons, many of which I don’t care to go over here. One of my points of contention, the one I’ll harp on for the purposes of this post, was the character of Hit-Girl. This was a starmaking role for Chloe Grace Moretz, and not without reason. She’s a very engaging performer, and she’s exuberant in the role. But the role, as written for the screen, was very one note, and that note was a sour one for me. She’s introduced in two scenes with her father, the first in which he shoots her to test a bulletproof vest:
and a follow-up when she fakes her dad out by pretending she wants a “girly” birthday present, which terrifies him:
The point of these scenes is transparent. Establishing Hit-Girl as a badass. The shooting scene is played straight up for laughs. The birthday request scene shows how Hit-Girl rejects the sort of things girls are supposed to like.
And that’s pandering at its worst. It’s telling disguised as showing, telling us that this character is not a “typical girl” without giving her any extra depth. It’s playing on the shock value, quickly played for laughs, of a little girl being shot and then cursing like a sailor.
Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with shock value. But shock value in place of character and storytelling is as bad as unearned sentimentality.
“Hanna” mines much the same territory as “Kick-Ass”, and yet it doesn’t fill me with contempt. Its star is an adolescent girl who kills without remorse, but in this film that fact doesn’t disgust me.
I suppose it goes back to one of Roger Ebert’s oft-repeated rules: it’s not what a movie is about, but how it’s about it.
And “Hanna” and “Kick-Ass” approach their material in completely different manners.
In “Kick-Ass”, I could never shake how the film seemed to treat Hit-Girl’s willingness to kill in cold blood not only as inherently cool, but something to be played for rowdy, full-throated guffaws. Consider this scene, every aspect of which (including the murder of a terrified and apparently innocent woman who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time) is intended to be funny:
Matthew Vaughn is attempting to have his cake without even baking it first. He’s forcing Hit-Girl down our throats as a badass, cheerworthy character without telling us a damn thing about her other than that she kills to ironic music. I’m sure he’d argue that the scene is about how disturbing Hit-Girl is to Kick-Ass, but let’s not kid ourselves. He wastes no time partnering up with her and her dad later in the film, and every aspect of how disturbed Hit-Girl is gets glossed over. The scene is an exercise in the film trying to float above its material without actually addressing it. Addressing this material is something Matthew Vaughn had no interest in doing. And it’s a fundamental reason that “Kick-Ass” is an infinitely less interesting film than “Hanna”. While “Kick-Ass” wants to be a romp of a movie with a murderous kid as a sort of mascot, someone who will be described millions of times over as “awesome”, “Hanna” is actually kind of curious about its protagonist.
“Hanna” features a similar scene of wanton death dealt by its pubescent leading lady. And yes, it plays up her abilities as inherently cool. Because in the context of a film like this, that’s fine. It’s an accepted trope of action films that one’s coolness directly correlates with one’s capacity for doling out violence. Again, “Kick-Ass” didn’t fail because it’s about a murderous child. It failed because it copped out in being about a murderous child. “Hanna” shows Hanna killing like whoa, and then spends the rest of the film asking “well, why?”
“Hanna” is very spare compared to “Kick-Ass”, but it’s richer and far more compelling. It knows the inherent perverseness of its story and embraces it in a way that “Kick-Ass” was too scared to do. “Kick-Ass” tries to float above its material, holding it at an arm’s length. “Hanna” delves uncomfortably close. Notably, it’s a rare film to pass the reverse Bechdel test (ie, none of its male characters ever talk to each other about anything other than a female character). In this film’s case, that’s a less a statement about its feminism than it is the fact that this movie is completely, utterly about Hanna, and everything that led her to becoming who she is.
The movie doesn’t apologize for Hanna, but it’s also far more honest about how screwed up she is, and how her cold-blooded killing skills might scare the hell out of someone not well-acquainted with wanton violence:
“Hanna”, unlike “Kick-Ass” has the guts the actually be about the most unsettling but also most interesting aspects of its material. A “Kick-Ass” that actually addressed the relationship between Hit-Girl and Big Daddy without treating it as a joke would be far more interesting than anything featuring that simpering, insipid lead character the film thrusts upon us as a lead… and yeah, I should stop there. My many reasons for hating “Kick-Ass” could provide a month’s worth of articles.
2. “Let Me In”
Chloe Grace-Moretz is a seriously talented actress who for some reason has become the go-to girl to play murderous preteens. I suppose one reason is that she’s good at it. I fault the material she’s given in “Kick-Ass”, not her performance, and she’s even more excellent in “Let Me In”, Matt Reeves’ superb remake of Tomas Alfredson’s already superb “Let The Right One In”. I’ll save my comparisons of those films for a later post (perhaps around Halloween, when this site morphs into a horror movie blog). Superficially, I could say all the things I said about “Hanna” also apply to “Let Me In” and be done with it, but that wouldn’t be fair to “Let Me In”. While “Hanna” is about how Hanna’s very unique balance of nature and nurture created a superhuman fighting machine, “Let Me In” arrives with Moretz’s character, the vampire Abby, fully formed over decades of bloodletting. We have no way of knowing how she came to be; the appeal of this film lies in the exploration of her friendship with its lead character, a lonely adolescent boy named Owen.
Here is a film that treats Abby’s heartlessness with tremendous gravity. While “Hanna” has fun with Hanna’s killing abilities, the killings by Abby and her servant (a nameless man played by Richard Jenkins) play out with the same grimness they’d have if the film was about their lives as serial killers. Which, technically, is what they are. The law doesn’t make exceptions for supernatural feeding rituals.
But the film also leads us inexorably to its inevitable conclusion: Owen joining Abby as her next servant. And one of the reasons I preferred “Let Me In” to “Let the Right One In” is that it treats the relationship between the boy and the vampire with more delicacy and sincerity. They’re able to bond as adolescents can and often do.
Of the three films I’ve talked about in this post, it’s the vampire character who is the most capable of human interaction. Granted, she limits that to one or two people at a time, and is happy to eat the rest, but I digress. The point is, “Let Me In” is a full exploration of the ground “Hanna” nodded at and “Kick-Ass” ignored. I forgive “Hanna” that because it’s a damn cool action film that’s actually about something and that something is pretty damn interesting, and I don’t forgive “Kick-Ass” because that movie sucks.