Friday, April 29, 2011

The Most Dangerous Game: HANNA

Of all the directors I would have guessed capable of making a great action thriller, I would not have thought of Joe Wright, he of two good to great literary adaptations (Pride & Prejudice and Atonement) and one undercooked based-on-a-true-story prestige picture (The Soloist). And yet, with his latest film Hanna, Wright has not only made a great action film, he’s made one that thrilled me sometimes as much as any of the great action films of the last decade. Released into theaters after weeks upon weeks of cluttered cacophony, seeing this film is like stepping out of a desert into a deep cool pool.

This film is one of rapid-fire patience, taking its time to set up its killer action sequences and, when they appear, they play out in unexpected ways both artfully fractured and shockingly fluid. It’s a Grimm fairy tale for the modern age (and similarly dark and unsuitable for small children) in which a young teenaged girl is forced out of the woods into a noisy world of chaos and beauty, strange sights and squirmy menace. There’s even a wicked witch of a villain with devious henchman on the hunt for blood. For that’s what awaits Hanna (a fierce performance from Saoirse Ronan), the girl in question.

She’s been raised in isolation for her entire life, living somewhere below the arctic circle in a little cabin in the woods. Her father (Eric Bana) has trained her to be a survivor. She’s an incredible shot with a bow and arrow as we see in the patient, quiet opening scene in which she emerges from the snowy woods and kills off a large deer. She’s a quick, skillful hunter of beast, but she’s been trained to apply these skills more generally. She’s a warrior child. She knows many languages. She knows many practical skills. She may be ignorant of the outside world – she knows no electricity, nor music, nor any other people other than the ones in her well-read copy of Grimm’s fairy tales that she keeps under her pillow and reads by firelight – but she’s more than capable of handling herself when danger and menace is called into her world, forcing her into globetrotting action.

Her father digs up a box with a switch. This, he tells his daughter, will tell Marissa Viegler where they are. Marissa (the great Cate Blanchett), we are soon to find out, is a meticulous C.I.A. agent who knew the father (and his then infant daughter) before he became a “rogue asset.” Hanna decides she is ready and flips the switch. A plan for revenge has been set into motion. Her father flees. She knows where to meet him later. She’s taken by armed men who appear surrounding their cabin and then she wakes up miles and miles away from her home in a vaguely military complex in a small grey room surrounded by a surrealistic omnipresence of cameras. She waits. She plays Viegler’s game. Then, when the time is right, she escapes. Her goal? To make sure this “witch” is dead.

This is a coming-of-age action thriller that’s entirely enthralling from beginning to end with an incredible character in Hanna. It’s just as tense to watch her navigate the social world as it is to see her in hand-to-hand combat. She stumbles upon a vacationing British family (with a warm Olivia Williams playing matriarch) and is perplexed and intrigued by them, even making something like a friend with another teenaged girl (Jessica Barden). Hanna is amazed and frightened by things like television and even fluorescent lights. She doesn’t seem to understand all too quickly the ways in which so-called “normal” people behave. But she sees something valuable in this family, something in which she aspires to be included. But this fragile piece of normality is threatened by Viegler who is hunting down father and daughter with the help of a not-entirely-legal creep (Tom Hollander) who emerges fully formed as a great villainous figure, complete with the best whistled musical motif since Bernard Herrmann wrote the score for Twisted Nerve.

There’s a simple clarity of character here, as in a fairy tale, with exaggerated good and evil types that nonetheless proceed to dance in the grey areas of such easy definitions. There are fantastic, teeth-gnashing performances all around, but Ronan especially brings a fire and fragility to Hanna that helps to sell the emotion underneath the action. But what action it is! Set to a pounding, slippery score from The Chemical Brothers, Joe Wright stages action in unexpected places in unexpected ways with silky smooth swoops of the Steadicam. The film features confrontations in, among other places, a subway station, a desert, a shipyard and a foggy abandoned carnival. The imagery floats between the dream-like and the gritty, visualizing the coming-of-age themes with a fuzzy, conflicted intensity. There’s a feeling of the world as an incomprehensibly diverse place that fits Hanna’s disorientation.

She’s been prepared to survive but has she been prepared to live? It’s a question that many a young person, leaving home for the first time, finds echoing in the mind. Here’s a gripping action-thriller that dramatizes that question in a supremely entertaining fashion. By the end of the film, when the villainess emerges from a concrete wolf’s head (echoes upon echoes of fairy tales), the film has crystallized its central thematic conflict with two lines. One, spoken to Viegler as a weary declaration of parental sadness and pride: “Kids grow up.” The other, spoken by Viegler to Hanna: “Don’t you walk away from me young lady!” Here’s a film about the fact that children grow up, hopefully defeating the conflicts of their parents in order to move past them and have a better life, and how difficult a process that can be. I make it sound so solemn, but one of its greatest assets is how it can hint at larger themes while keeping them just under the surface of a larger-than-life film of seemingly unlimited eccentricity. It’s a hugely successful film of action and style that expects an audience capable of thought, not just mindless reaction to stimuli.

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