Who's Writing Whom?
Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) is a great dad. Or, he wants to be. So, he puts on the part as he gets ready for work in the opening scenes of Erased, much like he does his office attire. And, just as the gruesome scars on his back appear to make his crisply pressed suit uncomfortable, so his snarky teenaged daughter Amy (Liana Liberato) points out that his role as father is also uncomfortable, and rarely worn. Amy has moved to Antwerp to live with Ben because her mother has died. Though he makes father-appropriate speeches about report cards and why it’s his business to be in her business, he doesn’t do things “the way Mom did” or know about her allergies or that she likes to be kissed goodbye before she leaves for school.
If this plotline sounds facile, it is infinitely more complex than the purported espionage mystery that drives the action of the film. Ben works as an engineer for a subsidiary of a company called the Halgate Group, “reviewing security devices for flaws.” In other words, he’s a highly paid lock-pick, breaking into the company’s security in order to fix it. His solutions include such technological breakthroughs as holding a Blackberry up to a retina scanner and flashing a montage of 50 unique irises until it opens. Unsuspecting when asked to email his nervously twitching boss Derek Kolher (Neil Napier) the iris montage, Ben complies, only to find when he returns to the office the next day that there is no office, no staff, no equipment, no phones, no record the company ever existed. There is no money in his bank account, nor any record of any paycheck having ever been deposited.
It isn’t long before ben and Amy are taken hostage at gunpoint and she sees a side to her father that defies what little she knows about him. Predictably, his going all Jason Bourne on their captor evokes more horror than gratitude. And yet, however repelled or confused she might be that he can kill a man with his bare hands, she knows he’s right when he says, “The safest place for you to be right now is at my side, listening to what I tell you”—this while pouring vodka into a bullet hole in her arm. As Erased‘s project, to bring them together, when Ben responds to her wincing with “Hold on to me,” she does, physically and emotionally, for a while at least.
At this point we know something that Amy doesn’t, that Ben, of course, isn’t just some techno-geek engineer, but a former CIA Black Ops agent who was “decommissioned for growing a conscience,” left to languish in Antwerp and unable to return to his family. As we’re reassured that he’s not a bad father, but only constrained by circumstance. Still, his renewed spy life never turns interesting here. The film fully spells out the crime Ben is trying to uncover 44 minutes in, leaving us to watch him flounder around for another hour figuring out what we already know. The Halgate Group is a greedy corporate monster with government connections and something to hide. And oh yes, its name brings “Halliburton” and “hell” together: we get it. Add to this such clichés as Ben asking a CIA agent, “When did you become everything we fought against?” and the response, “It’s just business,” and we can’t wait to get back to the father and daughter storyline, however predetermined it might be.
Although Erased doesn’t portray it particularly well, the question it raises is an intriguing one: who controls anyone’s life narrative? The film makes the obvious case that identity is currency, available to be exchanged and altered, easily accessed or obliterated in a digital age.
But there are other issues of personal history and intent to consider. When Ben revises or erases his past for his young daughter to protect her emotionally, is that fair or ethical? Presumably, the CIA erased Ben as an operative because he refused to obey orders, effectively rewriting his background (for those that didn’t know him) and his future, both as punishment and to protect civilians from the dangers of a “rogue” agent. But what happens when Halgate attempts to silence Ben, forcing him to rewrite his history with Amy again? Is his “true” nature is revealed in his expert capacity for violence? Or is that identity, that of the highly trained killer, written by the CIA?
The irony in all this is that poor Amy has no say whatsoever as her story is written and rewritten ad nauseam by her father from start to finish. This as the movie keeps moving Ben towards a moment of seeming genuine authorship, where he can control his life narrative completely if only for a single moment, as opposed to being controlled. As that moment remains a moving target, however, what Erased does manage to illuminate, dimly, is that the fear of erasure cuts both ways. On the one hand, we may fear that our identities and futures might be wiped out. On the other hand, we fear some parts of our past exist forever.