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Firewall

Director: Richard Loncraine
Cast: Harrison Ford, Paul Bettany, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Virginia Madsen

(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 10 Feb 2006; 2006)

Philosophy of Risk

I wouldn’t want to tumble with Harrison Ford in real life. He’s a tough son of a bitch. I threw that man through a window seven times and he landed on his head, got up, rebuilt the window with the crew and then got thrown through it again.
—Paul Bettany (31 January 2006)


Is there any role that Mary Lynn Rajskub can’t make strange? I mean, delightfully and eloquently strange? At this point in her career, she does seem to attract such roles: the quirky helpmeet (or, in the case of Punchdrunk Love, the quirky sister), face screwed up and hair falling by strands over her eyes. Her most famous version of this girl is Chloe, on 24, the splendid, tense, fierce genius who makes Jack Bauer’s life just a teensy bit easier, because she’s so able to solve any tech or gizmo dilemma in a heartbeat.


Rajskub plays a character like this in Firewall. Janet is like Chloe slowed down to half-speed, but still, ornery and speedy-thinking enough that you anticipate her stepping off at any second. Janet is assistant to Jack (Harrison Ford), himself something of a computer whiz and security expert. But while Jack does what Harrison Ford characters whose families are in trouble always do, it’s Janet who makes the film even remotely new, and in her scenes, rewardingly strange.


As Firewall opens, Jack works—not quite complacently—for a Seattle bank, lives with his family in a gorgeous (and seemingly secure) house designed by his warm-and-cozy architect wife Beth (Virginia Madsen), and worries just a little bit about new guy at work Gary’s (Robert Patrick) efforts to update the bank’s way of doing business. Deriding Jack’s old-fashioned “philosophy of risk” (where the bank assumes costs of fraud and hacking), Gary wants to pass on costs to customers. Jack, being the goodest of all good guys, can’t accept this, even though his longtime friend and boss, Arlin (Alan Arkin), asks him repeatedly just to get along with Gary.


This philosophy is put to an immediate test when Jack’s own info is hacked. At first he appears to owe a ton of money to an online gambling outfit, but his law enforcement veteran buddy Harry (Robert Forster) assures him he’ll take care of it. It’s nice to be wealthy and respected and secure. And then he’s not.


It turns out that the hacking is only the start. Jack—his home, sense of self, and sense of security—is invaded by a crew of crooks, led by Bill Cox (Paul Bettany). They take the wife and kids (Sarah [Carly Schroeder] and Andy [Jimmy Bennett]) hostage, and force Jack to transfer millions to their Cayman Islands account (ho-hum, so regular, these crooks). To ensure his cooperation, Bill has installed all manner of surveillance devices in Jack’s home, car, and office—all yielding those distressingly grainy fisheye-lens images designed to generate viewer tension.


The crooks are briefly typed, none very memorably. Their primary designation is “cruel” (when the family wonders why one crewmember “hates” them so much, Liam [Nikolaj Coster Waldau] sniffs, “I don’t hate you, I just don’t care about you”—nasty!). The distinctions between “bad” and “good” are so evident they seem simple: whether Jack’s job actually entails moving some money around that doesn’t help the little guys, or whether butter melts in his mouth remains unknown. All the film allows is that his manhood is at stake, and he must find the most effective way to assert it.


Jack tries initially to outsmart Bill, who abuses the family, the dog, and his own men, to underline his complete meanness, and insists that Jack go to work during the days in order to hack into the bank’s system undetected (“You do your work, Jack, you chase that American Dream,” Bill coos as Jack walks out with car keys and assigned-to-watch-him thug by his side). Jack pulls a couple of fast ones, but can’t elude the surveillance queens these guys seem to be. When Bill gives young, nuts-allergic Andy a potentially lethal cookie, then withholds his medicine to make him suffer, the concerned father decides to do what he’s told, moving the funds and hoping for the best.


There is no “best” in such a movie situation, however, and so Jack must retaliate, committing his own deceptions and acts of deadly violence. He’s not precisely the lone hero, though he doesn’t get much help from Arlin or Harry, the guys who would seem to have authority (or at least guns and access to cops). Instead, Jack finds support from Janet. Their relationship, offbeat and uneven (Bill forces Jack to fire her to test his obedience; she holds a grudge for some seconds) is based in neat mix of Ford’s signature vulnerability and Rajskub’s most excellent nose-twisting. She takes risks, makes choices other performers don’t, and who makes sense of those choices in characters who actually surprise you.


Though the film doesn’t offer nearly enough of their buddyish interacting, their scenes are its liveliest, if only because they conjure a rhythm and emotional center quite unlike the violence and melodrama that so pervade every other scene. It’s not as if Janet or Jack is especially dominant or reduced in relation to the other, but rather, that both become more interesting in each other’s presence. On the first morning of his jeopardy, Jack tries to pass off his pen-mounted camera (through which the bad guys are monitoring his whereabouts) onto Janet, so he can run off through the bank and seek information or help.


The moment occurs early enough in the film that you know it can’t work out—the movie has 90 minutes to go—but it offers a bit of comic awkwardness as Jack leans up against her to manage the transfer, pretending too hug her like a long lost love. She’s horrified, touched, repulsed, curious, worried—all registering on her face in about four seconds. And yes, she’s still strange. Thank god.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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