Every time I’ve seen this world change, it’s only been for the worst.
— Evey (Natalie Portman), V for Vendetta
Sometimes, if you have a government that is committing violence and you are just passive, it’s a violence in itself.
— Natalie Portman, Good Morning America (13 March 2006)
Violence can be used for various purposes, good, ill, and incoherent. This would be the primary and crude observation made by V for Vendetta, an earnestly angry, vaguely philosophical, but ultimately generic action movie. The underlying, irresolvable question here has to do with terrorism: why and how are people pushed to commit it, and what might it achieve, aside from terror?
The terrorist at the center of James McTeigue’s film (written by the Wachowski brothers, it’s based on Allan Moore’s 1980s’ anti-Thatcher comic books, but he removed his name from the credits) is the most formidable V (Hugo Weaving). Swirling a black cape and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, V claims inspiration from the Catholic activist who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. V first appears in a dark alley, where he saves Evey (Natalie Portman) from being raped by a brace of grubby cops.
She’s out after curfew, a dire offense in this post-WWIII police state version of England, and V dispatches her badge-flashing assailants with elegant knifery and digitized martial arts moves familiar from the Matrix franchise (for which McTeigue was an assistant director). Repeatedly during this rescue, the camera looks up at a placard displaying the national credo: “Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith.” Got it.
V’s mask, of course, hides a terrible and superhero-making trauma, having to do with childhood abuse and institutional cruelty: the government regularly incarcerates and tortures minorities, queers, and anyone else deemed an “enemy of the state.” And a recent history of increasing violence has been instigated by “America’s war,” noted by occasional television reports (which also show the States’ “second civil war” and ongoing unrest in the Middle East and Eastern Europe — Serbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan now roundly recognized as imperial projects). “What was done to me was monstrous,” V tells Evey, who is appalled by the violence he deploys in response: “And they created a monster.”
While the movie allows that torture only reproduces terrorism and violence, it also presents V’s own scheme as revolutionary and effectively symbolic. At the start of the film, he explains that he has detonated the Old Bailey “to remind this country of what it has forgotten.” Evey knows something about the loss of free speech, as she works at the tv station that broadcasts the proudly conservative “voice of London,” Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), former jackboot cop and pharmaceuticals manipulator. And so she’s intrigued by V’s promise of a new and improved state, where information is accessible and citizens are unafraid.
When V infiltrates the station in order to transmit his threat against the state, Evey helps him escape from well-intentioned cop Finch (Stephen Rea). When Finch’s partner, Dominic (Rupert Graves), assess v according to his surface (“He’s a terrorist, you can’t expect him to act like you and me”), Finch nods sagely and adds, “Yes, but some part of him is human.” Now this can mean V is bound to err, or it might mean hat all terrorists are not aliens, but only humans gone wrong. The movie doesn’t spend much time pondering this complication — that terrorists produced by social imbalances are not evil or good, but produced in ways that can be understood and so, addressed — but rather, observes Evey’s own transformation as if it’s a coming to her destiny.
V adopts her as his protégé. The fact that her social activist parents were murdered by the government (“It was like these black bags erased them from the face of the earth”) makes her a ready candidate in the most stereotypical way (terrorists and superheroes emerge from the same nightmare backgrounds). But when she resists V’s initial nice-guy indoctrination (he makes her tea and eggs for breakfast), she is subjected to more drastic methods: she’s locked up, interrogated, and tortured for some unknown time, living in a cell with rats and reading the written-on-toilet-paper story of a radiant-in-flashbacks lesbian prisoner, now dead and much romanticized. And this torment makes her stronger, battle hard and street smart.
It’s a simple trajectory, one in need of interrogation. Evey’s grim education makes her appreciate V’s rage and venom. And in her eyes, he becomes one of those nominally ambiguous superheroes, moody, tormented, and dedicated to his plan. As usual in such sagas, V’s occasional dementia is nothing compared to the patent villainy of his adversaries — the odious Prothero (who showers surrounded by mirrors and monitors, so self-involved he doesn’t hear his assassin enter), a bishop who beds young girls (“I love the confession game,” he squeals), and the secret police, led by aptly named Chief Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith). All operate under the auspices of Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt, oh-so-cleverly cast as the Big Brother he battled in 1984), who meets with his minions via a boardroom big screen tv and makes public pronouncements on gigantor monitors.
The unsubtle Sutler’s sensational self-effects underline the film’s interest in the ways “truth” is refracted through mirrors, monitors, and masks. Distortion is inevitable in this system. Sometimes the film makes this obvious (as when Evey first appears applying makeup before a mirror, or news producers rewrite a botched effort to capture V as a “heroic raid”), sometimes referential (V’s favorite movie is The Count of Monte Cristo with Robert Donat, which leads Evey to lament the hero’s lack of compassion for his lady love), and sometimes just ham-fisted (a closeted gay man [Stephen Fry] laments, “You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it”). The film never lets a metaphor speak for itself (“If you’re looking for the guilty,” asserts V, “You need only look into the mirror”) or lets you forget an image, as when a scene showing V’s youthful abuse is replayed several times, to ensure the connection between his experience and Evey’s.
Such irritating distrust of the audience to keep up makes V‘s political and social commentary seem more cartoonish than insightful. Yes, imperialism is really bad, and yes, Nazi-ish iconography is a sure sign of a regime’s need for change. What’s less clear, and could use some reflection, is how V’s own violence will or will not produce more victims and vigilantes. “Freedom and justice are more than words,” he says, “They are perspectives.” And as such, they need rethinking at every step.