INSURGENT Review: She Needs to Wash That Man Right Out of Her Hair
In July 2014, a question was posed on Twitter as part of the “Movie Talk on Sunday” weekly event. That week’s topic was “Women in Film” and the final question was, “To show boys and girls a strong female character they can aspire towards; which films would you use?” This was my answer, as Tweeted:
“A10) As a father of 2 girls, I’ve never guided them to aspire to be a character in a film. I’ve guided them to aspire to make films. #MTOS”
I meant it back then. I meant it yesterday. I meant it this morning.
And now, having seen Insurgent, the follow-up to 2014’s Divergent, I really mean it – perhaps more than ever before.
Picking up soon after Divergent‘s end, the film opens with its core four characters – former Dauntless members Tris (Shailene Woodley), Four (Theo James), and Peter (Miles Teller), along with Tris’ brother (and Erudite member) Caleb (Ansel Elgort) – living in hiding among the people of Amity on their farm/commune. Not only is the foursome wanted in connection for the events at the end of the first film, they (and all other rogue Dauntless members) have been framed for the mass murder of all members of Abnegation – a genocidal act orchestrated by Erudite’s megalomaniacal leader, Jeanine (Kate Winslet). Also being smeared in the Jeanine-controlled media are all Divergents, whom the villainess claims are a threat to life inside the walls of Chicago.
In reality, Jeanine wants all Divergents rounded up and brought to her because an ancient box discovered in the ruins of Abnegation holds the key to the city’s future, and only a Divergent can open the box. What Jeanine quickly learns, though, is that not all Divergents are alike, so not just any Divergent can open it, only the right Divergent can open it. While her troops, including returning characters Eric (Jai Courtney) and Max (Mekhi Phifer), hunt Divergents, Four and Tris are left to manage the aftermath of the decisions made by Peter and Caleb, strike an alliance with the newly-organized Factionless (aka The Homeless), and deal with the introduction of someone from Four’s past.
There are many problems with Insurgent, including Robert Schwentke‘s uninspired direction; a script (co-written by three men based on a woman’s novel) saddled with overt and tired dialogue, which follows a path that seems specifically designed not to advance a story, but to get to a particular gigantic set-piece near the end of the film); and a leaden performance from Winslet, whose attempt at icy evilness feels more like she’s indifferently detached.
Another doozy is the repeated use of fake-outs – those scenes that have heavy, sometimes plot-changing moments, only to learn a minute later that the heavy moment was actually a nightmare Tris was having or a scene from a simulator she’s attached to. Like the jump-scare in horror, the fake-out can be an effective device on the audience. To use it too much, though, breeds viewer apathy. If something can be revealed as fake at any moment, why should anyone care what happens?
But the film irreparably damages itself – and quite possibly whatever sequels are left – in how it handles Tris’ character. When decisions need to be made, Four makes them, not Tris. When there is a fight (and there are several) and the two are in the fight together, he protects her. (There is even some subtle blocking of the actors that goes on where Four is in the foreground and on-point for action while Little Suzy Franchise is left watching or following.)
It’s rampant throughout the film. He leads, she follows. He acts, she reacts. There’s even a scene where, faced with being turned over to Erudite by Candor (just trust me), Four insists he and Tris subject themselves to truth serum to prove their own innocence. Tris has what she believes to be good reason to object to this plan and object she does (albeit passively). She’s essentially ignored and given the truth serum anyway because it’s Four’s plan.
If I knew nothing of this franchise and saw this movie first, I would bet the house that Four is the centerpiece of the whole thing. Even his character gets some nice development while her character just does stuff … like cut her own hair. Tris, you’ve come a long way, baby.
I couldn’t help but make a quick mental comparison to the other female-led, young adult, dystopian film series, The Hunger Games. In those films, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is not only the target for the bad guys, she’s the inspiration for the good guys. In those films, Katniss is protected when she needs protecting, but she is also told to fight when it is time to fight. In those films, Katniss is the strongest because it’s her story.
In this film – hell, in this franchise – Tris, as a Divergent, is the most special of the special ones, the one who holds the key to what happens next. But rather than take control of her own destiny (coif-cutting aside) until the end, where even then she can’t just bark an order but instead has to convince Four with, “Just trust me,” she is relegated to playing (essentially) a damsel in distress. Granted, she’s got a mean right hook when she’s given the chance to use it, but that occasional flash of aggressiveness cannot overcome the way her character is so passively drawn.
Thinking back to that day Twitter question, I don’t think there is any merit to anyone aspiring to be a character in a film. I do think, however, there are opportunities to learn things from characters in films, and perhaps aspire to adapt certain positive behaviors, jettison bad ones, or make smart choices in specific situations similar to those situations a character has faced. Fiction has always been a fertile ground for this sort of thing. The sole lesson I would teach my daughters after having seen Insurgent? Ignore everything Tris does.
And then I would tell them to pick up a camera and go do the whole thing better.