Tuesday 11 February 2020

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Birds of Prey. It's 2020, the Joker, or, as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, at the time of watching this film in an Australian cinema also starring in a second film) calls him, Mr J., is out of the picture, and so the titular emancipation becomes the centre of the personal story (of all its female characters), but also a meta comment on what is happening behind the scenes here, taking one character from 2016's Suicide Squad (which I have not and will never see, in good part because of the aforementioned gentleman) and emancipating her into her own story, of which she is the sole narrator. She is a narrator conscious of being entrusted with the story, and befitting of her character, genuine in its telling, but loose about the temporal conventions. The film therefore zooms back and forth in time, weaving together the disparate women and story lines, until it culminates in a finale - all of which is to say that Birds of Prey doesn't just emancipate Harley Quinn from the drabness of her previous feature, but also finds its whole own visual and narrative language in doing so, one that suits her character. 

This is an accomplishment for many reasons, but it is also necessary for a film that is so eloquently about Harley Quinn, stepping outside of a defining romantic relationship after considering herself, and being considered by others, as the kind of person who cannot exist on her own, who cannot exist without the context of an overbearing partner (and who, in 2020, could be more overbearing than Mr J, in all of his overvalued incarnations). Upset with this valuation, Harley drunkenly decides to blow up the chemical factory that symbolises her relationship, which is pretty dark, considering that it appears to be the place where she went quite literally mad, and attempted to self-destruct. This sets a few unanticipated though not unknowable things in motion: for one, its a public declaration that she is no longer under the protection of the joker, and therefore old grudges can be repaid. One of these grudge-holder is Ewan McGregor's Roman Sionis, a sadistic crime boss with aspirations to take over all of Gotham with the financial support of some secret information contained in a diamond that got lost after the slaughter of a previous crime boss's whole family (it's complicated) - and he can only be convinced to hold off on the torture and murder when Harley promises to find said diamond, which (as revealed in an elaborate flashback, just to get the audience up to speed with where we're at) is currently located in the bowels of talented young pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (a very great Ella Jay Basco). Further participating in this comedy of errors and doors are Dinah Lance aka the Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, hopefully lined up for staring roles in the future, which should have been happening ever since her break-out performance in the prematurely cancelled and irreplaceable Underground), who currently works as a singer in Roman's night club but is promoted to his driver after Harley incapacitates the predecessor, Rosie Perez' down-and-out police detective Renee Montoya (Renee Montoya!), trying to survive in a sexist environment with little help from her ex-girlfriend in the DA's office (Ali Wong!), and Huntress aka The Crossbow Killer. 

While Harley zips back and forth to set up the story, we get a sense of the direction we're being taken into - all of these women and the burdens they carry have to band together to overcome the great sadistic evil and the less obvious, but perhaps even viler, evil of systemic sexism and poverty. It's a very reluctant alliance, but the only way to overcome the fact that it's not just Gotham's crime underground that is dominated by forces that hate women, but its surface-level (on which Renee Montoya operates) as well. The most joyful part of the film is the fact that Cathy Yan finds a visual language for the kind of over-the-top violence that we've slowly been desensitised too (Tarantino, etc) that is perfectly attuned to who Harley is as a person - it's her own violence, her own weapons, her own style of fighting, and it translates perfectly into the women fighting together as a group once they decide they're better off that way. At the same time, the emotional journey at the centre of the film - in which Harley decides not to be a complete asshole and take a minute amount of responsibility for Cassandra, instead of selling her off for hers own safety, remains resonant precisely because that journey takes place within the constraints of her character (it's a small change, but one that reverberates especially because it rings more true). The closest things I felt reminded of, and that is maybe unavoidable considering the way that everything always quotes the past, is Rachel Talalay's Tank Girl and less so the much more controversial and much-interpreted Sucker Punch - the former finds an anarchic visual language that befits Lori Petty's character perfectly, and the latter in a stumbling kind of way finds emancipation in spite of its male gaze (so in the end, maybe Birds of Prey fixes the profound error of having Sucker Punch be directed by a dude and makes it ours). Just the fact that it fits in Huntresses' tragic back story, and then expresses her current state so perfectly through Mary Elizabeth Winstead's whole deal, is an example how great Birds of Prey is. 

In short, this is the most visually compelling experience I've had in an actual cinema since watching Fury Road, and at the same time, the most fun with gratuitous violence that I can imagine I'll ever have as the kind of person who also loves the works of Kelly Reichardt and the music of Chan Marshall. 

2020, directed by Cathy Yan, starring Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco, Ellen Yee, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina.

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