In many ways, Wanted is the complement of Martyrs, particularly since both revolve around the violence of transformation. The primary difference, of course, is that the protagonist being pummeled here is male and the one at whose hands he suffers is a woman. And unlike the horror of Martyrs, Wanted is framed as an action-thriller which, for better or worse, has the effect of obscuring the nascent similarities between these two films.

As a result, Wanted presents us with what appears to be two incompatible stories. The first is the familiar tale of initiation in which an emasculated protagonist is transformed into a virile hero. The fact that humiliation and injury are the primary tools used in his initiation should remind us of the time honored parallels found in the college fraternities, varsity and professional sports, and the military, each of which claims to transform boys into “real men.”

In contrast to this, we are presented with elements that belong to a very different – even mystical – tradition. How else are we to understand the references to Fate, the role of the sacrificial father, and the imperative of intervening on behalf of a world so desperately out of balance? If we take these different elements seriously, the transformation signaled here cannot be reduced to a noisy celebration of masculine tumescence but something else. In which case the “action” is merely a cover for a different kind of story. One in which the feminine, rather than the strut of masculinity, is the central figure.

When understood in this way, the narrative of Wanted has its feet firmly planted in two different traditions. Perhaps this is the reason why it may come across as convoluted or incomplete, as if we have witnessed a half-told tale. One critic, for example, has complained that Wanted

is a film completely lacking in two organs I always appreciate in a move: a heart and a mind. It is mindless, heartless, preposterous. By the end of the film, we can’t even believe the values the plot seems to believe, since the plot is deceived right along with us. The way to enjoy this film is put your logic on hold, along with any higher sensitivities that might be vulnerable and immerse yourself as if in a video game.

Other critics, professional and otherwise, have taken a great deal of delight in identifying – and deriding – the “most ridiculous plot points” of the film, “ridiculous” precisely because they reflect the seeming impossibility of reconciling the film’s other tradition with that of the action genre: the secret society of weavers-turned-assassins into which the protagonist is recruited, the mysterious Loom of Fate that communicates through mistakes in its woven fabric, and a healing bath that miraculously repairs bullet wounds and other assaults on the body.

But first things first.

The Life Before
“The only thing I care about is that fact that I can’t care about anything.”

As the film opens, we are introduced to Wesley Gibson who is stuck in a rut: shackled in a mind-numbing job, harried and abused by his supervisor, unable to join in the levity of an office party. His home life is equally uninspiring and insulting. Too weary and overwhelmed to do anything about his deathly existence, Wesley plods through the familiar – even if demeaning – routine, preferring the comfort of predictability, apparently believing that the assaults on mind and spirit can and should be endured.

Trudging through this life, drugged-up on prescription medication, Wesley can only conclude that he is “the most insignificant asshole of the 21st century.” Until, of course, his life is abruptly changed – in ways he could not have foreseen – by the arrival of a strange woman.

Her name, we learn, is Fox. And as a prelude to the rain of bullets that soon follows, she blurts out a fantastic tale about his father.

Enter: The Fraternity
“They silently carried out executions to restore order to a world on the brink of chaos.”

Wesley’s father, it seems, was a trained assassin – the best – and not the deadbeat father that abandoned him days after his arrival from the womb. The woman, Fox, claims to be there to protect him against the man who killed the father he never knew; she’s also there to recruit him into the secret society to which she belongs. According to her, he’s the only one able to exact revenge for the death of his father, their fellow assassin.

Outrageous? Yes, but given what ensues, apparently true.

Within moments, he is whisked away in what, for the movie audience, is a thrilling car chase but, for Wesley, is a terrifying departure from the witheringly dull – yet strangely reassuring – rhythm of his life. His whimpers and shrieks a sign of the uninitiated, a girlish counterpoint to the stony-faced Fox who, it seems, can no longer be astounded.

Once ensconced in the other-world of the Fraternity, Wesley is told that his bouts with anxiety – his panic attacks – are in fact something else, a rush of adrenalin that can be disciplined and controlled. What might have been considered a constitutional infirmity he was fated to bear, a crippling fear of the unpredictable and its crushing wake, is, in fact, the tremble of a killer’s unrecognized and untapped potential.

Wesley’s disbelief is quickly brushed aside:

No, insanity is wasting your life away when you have the blood of a killer flowing in your veins. Insanity is being shit on, beat down, coasting through life in a miserable existence when you have a caged lion locked inside and a key to release it.

A beautiful and enigmatic woman. The promise of an exciting life. The stage has been set.

“If I wanted to get beat up, I would have stayed in my cubicle, you know?”

What follows is Wesley’s initiation into the Fraternity. But rather than the glamour one might have expected – one in which he learns the top-secret tricks of the trade, and is introduced to the world of special gadgets and call signs – he is subjected to repeated beatings. Primary among these physical assaults are those he receives from the Repairman, whose job it is to fix “a lifetime of bad habits.” He is provided with no instructions; neither is he told what to expect. Simply bound to a chair, he is subjected to bone-crushing blows until the darkness of unconsciousness dampens the kind of pain he has spent his life desperately trying to avoid.

In addition to these thrashings, Wesley is trained by the Butcher, presumably in the use of knives for hand-to-hand combat. But as quickly becomes clear, this training – like his beatings – is less about the acquisition of new skills than learning how to overcome a certain kind of sensitivity, a timidity which, despite his vigorous assertions to the contrary, has nothing to do with his “respect for the human … uh … condition.” The fact that physical combat is the (violent) means by which this transformation is lured out of him is an indication of how anesthetized he had become. A big stick to “seduce” him out of his numbed existence.

What is being celebrated here, however, is not the power of brute force. Neither is it merely an homage to the liberatory effects of throwing off the shackles of civility (or, if you prefer, the superego). It is something else which his “abusers” are after.

And that something else comes at the hands of Fox. During the bulk of Wesley’s “training” she has been the passive but omnipresent observer, paying special attention to his bearing in the face of pain. Only later does she intervene, with the assistance of brass knuckles. The interrogation that follows is punctuated by a merciless pounding, and pivots around a single question, a question to which – when the fight has been beaten out of him – Wesley finds he has no adequate answer: “Why are you here?”

Much to his chagrin, he can only muster a stammering admission, one that even he hadn’t imagined possible, but which, for Fox, elicits the triumphant whisper of a smile:

“I don’t know who I am …”

The Names of the Father
“For the first time in your life, Wesley, you’re in control. … Welcome to the Fraternity.”

Abandoned by his father when he was a mere seven days old, Wesley had been living in a world of Privation, evicted from that mythical Garden of Eden, swallowed by the Absence of a loving protector. Unable to care for anything, including himself, the obligations of routine and the familiar had become king. The only measure of achievement available to him was the grace of having survived the deathly grind in a single piece, no matter the humiliation and resignation required to get there.

It is precisely this yawning emptiness from which Wesley was rescued. And it is the Fraternity that brought salvation from the crippling vacancy that had become his life. At least that is what he is led to believe. As a result, absence is replaced by its opposite, a vitality he can only comprehend in terms of muscular plenitude, a testicular triumph in service to his calling as an assassin.

Now I know why I couldn’t care about anything before this. I was living a lie. Finally, I have a chance to step into my father’s shoes. Grow a pair. Live a life I was born to live. I’ve been pissing it all away like it was another fucking billing report. I have to train harder. I have to be as good as my father.

That this understanding will later come to be challenged should not come as a surprise, as it is a simple – and easy – overcompensation for what Wesley thought he was lacking. It is the response of the boy-child desiring the power and prestige of a mythic, Omni-potent Father. And the first self-conscious act that follows dumb obeisance is the homage of emulating this virile ideal in its savage, if not overblown, glory.

By film’s end, however, a different ideal (almost) comes to replace this all-powerful Father, one characterized less by his awesome proportions or his all-mighty force than a man’s unending devotion to his son. It is a model of masculinity concerned less with the imperatives of paternal authority or the visceral gratification of revenge than an enduring commitment to the wellbeing of his child. As telescoped in the opening minutes of the film, this Father, while having mastered the beast within, operates on a scale more delicate than the martial ideal. Only after his father is long gone does Wesley discover his personal witness and protector.

He also provides a very different measure against which Wesley might imagine himself.

The Loom of Fate
“Every culture in history has a secret code. One you won’t find in traditional texts.”

The imagery of weaving has long been used as a means of speaking of the mysteries of life, of the patterns discernible only to the initiated, and of the hand of fate that gives shape and design to the fortunes of the living. It is evident in mythical (and mystical) traditions the world over, as well as the prominence of weavers (and spindles, threads, thimbles) in fairy tales. The fact that stories of the fantastic are still designated yarns is suggestive of the continuing connection between story-telling and the “hidden” meanings woven into our worldly existence.

Once initiated, Wesley is introduced to the Loom of Fate that resides in the inner sanctum of the Fraternity, normally accessible only to their supreme leader, Sloan. The exchange that follows (obliquely) outlines the elemental connections between the fabric of life, what we may perceive as misfortune, and the secret knowledge of the brotherhood.

Sloan: A thousand years ago, a clan of weavers discovered a mystical language hidden in the fabric. They called themselves the Fraternity.
Wesley: I’ll be honest with you: all I see are threads.
Sloan: Come here [and] look there. You see that one thread that missed the weave and lies on top of the others?
Wesley: Like a mistake?
Sloan: No. It’s a code.

The final test of Wesley’s preparation as the newest member of the Fraternity revolves precisely around his ability to master the threads of the loom, not merely as a test of his physical reflexes, but as a measure of his ability to discern the motion of the threads, to apprehend the pattern being spun, and to maneuver himself among the cords that threaten to entrap him.

Like all initiates to the mysteries, Wesley’s task is to re-cognize the strands of his life, including the “mistakes” that have imprisoned him, and weave a different kind of story about his existence, one that is able to account for the design that, until now, has eluded him. That this “secret” knowledge is couched in the language of Fate merely attests to the ways in which it is a form of understanding that is particular to him, one that sheds light on – and clarifies – the different stages of his life, including the yawning abyss within which he was caught, and the challenges that are yet to come. Chief among the latter, of course, is learning how to overcome the allure of the armed righteousness that appropriated his Father’s name and spirit.

The Place of the Woman
“Their world. Her rules. His destiny.”

That this film plays with – and indulges – masculine fears and fantasy is plainly evident in the taunts that suffuse Wesley’s initiation (“Pussy!”) as well as his subsequent pride in “growing a pair.” The close of the film contains more than an echo of this swagger of testicular accomplishment.

Which leads one to ask: what are we to make of the place of the woman, Fox, in this tale? While Wesley is clearly the protagonist, she is the central figure that adorns the posters advertising the film; she is also the ever-present figure that shadows him throughout this adventure, playing a fundamental role in his recruitment, training, and the life that ensues. It is “her rules” that have enabled and ennobled the different stages of his transformation.

This certainly sits uneasily with the hyper-masculine threads of this story, and raises a number of unanswered questions, among them: What is this woman’s place in the Fraternity, and what accounts for her privileged status in Wesley’s training? What are we to make of the secret society’s monastic origins and the path by which they became a brotherhood of assassins? (Might the origin of the word itself indicate that the very idea of assassin has been perverted, shorn of its historical – and mystical – roots? In which the one being “killed” is not an external enemy but one’s calcified sense of self?)

But about other matters there can be no question: Fox is a female warrior, not merely able to hold her own in a world of men, but capable of instilling fear and earning their respect. In this sense, she may be akin to Medusa or, perhaps more fittingly, given her relation to Wesley, Kali trampling Shiva beneath her feet. As her name would suggest, Fox possesses the ability to see – and know – more than what is evident to her adversaries, and act accordingly. Her tragic flaw, if it can be called one, is her alliance with men who would bend the truth for their own benefit, arrogating the power of hidden knowledge to rewrite the code of the secret society to which they belong.

A mistake, perhaps. But as she had already taught Wesley, such “errors” are but wrinkles in the fabric of Fate that point to a destiny different from the one she might have at first imagined. Or wanted.

~ by mistified on July 9, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: