Reclaiming the Night: The Rise in Complex Female Killers

Female killers on the silver screen have had a lifelong tendency to fall into one of two categories. They are either seeking revenge for a crime committed against them (Ginger Snaps, I Spit on Your Grave, Jennifer’s Body, Thelma & Louise) or they are clinical psychopaths, their violent behaviour stemming from a place of passion and obsession (Fatal Attraction, Obsession). There is an overwhelming implication that women cannot possibly become aggressive, violent or even murderous unless there is an emotional reason at play. For Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest, it was her obsession that drove her into such a violent frenzy. Even Thelma and Louise were pushed to their limits due to the actions of men rather than their own autonomous choices. The past few years have seen a rise in the female anti-hero and there are no signs of this new wave slowing.

No conversation on cinema’s female killers can exclude Uma Thurman’s Beatrice Kiddo (Kill Bill). There is a definitely a conversation to be had in terms of Thurman’s agency whilst shooting the film (in light of the recent video footage of the on-set car crash, and Thurman’s interview with The New York Times, but the character of Beatrice and the Kill Bill franchise were instrumental in giving new life to revenge movies with female protagonists. Instead of a jilted femme-fatale, or a hysterical woman (and yes, hysteria stems from super sexist beliefs about the uterus), Beatrice was a character who had every justification for being angry and wanting revenge on those who had wronged her. Emotional, bitter and out for blood, Beatrice utilised her skillset and turned those skills back on to her teacher and oppressor. What was really great about Beatrice? She actually won. She was stronger, more intelligent and overall just better than Bill and the others. She was also more motivated, largely because of her love and grief for her child, which gave her the drive to defeat her colleagues-turned-enemies.

Beatrice also wasn’t a villain, which stands in contradiction the vast majority of women who kill in cinema. In the last few years, cinema has given us a number of female killers who’ve not only been protagonists in their own stories, but have also been incredibly interesting and complex characters.

Alice Lowe’s Prevenge does just this. Ruth, played by Lowe, is a unique serial killer on a revenge mission of her own. Ruth, though a strong-minded individual, is not just killing for herself but for her unborn child too. Not in a figurative way, but a very literal way - the voice of Ruth’s unborn baby is commanding her to commit these murders to avenge the death of its father. Juxtaposed with Ruth’s frustration at her doting midwife, her grief at losing her partner and the anxiety of having to go through childbirth alone - Prevenge weaves a complicated web around the character of Ruth. Her actions can be viewed as type of catharsis, instead of (or perhaps in addition to) following through on the demands of her child. Though the film never gives us reason to doubt that Ruth’s baby is really speaking to her, it seems just as logical to assume that perhaps this is a manifestation of Ruth’s grief.

Prevenge doesn’t shy away from ultra-violence either. Ruth often murders her victims in gruesome ways. She doesn’t embody the maternal, benevolent mother figure we are used to seeing in cinema. Instead, Ruth almost seems to be enjoying herself.

Additionally, Ruth’s pregnancy is a weapon. Commonly, pregnant people are seen as weaker, less capable or incapacitated. They are not seen as a threat - Ruth is often treated with caution, or allowed into her victims houses or workspaces simply because she is pregnant. Ruth uses her baby bump as a way to gain access to her victims' lives that she might not have previously allowed because they perceive her as an innocent mother. Lowe herself says (on creating the character of Ruth) ‘Mothers are always self-sacrificial and kind and martyrish…’ Ruth uses this commonly held notion of motherhood, and turns it into a weapon.

We can see the same tactic used in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a film detailing the town of Bad City and The Girl (Sheila Vand) who roams the streets murdering the worst of humanity. She overturns expectations about femininity, fragility and womanhood, predominantly with her clothing.

The Girl’s chador - an item of clothing commonly associated with oppression for many people in the West - is an essential part of her character. Instead of representing the traditional Muslim dress as a hindrance, she uses it to glide unseen through the night, blending into the dark landscape of Bad City. It also hides her identity, allowing her to be somewhat invisible. Visually, her chador resembles a superhero cape as she skateboards around the town, reiterating her status as a saviour of those in danger. A traditionally feminine (and arguably oppressive) item is again being used as a weapon.

Like Beatrice, The Girl and Ruth both gain peace once their ideas of revenge and justice have been completed. For Ruth, she seems to find that place of understanding and peace when she doesn’t immediately kill her last victim, the man she believes to hold the most responsibility for her husband’s death. Yet, in the final act, Ruth comes back to finish what she started. Likewise, The Girl has no reason to kill Hossein or Saeed, but for her own idea of justice. Neither are a real threat to her, but she seems compelled to finish the job she started. For Beatrice, The Girl and Ruth - murder is a way of dealing with their own emotions and grief.

In a slightly different way - but again utilising traditionally feminine character traits - Anna Biller’s The Love Witch explores love and murder from the perspective of its die-hard romantic (literally) Elaine (Samantha Robinson). At first glance, it may appear to be a Technicolor revisioning of 1970s sexploitation cinema (which is still a commonly held view even though Biller has dismissed this entirely). The Love Witch, in actuality, is a complex film which explores modern ideas about love, sex, relationships and romance and plays into them entirely. Protagonist Elaine comes off, to begin with, as slightly unhinged when compared to her new acquaintance Trish who holds more feminist and progressive views on the roles of men and women.

Surprisingly, I found Elaine reminded me of a different character from a very different film - Alex from Fatal Attraction. Though a world apart, Alex’s obsession drives her to become violent (disguised as passion) and it’s also Elaine’s obsessions with finding the perfect lover that drives her to become violent too. The fundamental difference is that Elaine commits these atrocities because she has been completely conditioned by patriarchal values and her murder spree (in her own eyes) is nothing more than her completing the search for her perfect man. She, according to a society which feeds women a diet of romance and objectification, has actually done very little wrong. The Love Witch details, subtly of course, why Elaine is like this and how she has become intoxicated with these ideas. Alex, on the other hand, is easily dismissed as crazy (particularly when she kills herself at the end) because we are never encouraged to explore her backstory or to understand why she behaves the way she does.

Though female killers are becoming more and more popular in cinema, the most successful films understand and explore the complexities behind their protagonists desire to kill. They do not exist in a world devoid of sexist stereotypes or societal expectations. These characters successfully reclaim the night, and entertain us whilst doing so because they address the idea that women are supposed to be kinder, gentler and well...less murderous, and upend it completely. With any luck, complex female killers are here for the long run … on screen anyway.

Last updated: 14/02/2018 01:36:46

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