Thursday, 4 December 2014

Character Profile: Evelyn Salt

Man, it's been a while since I did one of these. The titular character of the 2010 action thriller Salt is a peculiar and enigmatic heroine with quite the balance of qualities. Amusingly, she was originally written with Tom Cruise in mind, and very few changes to the script were made when Angelina Jolie was cast instead (which leaves me to wonder if Salt was originally supposed to be gay or if they had to rewrite his spouse). This allows her to channel a variety of different attributes of various action heroes. You can definitely see a bit of the "wise-guy" hero of Die Hard, but there's a bit of the hardbodied hero in her as well. 

She's also got some of the urban vigilante in there. Vigilante characters have sometimes been compared to the classical western hero, torn between the "savage" wilderness and the "civilized" world. Dirty Harry Callahan has a bit of this, if one interprets the "civilized" world as the authorities and the "wilderness" as the streets and the crooks that run them. In much the same way, Salt is torn between the "civilized" American authorities and the "savage" Russian underground. She does not truly belong to either, and fits into neither.

Salt begins as a CIA agent, but as we eventually discover, she is really an undercover operative for a secret Russian organization that has been carefully planning the fall of America for decades. She was an operative so deep undercover that even she didn't know that she was an operative in the first place. Similar to Jason Bourne, she is a character who has prior connections to something darker but never really affiliates herself with anybody.

What happens when a sleeper agent gets too deep undercover for too long? In Salt's case, the operation worked too well, since even though she could remember her past, she blended into American society so effectively she practically became one of them. It's implied that her shift really got started in the opening, when she discovers that her German husband had gone to extensive lengths to get her out of a North Korean prison, lengths that her peers never would have reached.

If anything, it takes a "defector" (or more accurately, her old boss) to really bring out any of her extensive prior training. This puts her on the run from the American authorities and allows her to begin to demonstrate one of her most useful skills: blending in. The fact that she is able to avoid drawing attention comes in handy throughout the movie. Because of this she is easily able to evade her pursuers when faced with the task to assassinate the Russian president (part of a plan by her superiors to provoke America into war). This becomes a strange plot point because it throws the viewer off, makes them sure she is in fact a Russian spy, but that leaves open the question of why she surrenders so easily. 

She has a very clear opportunity to kill the CIA man pursuing her but doesn't take it. It's an early clue that she might not be the spy she has been accused of being. Even he is confused by that question, especially when Salt is so easily escorted by the police. She then proceeds to easily break free from their grip and make her escape unnoticed. It is here when we start to see some of her true self emerging, as it is confirmed that she is indeed a Russian agent, and reunites with several of her former comrades who invite her back as one of them.

What they don't realize yet, however, is that Salt has been playing them. She watches them murder her husband, the one man who has shown her any form of compassion, and once they are satisfied that they can trust her, she proceeds to kill every single one. She does this in a systematic way, carefully timing her grenades to take out several at once, and easily catching the rest off-guard. By this point, she has not only taken several of the top agents out (including the man responsible for training them) but she has also found out the next part of their plan.

Here the vigilante aspects of Salt's character begin to emerge. Because she is a fugitive she can't directly warn the authorities of Orlov's plan to assassinate the president, so her only shot is to take matters into her own hands and do what she does best: infiltrate, blend in, and then take action. She successfully plays another agent, successfully convincing him that she is still with Orlov (word hasn't got out about his death at this point). Said agent also happens to be undercover as a NATO representative, and has a plan to get her into the White House undetected. What this agent doesn't realize is that he is giving Salt the perfect opportunity to thwart the very plan he expects to help complete.

His "sacrifice" creates a distraction that allows her to pursue the president into the elevator leading into a secret bunker under the White House, but not to kill him. She makes it through the bunker's security systems just in time to learn that her CIA boss, Ted Winter, was also a Russian agent. Here is where she finally reveals her true colors, in that she isn't really associated with anyone. She just doesn't want America to be provoked into war and because she can't be trusted by the proper authorities her only shot at saving the world rests in taking matters into her own hands. The result is a large brawl that ends with her being dragged away in handcuffs. Salt only manages to finally stop Winter by strangling him with said cuffs in front of numerous witnesses, adding to her fugitive status.

She is finally held and detained by one of the CIA agents who have been chasing her, but he seems to be coming around to sympathize with her. She convinces him that Ted Winter was an agent, and he in turn "accidentally" lets her go. It's a shame that there is no word on a sequel, because it would be interesting to see what she would try to do next. She's managed to alert the authorities about the presence of Russian spies trying to sabotage the government, so maybe like Jason Bourne she'll just go off the grid and try to leave her past behind. Alternatively she may just keep fighting the Russian underground movement as a vigilante, doing everything she can to prevent either side from re-igniting the Cold War, or maybe instead she'll find some new political mess and use her vigilante methods to deal with it.

Whatever happens, Salt becomes a very interesting character as far as modern political thriller heroes go. There's no questioning she's a strong character (it may help that she was originally written as a man, which kept her away from some of the pitfalls faced by action heroines), but she also has a lot of different roles in her. There's definitely a bit of Jason Bourne, particularly in the way she gets set up and caught between two different sides that want her for different reasons and is never fully affiliated with either one. That also brings out the urban vigilante qualities, which leads us to that torn nature of the classical western hero who takes the law into their own hands.


  1. Yes, I love Salt! You bring up some great points about the variois aspects of her character. I never considered an urban vigilante element to her. For me, she is pure female Borne. And Jolie was perfect in the role.

    That brings me Tom Cruise. First, I'd bet everything both of us holds dear that had he played the role, Salt would not have been gay. Without looking it up, I'm 100% certain the spouse was one of those things that were re-written. Whether right or wrong, the budget and the star were too big for the studio to take what would amount to a financial risk. As for him in the role, I'm glad he didn't play it. He tendency to be smug, at least on the screen probably wouldn't work here. Though, to be honest he was able downplay that aspect of himself enough to make Edge of Tomorrow really work. Still, I'm glad Jolie got the part for a number of reasons.

    1. I can sort of imagine Tom Cruise in the role, at least enough to see why the screenwriter might have originally wanted him but I'll agree that Angelina was a better choice. It's kinda hard to imagine the character of Salt acting all smug and he probably would have been spouting out a ton of cheesy one-liners that would work great in a Schwarzenegger film but seem out of place here.