Friday, 16 January 2015

Red Eye and the The Dynamics of Gender

Some people say that men are driven by logic and women are driven by emotion, a notion that is easily debunked but still persists. The assumptions are obviously wrong, as indeed many women are driven by logic and it is not unusual for men to be driven by emotion. This perspective has leaked into many iconic movies, particularly those of the studio era and shortly afterwards (the early James Bond franchise being a perfect example).  More recently there have been efforts to subvert such a notion, and one of the best examples comes from a 2005 film called Red Eye, a psychological thriller directed by Wes Craven of all people.

At first, Red Eye seems like a simple but compelling action film, drawing some elements from the "Die Hard on an X" formula while condensing it into a minimalist confrontation between two characters. Unlike many action films, there are only two characters the viewer needs to keep track of; one male, one female. Most of the story concerns the interactions between these two individuals when they are both seated together on a plane. Besides that, there are a few supporting characters, but at its core, the movie is one big conflict between man and woman.

Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is the manager of fancy hotel looking to get home after attending her grandmother's funeral, who finds herself encountering a nice guy played by Cillian Murphy. This stranger seems friendly at first, but there is an early sign that he is not someone to be trusted. He reveals that his name is Jackson Rippner. Lisa quickly makes the connection that his name sounds remarkably similar to Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial killer who terrorized Victorian England and, even worse, managed to avoid being caught. That alone serves as a sign that something is not right, but there is another side to it.

Jack the Ripper's true identity remains unknown, but what is known is that he (or perhaps she?) usually liked to kill women in particularly gruesome ways. Jackson Rippner might not be planning to kill Lisa right away, but he is luring her into a trap. He is bringing her into his clutches and putting her into a false sense of security. Right from the moment He first "encounters" her at the terminal, he is studying her, watching her every move and waiting for the right moment to strike on his unsuspecting victim.

Jackson keeps his true intentions hidden for the time being, playing as a friend to Lisa. It helps in this case that he looks a bit like the kind of person who might be the hero in any other action movie, and in fact he has been. Cillian Murphy is not as well-known or established and actor as his co-star Rachel McAdams, but he has played a variety of different roles including action hero roles in 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and to a lesser extent Inception (though in a much stranger way). While this is not his first time portraying a villain (he had a minor role as the Scarecrow in Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy), it can shock viewers familiar with some of his more sympathetic roles.

Once the plane is in flight, Jackson reveals who he really is, an assassin who has a job that requires Lisa's assistance. Jackson also reveals something else about himself, namely that he is a misogynist who looks down on Lisa in many ways. This particular aspect of his character is revealed when he delivers a line that seems shocking even for him:

Lisa, whatever female-driven, emotion-based dilemma you may be dealing with right now, you have my sympathy. But for the sake of time and sanity, let's break this down down into a little male-driven, fact-based logic.

The sexist implications of the line should be obvious. Jackson is under the line of thinking that women are driven by emotions and men are driven by logic. As far as the story goes, this line only serves one obvious function, namely to give the viewer one more reason to despise Jackson (as if the fact that he was forcing Lisa to help him with a political assassination that will take place in her own hotel and threatening to kill her father if she refused to co-operate was not already enough). However, the subversion of this line of reasoning is a crucial part of the overall movie. Jackson assumes that his assumption is indeed correct, but as the story progresses it becomes increasingly clear that it is not.

It is established early on that Lisa is hardly driven by pure emotion. While her current feelings do affect her, as they would anybody, she is a professional woman capable of thinking through difficult situations logically. This element of her personality is set up at the very beginning when Cynthia (Jayma Mays), an employee at her hotel struggles to accommodate a pair of infuriating customers. Cynthia proceeds to call Lisa for help, reaching her while she is on her way to the airport after her grandmother's funeral. While it is obvious that Lisa is affected by her loss, this in no way deters her ability to advise Cynthia on how to handle the situation.

While on the flight, Lisa continues to display her skill in mind over matter. She hardly sits around frightened and waits for a man to save her (if anything, most if not all of the people she tries to get help from are also women and none of them are able to save her). She has to rely on herself and find ways outwit her abductor and if possible, call for help. She even manages to find and take several opportunities, even if they do not ultimately work. As the film approaches its climax, Lisa reveals that one emotional motivation that has kept her going: namely that the scar under her shirt came from a man who held a knife to her, and she promised that an incident like that would not happen again. While her reasoning might be fueled by an emotional desire, her method of keeping the promise is carefully calculated.

Specifically, Lisa seizes an opportunity to stab Jackson in the throat with a stolen pen (the one thing she managed to do without him noticing). He survives, but this one action manages to allow Lisa a chance to get away. Once she is free she immediately begins using every resource at her disposal to save both the man Jackson wanted dead and her father, even taking the additional step of telling Cynthia to pull the fire alarm to get the other customers out of the hotel. Lisa even goes as far as to drive a stolen car into her own house just to stop Jackson's associate from killing her father.

Lisa's rationale-thinking character therefore makes Jackson the perfect foil. He delivers an extremely sexist speech in which he implies that women are driven by pure emotion and men by fact-based reasoning (among other remarks). This assumption also proves to be Jackson's own undoing, as he himself disproves his own misogynistic ideals through his actions. While Lisa has to rely on ingenuity and seizes opportunities to make an effort at escaping her predicament (even if they do not always work), Jackson becomes increasingly blinded by his emotions which over the course of the film begin to interfere with his ability to reason.

With every attempt Lisa makes to get out of Jackson's plan, he becomes increasingly agitated towards her. The fact that she resists as long as she does angers him and sends his character arc into a downward spiral. When Jackson is first introduced, he is a cunning and dangerous man who still feigns politeness even after revealing his true intentions. By the end of the movie, he has lost his subtlety and has degenerated to the point where he seems to feel he has only one purpose left: killing Lisa. By the time they meet again in her house, he seems to have forgotten why he even abducted her in the first place, as he barely seems phased when Lisa tells him that she successfully foiled his assassination attempt.

In other words, Jackson basically finds himself struggling with a "female-driven, emotion-based dilemma" while Lisa is applying "male-driven, fact-based logic". Jackson subverts his own reasoning by giving into his frustrations with Lisa and allowing them to control him, to the point where he practically loses any semblance of rational thought. At the same time, Lisa has managed to control her emotions and is now systematically working with every resource available to either evade Jackson or defend herself. Lisa even comments on this development in Jackson's character, pointing out he seems to be moving on nothing but pure anger.

Red Eye is therefore a perfect example of a film that aims to subvert gender stereotyping that is unfortunately still prevalent in modern filmmaking. It is a movie about the conflict between two people, male and female, but it shows that these generalizations are not necessarily true. It is often said that men are driven by logic and women by feeling, a notion that is thoroughly debunked by Red Eye. This movie demonstrates how such assumptions are offensive and ultimately detrimental to those who make them, as emotional and rational characteristics can in fact be found in people of either gender. Women can be every bit as rational as men can be emotional. Neither quality is gender-specific, and that is a lesson that needs to be learned.


  1. Love this essay and this film! Red Eye is so much smarter than people give it credit for. It's also a model screenplay for a thriller, completely establishing its world and rules in the first few minutes so swiftly and entertainingly that you don't even realize just how good a job it's done until you reach the end and realize that it set everything up right at the beginning. And Jackson's line that you quote is a personal favorite of mine for how it comes back to bite him in the ass!

    1. That's true, yet another way in which the film works so well. I love the irony of Jackson's line, and how it helps to set up his entire character arc.