Wednesday, January 18, 2017

On Faith, Family, and Formalism in FURIOUS 7

It would be so easy for a director to totally phone-in his responsibilities and to collect a massive paycheck, one James Wan actually described as “life-changing”, for doing a Furious movie. John Singleton’s light, tight, thoroughly entertaining buddy-comedy addition to the franchise 2 Fast 2 Furious is as fun to watch as anything else in the series, but it doesn’t truly resemble anything else in the director’s filmography. This is not to suggest a lack of passion or sincerity on Mr. Singleton’s part but, by comparison, when Wan takes hold of the franchise, he makes it his own. In the process, he produces the best Furious movie since Justin Lin’s Tokyo Drift. Furious 7 only ever really feels like an outsider in Wan’s filmography during bits of classic montage editing. Outside of that, it often exhibits a cold, stylish palette, especially in the city scenes, and swift exciting camera-work that emphasizes the physical character movement. These little bits of cinematic language are lifted directly from films like Insidious and The Conjuring, and if its formal qualities weren’t enough, Wan’s Furious film revisits the faith-driven narratives of The Conjuring and Insidious movies as well as continuing his career-long unmasking of the family structure and their patriarchal figures, seen not only in the previously mentioned franchises but in Saw as well. Furious 7 represents Wan’s dedication in the face of a “product movie” not only to a certain set of themes and narratives but to a distinct visual language that’s every bit his own. 

In Furious 7, Wan’s most cherished visual stylings are evident from the very first scene in the film. It starts with a single-take sequence opening with the cold, blueish London skyline being viewed from behind a window that slowly pulls out to reveal Deckard Shaw (played by Jason Statham) standing over his unconscious brother in a hospital bed promising that he’ll make things right. In the corner, out of focus and not even close to visible until the end of the scene, we can see two nurses cowering in the corner as they watch this infamously murderous man so casually pull out an assault rifle and place it on his brother’s lap. He then grabs the holy cross necklace in his brother’s hand and leaves, the camera finally tracks away from the bed to reveal the absolute wreckage the hospital endured while Deckard made his trip up. Dead bodies strewn everywhere and light fixtures hanging by a thread as we follow Shaw through to his car in a single continuous take. 

There’s a number of ways that James Wan likes to subvert our expectations in any of the films he makes. A lot of The Conjuring 2 plays off of carefully setting up known horror tropes only to immediately subvert them. The scene where Peggy Hodgson berates her children for “scaring themselves” into believing that ghosts exist feels like a standard set-up scene at the time. It’s this sort of scene that establishes the parent’s natural skepticism about the poltergeist which makes her eventual belief all the more powerful. But the dresser moves on its own to block the door immediately after we’ve made the assumption. The biggest contributor to this string of surprises is probably Wan’s formal precision. What makes The Conjuring 2 and Insidious particularly effective horror is Wan’s use of some really smart visuals tactics. Those two films work best when they practice Wan’s cinema of the reveal. Nothing jumps into the frame, but rather the frame shifts and moves to meet the object of horror. Wan employs the same tactic in Furious 7 but the surprise isn’t terrifying, it’s exhilarating. 

Furious 7’s utilization of frame is some of the strongest in the entire saga, and while it doesn’t follow the exact philosophy of The Conjuring, it’s equally as ambitious. The fight scene between Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson, the two titan stars in the film, reveals the tactics at their finest. Wan begins his fight scenes with an emphasis on close-up shots of our stars and takes of singular objects, like Hobbs' gun hung up on the wall just out of reach. The fight scene begins as suddenly and surprisingly as any proper Wan horror film. Shaw kicks down the table and jumps over to knock Hobbs straight through the office glass. And suddenly the scene isn't as claustrophobic. The scene between Hobbs and Shaw is easily one of the coolest and strangest man-to-man fight scenes in the franchise. It plays not like your standard order chaser or fist-fight but like some Conjuring-esque, demented imitation of the Oldboy hallway scene. It doesn't just highlight the architecture of the space it takes place in but bases a lot of the character movement off of some imaginary grid in the room. All the actions are played through straight or diagonal lines that don't seem to exist physically, or otherwise follows a boxing ring circle pattern as Hobbs and Shaw bob-and-weave for control. The camerawork is as ornamented and stylish as Wan's horror outings but it's additional physical context demonstrates the versatility of Wan's filmmaking and image-crafting.

The Fast & Furious Saga has always relied on the idea that loyalty to the group should hold precedence over the individual. In the world of Furious, family really is everything. In the first two entries, this manifested as a hyper-masculine, homosocial doctrine between men about the unspoken “bro-code”. But when Justin Lin took over with Tokyo Drift, the doctrine expanded to something much more personal and sincere. The members of Dom’s team (or Sean’s in Tokyo Drift) aren’t merely friends, they’re family. And just like nearly every other James Wan film, the family in Furious 7 is a family in crisis. If Dom was a big brother in the earlier entries, in Furious 7 he’s a father. He fully assumes the role of the patriarchal head who has been marred by failure that has populated every other Wan film. Furious 7, ultimately, is about reconciling that failure.

What haunts Dr. Lawrence Gordon in Saw and Ed Warren in The Conjuring series is the same conflict that haunts Dom Toretto: abject misery stemming from inadequacy to protect the family members they love, whether they be wives, children, or younger brothers. In Saw, Gordon has his motivations shifted upon learning that his family has been captured and he has no way to protect them while he’s inside Jigsaw’s room. In The Conjuring 2, Warren struggles to give peace to his increasingly distressed and literally haunted wife, who is at her most vulnerable in the scenes where she’s alone. In Furious 7, Dom has to deal with the death of Han in Tokyo and the near death of his right-hand man Hobbs. On top of that, his wife Letty is still suffering from Amnesia she gained in a car crash. But he’s not the only one because Deckard Shaw’s entire on-screen motivation is the avenging of his brother at the hands of Dom and crew. Shaw bemoans, in the opening scene, how even after all these years he continues to pick up the pieces of his brother’s personal hardships. Two unrelated men essentially set against each other as head guardians of their kin, engaged in a battle of never-ending retaliation and retribution. Both are essentially in the same circumstances and guided by the same motivation. The world is out of balance because of the tragedies suffered by the family collective and they, the figureheads, need to set it right again. 

The poetic tragedy of Furious 7, and the contextual elephant in the room, is the sudden death of Paul Walker half-way through production. Universal spared no expense to complete the film without him, bringing in his brothers as doubles, re-writes, CGI, using deleted scenes from other Furious movies. Vin Diesel himself said that in the end, the film was for Paul. How much the film’s thematic center on characters dealing with past trauma is linked to the film’s restructuring after Paul’s death is probably indeterminable, but it provides an eerily perfect atmosphere for the film in regards to its on-screen/off-screen relationship. In a sense, it's not just Dom reconciling with the metaphorical loss of Letty but Diesel reconciling with the actual loss of Paul Walker. Or, as one put it: 

”You remain my cross to bear” Deckard Shaw laments over his brother’s hospital bed. In his hands, he holds a cross necklace. The same necklace he eventually leaves at Han’s death site in Tokyo after killing him in retaliation against the Furious gang. The same necklace that Sean gives to Dom before Dom swears to himself “No more funerals”. And the same necklace that he gives to the amnesiac Letty to let her know that no matter what happens, he’s coming back for her. In other Wan films, specifically The Conjuring, the redemptive power of religion and Christ is paramount and indisputable. Not only does God exist but he directly interferes in the narrative. 

The near end of Furious 7 showcases how this same power managed to find its way into a street-racing action film. In the scene, Brian is performing CPR on the non-breathing Dom trying to revive him and soon Letty tells him to “back off”. Instead, she speaks to Dom directly. She tells him that her amnesia is gone, and she remembers everything. She remembers the wedding where they made vows over that same cross necklace she drapes across his chest. And surely enough Dom recovers and walks away from the scene of the crash miraculously. It suggests that he was not only saved through the power of love but of Christ himself, recovering from damage not by the practical, objective methods we traditionally concern ourselves with but through the icons with which we project our ideals onto. Not only in this scene is he “saved” from death but Letty has her memory returned, meaning he has successfully reconciled his past failures to protect her, tying up the two predominant thematic arcs in the film.

Religion is constructed in Furious 7 through Wan’s traditional Christian propaganda, surely, but there’s also another manifestation of it in a totally different manner. The film takes the franchise to totally unprecedented heights in one area: it's internal "mythology" as it were. Demonstrated with the climactic “street fight” scene, where Deckard and Dom run and jump at each other in slow motion, weapons in hand. It feels more reminiscent of The Matrix Revolutions or some long-forgotten anime than the slick Rob Cohen movie that spawned the series. There’s a very palpable mythical quality imbued in the characters of Furious 7 that rivals the flying-guillotine style narrative and thematic importance projected onto the "art" of drifting in Tokyo Drift, but it’s not quite as defined. It’s not surprising that Wan based the film’s title off of the Japanese classic Seven Samurai because both the physical stunt-work and the character’s importance are elevated, even from prior entries. Dom, Hobbs, and Shaw gain the abilities to survive head-on collision without airbags, endure blows from wrenches and pipes without so much as a scratch, and even walk away from a car crash off a bridge totally unharmed. At one point Hobbs, sitting in the hospital with a broken arm, sees the destruction of the city due to Shaw and his cronies hunting down his family and breaks out of the cast through sheer strength. 

These moments, at first, feel like just ridiculous idiosyncrasies not irregular to action films, but as the shenanigans go on, and the stunts get more ridiculous, it becomes clear that elevating the action to the impossible isn't an oversight but precisely the point. This is the seventh installment, and the impact the series has had on culture is more or less permanent. There's been plenty of established theory on action heroes like Neo or Spider-Man being the modern American myths that we project our own ideals onto like the Greeks and Romans of old. If Neo represents a humanistic right to self-determination and self-agency, and Spider-Man represents the responsibility we have to protect those around us, Dominic Toretto represents an adherence to family above all else. So if Dom is another superhero, why not let him defy death on a scale as massive as not just other superheroes but fly like the gods. Cars don't fly, but what if they could?

Wan sees it and capitalizes on it. If Furious 7's extended religion is that of itself, he can inject the same unexplainable, impossible occurrences of his faith-based movies all the while framing it through his delightfully crooked formal eye. The mere fact that Furious 7 adheres to even one of these traits is testament enough to the filmmaker's dedication to producing a work he feels worthy of his filmography.

Haydn DePriest is a student at the University of Texas at Austin.

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