Movies in the Real World

On the Friday of spring break (March 8), I went to an 11:10 AM showing of Niels Arden Oplev’s Dead Man Down at Century Napa Valley with my 82 year-old grandmother. Although my grandmother bought my ticket, I checked the price: $7.00 for the “Early Bird,” the first show of the day.

Century Napa Valley

Century Napa Valley

Century Napa Valley opened on November 9, 2012, replacing Napa’s decades-old, single-story Cinedome, a (literally) pink building that made up for what it lacked in modern tech-trappings with character. But, in a scheme of modernity, quirky retro “character” doesn’t cut it. Century Napa Valley, on the other hand, is every bit the modern Cineplex. The theater is part of Cinemark, which accounts for this sort of standardized glamour and gloss. The building itself is equal parts glass… and brown; it’s one of those buildings that is obviously shooting for trendy and modern but just ends up being an eyesore (see above). Cinemark’s website touts a long list of the theater’s amenities. Many of these focus on marketing the theater as disability-friendly: wheelchair access, closed captioning, descriptive narration, and multiple types of listening devices. The rest emphasize the high tech nature of the theater. Essentially, the theater is an oasis of modernity in what has traditionally been a stunted small town. Napa is trying to use the theater to anchor a currently uninteresting patch of south Napa; just this week, the city announced plans for the new South Napa Century Center, which will feature two dozen shops and eateries (artist rendering below). It’s patently obvious that Century Napa Valley is an integral part of the city of Napa’s efforts to update and redefine itself as a twenty-first century city (well, maybe a miniature city).

Plan for South Napa Century Center

Plan for South Napa Century Center

Possibly the most notable internal feature of the theater was the wine bar in the lobby. Of course, Napa County is the heart of California’s wine country. Wine is basically everywhere. (No, really. Middle-income families start amateur wineries in their backyards.) Despite this ubiquity, the movie theater was one place wine had not infiltrated. So, seeing the wine bar was a surprise, even though it was completely deserted at 11 AM.  Ultimately, my grandmother and I did not have wine. We did, however, split an overpriced (but surprisingly edible) individual frozen pizza. My grandmother also had a Coke, commenting that she only ever has soda when she goes to the movies. We weren’t the only moviegoers at the concession stand, despite the early hour.

Overall, however, the theater wasn’t crowded. The audience was small, only a handful of the stadium seats occupied. Demographically, most of the patrons were elderly retirees. This makes sense, given that it was a Friday morning matinee. Who has the time to go to a Friday morning matinee except elderly retirees and college kids on spring break? They were a fairly unremarkable group in terms of their reactions to the film. There were no moments of gasps or tears, and no one angrily stormed out of the theater—but then again, that might have had something to do with the fact that the film wasn’t one to inspire strong emotional reactions.

On that note, whatever I expected Dead Man Down to be, it wasn’t. (See trailer below.) It’s marketed as a dual story of revenge, which it technically is, but the film isn’t really Beatrice’s (Noomi Rapace) story. She mainly exists as a prop for the character development of Victor (Colin Farrell). And in many ways, Beatrice was the nexus of my disappointment. Despite the convoluted and contrived nature of the plot, it was Beatrice who failed to live up to whatever subconscious expectations I came in with.

Those expectations may have had something to do with the casting of Noomi Rapace, or Lisbeth Salander in the Milenium Trilogy. Beatrice, however, is nothing like Lisbeth. Noomi Rapace is, of course, a conventionally beautiful actress, regardless of the wispy thin scars they paint on her face. Personally, this made viewing the film incredibly frustrating. Before her accident, Beatrice was a cosmetician; her entire identity seems to have been predicated on her beauty, the flawlessness of her appearance. After the accident, she views herself as a monster—a view no one else seems to share, except maybe the obnoxious kids in the neighborhood. Feeling out of control, she wants to take back some agency through revenge and the death of the man who scarred her. This would almost be reminiscent of Lisbeth’s vigilantism—if Beatrice actually did the deed herself or were clearer on her motivations. But she isn’t. Jack Halberstam notes Rapace’s transformative potential as Lisbeth. Halberstam describes Lisbeth as “a queer utopian and feminist vigilante,” worthy of celebration. What’s more, Salander is Halberstam’s “perfect queer heroine in terms of the intensity of her commitments, the flexibility of her sexual orientation and her gender and her complete commitment to a world beyond the conventional family.” There is none of that in Dead Man Down. Rapace is no longer a symbol of queer utopia, but rather something startlingly normative.

Beatrice (Noomi Rapace)

This brings up questions of national cinema. If Oplev and Rapace are constants in the equation, the main variable is production. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo comes out the context of Swedish cinema; Dead Man Down is thoroughly Hollywood, with all the conservatism that entails. Susan Hayward’s discussion of Third Cinema differentiates between the styles and investments of differing national cinemas. First World cinema is ultimately consumerist cinema (Hayward 415), and the private funding structure of Hollywood—as opposed to more extensive state funding for the arts in, say, Sweden—limits the types of stories that can be told. Like the venue itself, these films are often glossy and glamorous; like Beatrice, these stories may value style over substance.

Beatrice’s scars ultimately felt like an empty plot device. There was no true exploration of the meaning of disability or scarring, just her obsession with normative forms of beauty and a belief that those scars rendered her undesirable.

Something else that bothered me was how very invested Dead Man Down seems in leading its viewers by the hand. Yes, the plot is somewhat convoluted (that’s probably a generous evaluation), and the film simultaneously wants to bang audiences with its complexity (read: convolutedness) while making sure they don’t miss anything.

After the film, my grandmother and I walked out of the theater, we looked at each other, and we shrugged. “Well,” she said, “I guess there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.”

Works Cited

Dead Man Down. Dir. Niels Arden Oplev. 2013.

Halberstam, Jack. “The Girl Who Played with Queer Utopia.” Bullybloggers. 6 Aug. 2010.

Hayward, Susan. “Third Cinema.” Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 414-422.

Huffman, Jennifer. “Eateries, Shops Coming to Theater Complex.” Napa Valley Register. 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.

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