One-dimensional murder victims and femme fatales have dominated the film landscape for years—but a new breed of chilling and transgressive female-fronted movies is shaking up the crime genre.
Lola Kirke in "Gemini." Photo courtesy of PR
In light of the recent outpouring of allegations made against Harvey Weinstein, the film industry is currently adjusting to some painful home truths about the ubiquity of sexual abuse. For women in the film industry, this behind-the-scenes horror feels particularly wrenching—and, among other things, it means that we're looking harder at the representation of our gender both on and offscreen.
In no genre is the need for women's input more apparent than in the crime film. In a century of cinema, from the street gangs of the silent era to last year's Hell or High Water, the crime film has overwhelmingly been the remit of the violent male. In 2018, a handful of upcoming women-led feature films and television series—Alias Grace on Netflix, Cory Finley's suburban murder film Thoroughbreds and the intricate neo-noir Gemini—offer a contemporary and thoughtfully evolved take on the sometimes-misogynistic genre.
Historically, women in this film category tend to be throwaway victims and plot devices."There's an issue with the way a lot of crime fiction was adapted," explains Marya Gates, Turner Classic Movies social media expert and film blogger. "For example, in the novel Laura by Vera Caspary, you get an entire section of the novel that is from Laura's POV. Otto Preminger [in the 1944 film version] sanitizes it. In Dorothy B. Hughes' In a Lonely Place, Laurel discovers that Dix is a killer and she uses her instincts along with her friend and the two women save each other. It's very different in the film—which I think speaks to the need for more female creators."
But the evil dames of 40s film noir do offer an interesting split of opinion on women as criminals. Film scholars have often discussed the double-crossing femme fatale as a sexist figure, made for consumption by the male gaze, but never to be trusted—a threat to all that is right, fair, and masculine in the world, and a cliché of the duplicitous female. Ava Gardner in The Killers and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire present in this way: Their power may lay in their feminine wiles, but they also frequently challenge male domination.
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"Femme fatales are a complicated trope," Gates says. "They can be empowering because they buck traditional gender roles, but because of the Production Code [a form of censorship that demanded any ill-behaved film character be shown as immoral] they also had to be punished and often killed in those older films."
Television has often been flagged as a progressive alternative for telling women's stories, and even in the most male-dominated of genres, this has proven true. While Tony Soprano bullied his way through The Sopranos, his mob wife, Carmela (Edie Falco), was given the rare opportunity to be both amoral and likable. Jane Campion's acclaimed Top of the Lake, which first premiered on BBC2 in 2013, is populated with multi-faceted female protagonists, including a hard-boiled female detective (Elisabeth Moss) seeking a missing girl. Female criminality lies especially front and center in Alias Grace, the upcoming Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood's novel of transgressive womanhood and murder, adapted for screen by Sarah Polley and directed by American Psycho filmmaker Mary Harron.
The murderess is rarely the focus of mainstream American crime film, though a handful have cropped up over the years. Hollywood's first iconic one might be embodied by Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson—the blonde, sexually voracious spouse-killer in Double Indemnity. But for the most part, cult films and B-movies like Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45 (1981) seem to be the go-to places for female psychopaths—or quasi-B movies like John Waters' Serial Mom (1994).
Films like David Fincher's Zodiac show male serial killers to be bizarre auteurs of their crimes, but women killers tend to be seen as aberrations against their very gender. Contemporary films about female killers are still relatively rare, but Fincher's follow-up Gone Girl (2014) features an incredible screen performance with Rosamund Pike as Amy, a villainous Type-A woman the likes of which we rarely see onscreen.
On a somewhat similarly icy spectrum is Cory Finley's debut film Thoroughbreds, recently in Official Competition at the BFI London Film Festival. In it, two teenaged girlfriends (Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy) plot the murder of a family member. The chilly and ominous film does little to make its girls act like actual teenagers—but watching them carefully engineer a homicide without chipping their manicures is still darkly and deliriously enjoyable. And in the stylish new film Gemini, director Aaron Katz flips the switch on the classic Los Angeles gumshoe detective story—and the women onscreen provide their own versions of both cop and criminal.
Lola Kirke is Jill, a personal assistant and BFF to gorgeous celebrity Heather (Zoe Kravitz). When Heather is at the center of an enigmatic act of violence, Jill's the one who seems to be at risk of arrest—and must seek out the truth. Her friendship with Heather is symbiotic, messy, and a touch co-dependent, and their dynamic increasingly chafes—only for them to later work beautifully together in self-protection. As with many female-led films directed by a man, actresses Zoe Kravitz and Lola Kirke were highly collaborative during the filmmaking process, ad-libbing some of their conversations and working to display a genuine sense of female friendship on the screen.
"I think that it's just about time we look at this genre from a different perspective," director Aaron Katz tells me. "Also, having Lola and Zoe, who were really like collaborators on these characters, was an important part of that."
Male characters are secondary in this mystery, and almost all the violence onscreen is enacted by women—stalking, fistfights, and even homicide. Katz is deferential to the filmmaking history of Los Angeles, but says, "I don't want to turn things into kitsch. It's very easy to fetishize the way things used to be... I wanted to be inspired by that era of filmmaking, but this movie is contemporary. I wanted it to reflect the characters in the movie and not superimpose some kind of nostalgia for an earlier era on them."
The reasons why Gemini and Thoroughbreds feel so refreshing are evident. The underlying framework of so many crime films—whether they focus on gritty police procedurals or drug kingpins—is that the greed, amorality, and physical violence necessary to succeed in the criminal underworld is simply lacking in the female sex. A will to money and power is gendered as inevitably male. It's so often why the truly complex, "lovable rogue" roles have been given almost exclusively to men.
When a film like Jane Campion's gender-switched noir In the Cut (2003) was released, Marya Gates points out, "It is so incredibly female in its take on noir to the extent that it was not all that well-received." Yet Campion's directorial interest in the crime genre—as evidenced by Top of the Lake—has since been vindicated and lauded. One can't help but think this has something to do with the positive sea change across the industry, with more women in roles as critics and production gatekeepers.
The powerlessness and humiliation that so many women in the film and TV industry have been struggling with feels like an ever more urgent rallying cry for a progressive future. In the meantime, female-led crime films can feel like both a symbol of that progression and offer a certain catharsis. Seeing women scheme, rob, kill, and transgress can be thrilling. Whether it's the ladies of Gemini coming together to shake off the cops or Faye Dunaway looking chic during a heist, women-led crime films can feel like a channel for righteous female rage.