Sometimes, it’s dangerous to have compassion. This is so widely known that it is in fact, “a trope.” A cliche. It’s widely appreciated. But unfortunately, in our knowledge of this fact, we have forgotten to see nuance; it’s more than just a stab in our own back that we risk when we reach out to a proven destructor.
To illustrate this, I’d like us to consider 1994’s Death Machine. An extremely good British film about capitalism, I guess, but more immediately about being trapped in a skyscraper with a ferocious robot monster, some eco-terrorists, and a nerd from hell.
Death Machine introduces its audience to two main characters, and various support characters. Some of them get a lot of screen time and provide some vital beats, but the opposing forces of the film are Hayden Cale (a woman) and Jack Dante (a man). Their philosophical opposition is based in her over-adherence to responsibility. He lacks it, it’s just irrelevant to his personal outlook; she comes onto his turf and all of a sudden things are set for collision.
Hayden Cale has just been appointed the CEOship of a company so big it’s been implicated in mass infant murder. She’s been appointed this role precisely because the company is experiencing such a calamitous period of public attention, and she takes the brunt of it. Surrounded, assaulted, and called a baby killer to her face, Cale remains detached and professional, making large sweeps in company meetings and directing the board to abandon all research into, basically, super soldiers. Super soldiers go rogue and they kill babies.
What’s not made clear for a long time is that Hayden Cale was a mother and she made a mistake in caring for her daughter. That mistake maimed the baby, and led to its death. Hayden Cale is a literal baby killer, and this dominates her psyche. The audience is privy to her organic nightmares. Blood, matter, whirling blades and baby cries. Wet and clotted imagery, guilt and exhaustion in her posture when she wakes.
Jack Dante is the sick genius behind the bulk of the company’s cyber-enhanced bio weaponry. He made, and controls, the film’s physical villain, which is a big metal chomping walker, essentially a naked werewolf armature, or an outsize Mouser. It kills, because he directs it via remote control. It chases, because he makes it. Jack Dante becomes aroused by Hayden Cale and so he intimidates, lecherously observes and threatens her. He tries to rape her. He psychologically assaults her. He tries to kill her. He tries to eat the world with metal teeth, because he’s a drippy, greasy-looking dude who likes to tinker with things in the dark while cartoons and horror movies play. He’s That Fuckin’ Guy, the worst of the weakest. He breaks all the rules and alternately whimpers and threatens when found out. He stays employed because he’ll do any damn thing for money, and can. He’s “indispensable”.
It’s gendered interaction but more specifically it’s gendered business. The boardroom at this company is heavily male, white male. Nobody wanted the job of pulling this inhuman business out of the gutter. Nobody wanted to take responsibility for where their paycheques came from. Nobody wanted to stick out their neck — their face, their name. Hayden Cale is an intelligent, highly capable, confident, business-adept woman who believes she needs to be punished. It takes domestic infanticide, accidental, to boil up anybody bold enough to set things straight. Cale was not legally culpable and her family disowned her because her baby died bleeding in her arms; she does not regard this as a finished matter, she does not regard this as dues paid. The mother killed her child, the product killed children, and so the fallen woman is allowed (internally, externally) to rise to extreme prominence within business structures and social power motifs. She becomes a famously female CEO, and she becomes despicable in the eyes of the public. Why would anybody be so callous as to agree to do damage control for corporate genocide? They don’t know, and we don’t know, until we’re told. Then we reassess. What we don’t reassess is why they chose her.
We comprehend when they fire her for trying to change them too much for the better.
So you know Hayden Cale a little now. Let’s get back to Jack Dante.
Dante kills people who try to take his things, but he doesn’t do it with his own hands. He does it with his robot, which is humanoid enough to look like “somebody else”. Dante doesn’t submit progress reports and he goes where he pleases thanks to his understanding of electronics, essentially a hacker in the flesh. He’s a hacker in the digital sense too — he knows what Cale did and what happened to her baby. He knows how much money she has. He’s looked where he had no right to, because he desires her, and his primary urge or controlling force is self-gratification. He has an “alpha male” value structure, me Tarzan, me right, and excuses it with his tragic appearance and negligible social abilities. I can’t help wanting nice things, because they never come to me on their own! Brad Dourif knows how to plan appalling nerds, catspaw plotters, spiteful babymen, and Jack Dante is a frightful construction. He hisses traumatic secrets while he paws at a woman whose body he wants to use, he cries when she rejects him, he goes to her, puppyish, when she offers him semi-sexual, maternal comfort.
The moment that he thinks she accepts him is the moment of truth for the viewer. Do you fold?
Do you root for him? Do you think “bitch” or “ohh” when she stabs this vulnerable aspect of a downtrodden man in the leg and escapes
the man who trapped her
with intent to rape
under pain of death
while he taunted her
about how her baby died?
Do you remember what you know about a man, what you know about an accuser, when he cries out in pain “I’m experiencing feedback?”
Do you listen to his pain in the moment, and tend it? Or do you make a choice about what you value long-term, and defend it.
Claire Napier is a straight-up murderer with a hatchet. She is the Features & Opinions Editor at Women Write About Comics, a contributor to Comics Alliance and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.