Women with weapons: on Emily Blunt and the triumph of Higgins-ism

In subway stations a few weeks ago, I began seeing a poster, for a film called Sicario, that featured Emily Blunt wielding a pistol. To put it plainly, this bugged me. Is this fulfillment of Henry Higgins’s wish for a woman to be more like a man really the kind of equality we want? I had felt the same way a few months back, when I kept seeing promos for the second season of the HBO series True Detective that featured Rachel McAdams with a handgun. Recognizing that there’s a certain appeal to this form of power (as in a few of my pictures on Flickr), I grabbed a quick photo and posted it to Instagram with a comment:

This week, I discovered that Anthony Lane, in reviewing Sicario for The New Yorker, had taken issue with the idea as well. Other critiques can be made of women kicking ass in film and TV, but for now it’ll suffice to quote Lane’s argument about the kind of use that’s being made of Blunt’s skills.

The only hitch here is Emily Blunt. The task of her character is to protest and to put questions, trying to work out why she was asked to string along, and the truth, once revealed, is no big deal. That isn’t enough, I think, for an actress who seems constitutionally wiser than the folks around her. In her low-lidded gaze, and in the permanent rumor of a smile on her lips, we catch hints of someone determined to be more amused than bored by the world, though never so crass as to be wowed. Nobody writes leading roles for such an actress any more, in the way that Ben Hecht (with help from Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart, and others) wrote “Nothing Sacred” for Carole Lombard; that’s why the best of Blunt resides in her bit parts, in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” and in the astonishing scene from “The Adjustment Bureau,” in the bathroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, in which she goes from meeting Matt Damon to smooching him in three minutes and twenty seconds. Who else could do that and get us to believe it? What do you do with a performer who makes a kiss look as easy as a laugh, and vice versa?

What you don’t do is give her a gun, erase the bloom from her cheeks, and command her, at all costs, to keep a straight and stony face. Yet that is what Blunt has undergone of late, first in “Edge of Tomorrow” and now in the dauntingly humorless “Sicario.” She makes a decent action heroine, never less than pained and strained, but for her it’s like playing a single octave on the piano.

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