Big spoilers for Dredd. Watch the movie before you read.
As if I didn’t say enough about Pete Travis’s Dredd, the 2012 adaptation of the 2000 AD comic book character. Travis and writer Alex Garland made a thoroughly cartoonish, yet deceptively intelligent action movie that gave no fucks about what it was and wholeheartedly embraced its identity as a gory throwback to 1980s action cinema. But the more I think about Dredd, the more I find within. On second viewing, I found a film that criticizes the main character’s black and white view of law and order, and now I’m thinking there’s even more to it.
The character who acts as the counterpoint to Dredd’s cold and uncompromising view of the world is Anderson, the female new recruit with psychic powers. Her powers allow her to breach into the mind of a target at will, and gain some key information and even manipulate them. She can’t control them, but she can read and confuse them, as she does with the duo’s cuffed drug dealer, Kay.
The big fish of the movie, the villain controlling everything, is Ma-Ma. She is a stunningly sadistic and vicious psychopath who rose through the ranks rapidly. She started as just a prostitute, but through cunning and guile, she fought her way to the top. Both of these female characters are powerful in their own rights and command respect, although Anderson doesn’t really earn that respect until the third act, whereas the film establishes Ma-Ma as a figure not to be fucked with from the very beginning.
The movie places Anderson between these two powerful figures, who sort of function as a belligerent mom-and-dad combo, with Anderson playing the green and naive surrogate daughter. And while Dad comes out on top, it’s Anderson who has the final word. She provides the unexpected act of ethics that, by the rules of the Judges, should fail her. However, Dredd notes, in the final words of the film, that “she’s a pass.”
Why would Dredd, such a stone-cold character who so unwaveringly believes in the absoluteness of the Judge’s laws, allow this transgression to not just go unpunished, but reward it? Because he has trusted her judgment. And by extension, so has the film. Dredd the movie gives Anderson, the female character, the moral high ground while simultaneously placing another female at the complete other end of the moral spectrum. The movie provides two female characters as the counterpoints to ideological struggle; sadism vs. empathy, cold logic vs. humane compassion, etc. Dredd starts off the film much closer to Ma-Ma’s end of the spectrum. He kills brutally throughout the film, but it’s to protect innocents. However, he feels no vindication in it; he just does his job. Anderson comes along and shakes that up.
Instead of killing Ma-Ma’s operator, whom she has tortured by removing his eyes and terrified him throughout, Anderson lets him go, saying “he’s a victim.” Dredd would have thrown his ass in the iso-cubes and he tells her that her act constitutes a failure. But she doesn’t care. This would be a transgression in the film’s world and, in allegorical sense, a transgression in our world. This act upsets the enforced patriarchy that our world has because she has disobeyed the male authority figure. In most films, Anderson would be punished. But she is not; she’s vindicated. She survives and she gains Judgeship.
As another act of female independence, she beats Kay mentally and physically. When she first breaks into his mind, he visualizes raping her in order to scare her. However, she quickly regains control and tricks him into giving up the crucial information she and Dredd went to Peach Trees for in the first place. Then, in the third act, she kills him and the everybody else holding her hostage.
Women in cinema are almost never afforded this opportunity. They are usually to be rescued and/or defined by the male character. Instead, Anderson is her own character and works with Dredd’s characterization. They bounce off each other to create the film’s subtextual argument over the kind of justice Dredd exercises vs. the kind of justice, empathetic but effective, that Anderson later exercises.
Anderson’s empathy comes from her psychic powers. By infiltrating a person’s psyche, she gains understanding of their situation. Understanding breeds empathy, because it is what we don’t know that scares us most. Her knowledge of people’s dire situations gives her a compassion that Dredd lacks. This superior knowledge over a man and her ability to read minds also constitute a breach in the natural order of not just Dredd’s world, but ours, metaphorically. She can invade privacy, convince you of things that aren’t real, and fuck with you in ways that will literally end you. Since she’s a woman, that upsets the patriarchal view that “men have the power.” As I said before and as Lara Mulvey wrote in her seminal essay “VIsual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” she would be punished. But she isn’t.
But while Ma-Ma is punished, it’s important to note that she isn’t punished for being a woman in a man’s world. Her judgment from Dredd and her subsequent punishment come from her criminality, not her femininity. It’s an act of genre, not misogyny. A man who performed all of the acts that she did in power would also get put down by Dredd. And even though I’m arguing this is a feminist movie, I think there are legitimately good narrative and thematic reasons as to why Dredd throws her out the window and Anderson doesn’t get to kill her for a couple reasons. One, it’s because the movie is called Dredd and not Anderson. Two, Anderson gets shot. But it’s mainly because Dredd was always going to be the one to carry out the film’s absolute, final punishment. He is the veteran and the firm believer in his system, after all. Anderson supposedly failed her test, as well, at that point.
But at the very end, Dredd says “she’s a pass.” And while it is the male authoritative figure with the final word on her pass or fail, it is the female who has introduced the new ideas into the film’s fiction and the main character, who approves. To top it all off, Dredd’s superior is a woman, as well.
In my original review, I said “[Dredd’s] mission is not be a meaningful film.” I still believe that the original goal of the filmmakers was to make a simply “fun” movie, but I’ve discovered there is a lot of meaning in this otherwise unassuming movie. I won’t say it is a perfect vehicle for feminism. There are only five female characters with speaking lines, two of whom aren’t named and another one of whom is named simply “Chief Judge.” And the main character, the draw of the film, and the person gracing the poster is a dude. But in a landscape of bullshit and half-assery, Dredd looms large above them in quality and representation.