On subjectivity, thorny psychology unjustly ignored, and the chasm between sympathy and empathy in childhood fantasies
I Kill Giants RLJ Entertainment
Director: Anders Walter
Screenplay: Joe Kelly, based on the graphic novel by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura
Starring: Madison Wolfe, Zoe Saldana, Sydney Wade, Imogen Poots and Rory Jackson
Not rated / 1 hour, 46 minutes / 2.39:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
The first-person pronoun is right there in the title. It's not She Kills Giants or The Girl Who Kills Giants. It's I Kill Giants, referring to the adolescent heroine around whom the film revolves. Would that the film itself were as personal, as subjective, as the title promises.
I Kill Giants is exclusively about the state of mind of troubled 13-year-old Barbara Thorson (Madison Wolfe), yet it can never actually find its way in. It observes her when it should be embodying her; it sympathizes when it should be empathizing. Its fatal flaw is that it does not - cannot - see through her eyes, yet hers is the only viewpoint that matters. It is the film's very subject. This makes for a maddening discordance between its generally attractive photography (h/t cinematographer Rasmus Heise) and the impotence of that photography.
Barbara is a loner who regards even open-hearted companionship with skepticism. When the new girl in town, Sophia (Sydney Wade), tries to befriend her, she only reluctantly accepts. She has so much on her plate already, you see. Armed with detailed files on the monstrous giants that haunt her seaside town - signs of their presence, their patterns of behavior, how to ward them off and, yes, kill them - and a heart-shaped handbag that she clings to desperately, presumably containing an all-powerful weapon, Barbara has delegated herself protector of the entire town and everyone in it.
That this is all an extravagant coping mechanism for hidden torments and tragedies is easy enough to understand. She's distant and discontented even at home, where her sister Karen (Imogen Poots) seems to be head of the household. Barbara steadfastly resists going in, or even near, one particular room on the second floor. Hints of sorrow emanate from the few grown-ups in her orbit - at least the ones who make an effort to care, like the school psychologist Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana). We know what's going on even if we don't know exactly what's going on.
In the character's understandable resistance to the truth, and justifiable escape from it - personal horror embellished as a cataclysmic sequence of events - there's a real psychological situation happening here, yet no psychological bent to the filmmaking. It's a disconcerting giveaway that the film's marketing declares "From the producers of Harry Potter," because director Anders Walter essentially takes the fantasy elements at face value. That he's dealing with symbols and figurative interpretations is no impediment to his oblivious sense of objectivity. There's a fatal omniscience to his treatment of this character's experience. We do see the giants, at various times, but their appearances - and the action sequences that accompany them - play in the unambiguous, straightforward fashion of any other young-adult fantasy. Walter strips them of the very personal component that has literally created their existence.
It's not even necessarily about the giants, but the entire subconscious apparatus Barbara has built around the giants to invent and justify her point of view. There's too much clarity to what the world is - what is real - for any of Barbara's abstractions to land, or effectively disrupt the film's grounded sense of equilibrium. There's no relationship between the real and the not-real, the literal and the symbolic. Walter finds no way to express the interaction between what is happening in this kid's life and what her mind has transformed it into. We see what she sees, but never how she sees.
In fact, she's so psychologically impenetrable that, in almost all scenes between her and another person, we're only able to understand things from the other character's perspective. We see Barbara as an intelligent, obstinately strange person with a clever imagination, but even when there's no one else around, she comes across as the same enigma. We're always on the outside, which strips her fantasies of the weight they deserve. The filmmakers really don't seem to identify with her, or comprehend her in any innate way. She's actually a much more troubled person - with a far more volatile psychology - than the movie seems able to admit. Or otherwise it just doesn't know how to deal with those facts. In particular, it doesn't seem to know what to do with the violence inside her, the anger. There's a scene in which she's straight-up primed and willing to kill a classmate - and has even brandished a weapon to do so - and when the moment passes the film brushes past it like any other event, as if in denial of what our protagonist is capable of and how profound her pain, and her demons, must be. There's a latent unwillingness to take her - her emotional makeup, her frame of mind - seriously.
Framing difficult childhood experiences - or in some cases framing childhood experience as inherently difficult - often takes the form of the very kind of emblematic fantasy I Kill Giants attempts. How to come to terms with the harshness of life - confronting or avoiding it, interpreting it and reconciling with it - is a learned skill; understanding it all through the inventive whims of your subconscious, firing as wildly as they so often do, is an intuitive enough strategy for dealing with adolescent stories. But representing the protagonist's actual way of understanding things is a puzzle Walter is unable to solve. J.A. Bayona's similarly themed A Monster Calls isn't a good movie either, but even it does a much better job getting inside its character's head - in part by not trying to be so cleverly withholding about what crisis is actually being dealt with.
But then there are the much better examples, like Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, which made its figurative manifestations so intuitive - made them feel so profoundly, urgently real. Or consider Terry Gilliam's Tideland - which, like I Kill Giants, is about a young girl retreating from the realities of her life into a self-made imaginative prism. Last year's smash Stephen King adaptation It is an interesting example in that it allows its personification of adolescent anxiety into literal, physical existence.
And that's to say nothing of the most legendary example of all, The Wizard of Oz.
Coincidentally or not, all of these examples are adaptations, including I Kill Giants, which is based on the graphic novel written by Joe Kelly and drawn by J.M. Ken Niimura. Translating from one medium to another is difficult enough as it is, but perhaps even more so when depicting something so personal and subjective as youthful, confused, emotionally capricious existence. In particular, the images in a graphic novel can be - and certainly are, in the case of Niimura's illustrations - inherently expressionistic. The difference between how we interpret reality and emotional/psychological flourishes on the page vs. on the screen is no less than the difference between authenticity and sham. Which is to say I Kill Giants could have used an expressionistic filmmaker but wound up with a detached fantasist.
Walter won an Oscar a few years back for Helium, a cloying live-action short about a hospital janitor who consoles a dying child by telling him fabulous stories about a magical world. Between that movie and this one, Walter has yet to figure out that his escapist fantasies are actually about the escapers. He's only capable of placing himself in the position of the janitor, or the teacher, or the psychologist, or the older sister, and in doing so he forges an irreconcilable distance from the very characters who need the most understanding.