I KILL GIANTS
Director: Anders Walter
Cast: Madison Wolfe, Zoe Saldana, Imogen Poots, Sydney Wade, Rory Jackson, Art Parkinson, Jennifer Ehle
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 3/23/18 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 22, 2018
There's a mystery at the heart of I Kill Giants, a live-action adaptation of Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura's comic book series about a girl who believes she fends off very real giants. The mystery isn't really whether or not giants exist, because of course they don't, especially in this non-comic version of the world. The question is what has led this girl to believe that there are giants, that they pose a genuine threat to her and the population of her small New Jersey town, and that she is only person who's capable of stopping them.
The movie, which was adapted for the screen by Kelly and directed by Anders Walter, is mostly a study of this socially awkward girl named Barbara (Madison Wolfe), an outcast as much by her own choice as by the way her classmates ignore or bully her. When she's not in class, keeping her head down in a notebook of her drawings or darting through the halls to check on the protection runes she has scattered throughout the school, Barbara wanders the woods, preparing bait for giants and checking the various traps she has set. At home, she plays a tabletop fantasy game by herself, since her siblings show little interest, or sits in the basement, listening to a recording of a baseball game from a century ago.
We can guess what's happening here, and likely, we're almost correct. There's the fact that Barbara doesn't have any sign of a parent in her life. There's the way her older sister Karen (Imogen Poots) has taken on the role of the breadwinner for the home, going to a job she hates but needs and cooking dinner every night. There's the absence of any conversation about why the house is being run in this way. From her behavior and her imagination, we know that Barbara is escaping from reality—some harsh truth that dare not speak its name, lest the real world come crashing down on her.
The daring part of Kelly's screenplay is its two-pronged trust in the mystery of the material: that we'll think we know what's happening here and that our assumptions are close to being correct, while not being quite right. The point is that we'll understand Barbara's escape into fantasy on some instinctual level, but we also will be treated with a minor shock when the truth is revealed.
It's a gamble—one that doesn't quite pay off until the revelation arrives. Until then, we remain at a certain distance from Barbara, who's unwilling to face whatever is happening in her life to cause her to act in this way.
She has created an entire mythos for these giants, which come in different forms, depending on the climate and environment. They attack with regularity, although their destruction is always reported as some kind of natural disaster. There are omens and signs of their appearance, and Barbara reports to Sophia (Sydney Wade), a girl from England who has moved to the town and becomes Barbara's only friend, that she has been seeing plenty of sign recently—from black birds to ghastly harbingers, which come ahead of a giant to watch its destruction. Barbara is prepared, though, with her traps in the forest and pair of protective rabbit ears, as well as a regular-sized pocketbook that she says contains a mighty hammer if a fight is necessary.
On the real-world side of things, Karen tries communicating with her younger sister, who doesn't say a word about the giant threat to anyone except Sophia, while balancing her job and the stress of whatever is being kept from us. Barbara starts seeing Mrs. Mollé (Zoe Saldana), the school's new counsellor, and resists any of her attempts to help. Taylor (Rory Jackson), an older girl at school, taunts and teases Barbara with particular cruelty, because she's so unapologetically weird.
Kelly's screenplay wisely avoids making any direct correlations between reality and Barbara's fantasy life (i.e., the giants don't necessarily represent any specific thing or person), because it understands that her imagination is a genuine escape from reality. The movie's blend of the fantastical and the real doesn't seem to translate from its source material, though. Part of the distance from Barbara is in the intentional lack of knowledge about whatever pain she's avoiding, but another part of it is that we're always certain that we're seeing the signs of real pain within the character. The fantasy side of things is a tough sell, because it points to a girl who's unable to cope with some difficult trauma. The movie doesn't minimize that pain, but there's no denying that its game of mixing reality and fantasy is a way for it to avoid the real consequences of it.
Taken for what it is, though, the movie is smart enough to be aware of its limitations, by building them into the narrative of a girl who's actively avoiding such consequences. That's the point of I Kill Giants, and it comes across with surprising force once the truth behind Barbara's pain comes to light. On foundational level, though, the key issue—and one that might simply be born of my own beliefs on such matters—is that the movie is playing a game of sorts with pain and grief. It's tricky territory that the movie almost navigates successfully.
Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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