Since 2017, Midwest Film Journal has prided itself on delivering thoughtful commentary on current and classic cinema. No one piece has persisted as powerfully as our 2018 review of Den of Thieves, which we called an “unswervingly painful” waste of 140 minutes.
SEO tells us the piece’s popularity is thanks to its reference of one character’s inscrutable “Peckerwood” tattoo. Instinct tells us otherwise: People really love Gerard Butler.
Disfigured catacomb vocalist. Ripped Spartan warrior. Machine gun preacher. Secretly sweet lothario. Donut-housing cop. Dragon-slaying hero. HMS Devonshire crewman. Angry little leprechaun. Stalwart hunter killer. Geostorm-stopping scientist. Vengeful Egyptian god.
That’s but a small sampling of this Scottish export’s quarter-century run — whose body of work will be highlighted biweekly this month in a retrospective series.
This week’s installment comes from Dave Gutierrez, who lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife, Julia, and their two kids. When he’s not arguing about nerd stuff on the internet, he’s playing board games or binge-watching TV shows. He’s also pretty invested in establishing his kids’ geek cred early with a steady diet of Star Wars, Batman, and LEGO Marvel Avengers. He’s also frequently performing his actual job in domestic logistics, but who wants to hear about that?
We bring you …The Butler Did It.
300 is the movie an internet comment section would make if you gave it some togas, a green screen and a personal trainer. It’s an unapologetic celebration of men at their worst, set in a world where the only thing more valued than sticking your spear in things is dying while showing a bunch of sissies from Persia how real men fight. (The answer is apparently that real men fight in slow motion. So. Much. Slow. Motion. 300 runs about two hours, but if you ran all the slow-motion sequences at normal speed, it would be 45 minutes long and considerably more coherent.)
This movie was made for guys who buy katanas at two in the morning on QVC and then brag about them in men’s rights chatrooms. At the center of this jumble of adolescent fantasy is everyone’s favorite terrible actor, Gerard Butler. It’s not his fault, really. He’s just doing what a Gerard Butler does — flexing his muscles a lot and overenunciating empty-headed dialogue like “Give them nothing, but take from them everything!” at the top of his lungs. Someone told him to bulk up and practice hitting things with a sword, and he rose to the occasion. In a rare turn of events, Butler’s uninspired performance is actually the least of the film’s problems.
The historical story of the Hot Gates — in which 300 Spartan warriors lead a small band of Greek freemen to slow the advance of an massive foreign army by forcing them to fight in a narrow mountain pass — is full of possibilities. There are a dozen different angles a director could take to examine the human side of this battle. The courage of those men, facing a relentless foe and certain death but holding fast to give their countrymen time to regroup. The genuine love and brotherhood that underlies and inspires such a stand. War is hell, and this suicide mission is a special kind of hell that bears further examination. What makes men like this stand and fight? What does it mean to the people they leave behind? Is duty more important than the love they have for their families, or is rising to that duty a show of love that only a courageous few can manage? Are they heroes or fools, or both?
Or you could just make it about blood-soaked fight scenes where dudes with balls so big and heavy they can barely move kick the crap out of some effeminate wimps wearing eyeliner while some sweet heavy-metal guitar solos blare on the soundtrack. That’s an option, too.
If the message of 300 is that real men punch stuff rather than have feelings, Butler is a perfect vehicle. Digging deep in his bag of acting tricks, he manages to display two emotions: seething anger and howling rage. Butler is exactly what the overgrown teenagers behind this film think a man should be, a musclebound automaton who is constantly either yelling vapid chestnuts about manhood or stabbing things. Early in the film, Butler has a hilariously overwrought sex scene with his queen, played by a woefully underutilized pre-Game of Thrones Lena Headey. It’s an emotionless, juvenile fantasy where Headey is beside herself at his every touch while Butler mostly grunts incoherently and flexes his glutes for the camera. The film would like to imply he loves this woman even though he barely speaks to her, mostly because when some other musclebound dude insults her, Leonidas yells at him and kicks him into a remarkably convenient pit.
Headey’s character is the only woman with a speaking role in the film, and it’s not a good role. Part of the testosterone fest is the idea that a really strong woman understands how important it is to fiercely support everything her man does. She’s not submissive, she just happens to completely agree with her husband and chooses to behave exactly like she would if she were submissive. If that weren’t bad enough, in the film’s second act, she’s raped by a powerful politician in an effort to win his support to help her husband. Yes, this is the kind of movie where the only woman with a line in the script spends the first half writhing in painfully insincere, gratuitously naked ecstasy with her husband and the second begging men to help her until she must let one violate her to get a chance to speak in the Senate. The fact that the scene is set up so a certain kind of person could make a WELL, ACTUALLY argument that she consents to this violence is only fitting. That she then gets her revenge by stabbing her rapist in the guts, while whispering his own words from the rape scene back to him as a jokey one-liner, just further demonstrates how committed the movie is to this ridiculous notion of violent masculinity.
Toward the end, there’s a scene meant to be very serious, in which Leonidas sends a messenger home knowing he and his troops won’t survive another day on the battlefield. The messenger asks him if he has a message for his queen, and Butler looks off into the distance and grumbles, “None that need be spoken.” With another actor, we might see the anguish in Leonidas’s face as his sense of loss wrestles with the savage pride he has in his men. Another actor might give us a glimpse of the regret that must haunt the king who led 300 of his finest soldiers and friends to their death in an effort that barely slowed the advancing army. Maybe a tiny flinch, some sign that the weight of his duty is wearing him down, that standing to fight is hard even though he feels it’s necessary. Hell, another actor might at least try to add a little inflection to the line and a sense that Leonidas is a human being with the capacity for emotions.
Another actor might do a lot with that kind of scene, but not Gerard Butler. Instead, he delivers the line with the same straight face and barking growl he uses on every other line. It’s possible Butler is just so committed to his interpretation of the character that he feels even the slightest wavering would betray weakness. It’s also possible his performance is so phoned in that he’s just unaware that showing emotion is an option. Given the script he has to work with, I’m not sure it’s even worth distinguishing between the two. 300 could be worse. It could have a leading man who’s trying to be the physical manifestation of Axe body spray and Fireball whiskey. Instead we have Butler, a decent guy playing a Greek king with a Scottish accent and a silly beard who is just bad enough to make the whole thing laughable.
The Butler Did It continues every Monday and Thursday through April. Please check back for future installments.