Monday, 5 July 2021

Dredd | review by Rafe McGregor

Dredd, by Pete Travis (Entertainment Film Distributors) 

Zero tolerance for the wretched of the Earth. 

Film form refers to the narrative, pictorial, and technological elements of a cinematic work and one of its functions is to configure the cinematic experience. The cinematic experience of Pete Travis’s Dredd is configured by a combination of cinematography and voice from the moment the film begins to the last few seconds before the end credits, providing three points of reference that structure the cinematic event. Mega City One is an imagined future urban sprawl on the eastern seaboard of the US in which over double the current population of the country is packed into less than two percent of its territory. The representation of urban space was created by applying computer-generated imagery to photography of contemporary Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest metropolitan area, itself plagued by extreme poverty and hyper-violence. The narrative opens with several aerial tracking shots of Mega City One during which Judge Dredd (played by Karl Urban) introduces a post-apocalyptic America, the megalopolis, mega-blocks (vertical slums), and the criminal justice system (in which the functions of police, jury, and judiciary are combined in the figure of the judge). As the camera tracks up the edifice of the Hall of Justice, Dredd concludes: ‘Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: the men and women of the Hall of Justice…juries, executioners, judges.’ In the fifteenth minute (of ninety-five) there is a scene that will be familiar to police officers the world over, in which patrols depart the Hall of Justice for their tours of duty at the beginning of the shift. The camera focuses on Dredd and Cassandra Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby), a trainee-judge, as they mount their Lawmaster motorbikes. Dredd informs Anderson of the daunting task ahead: ‘Twelve serious crimes a minute, seventeen thousand per day. We can respond to around six percent.’ The final scene of the film (the last forty-five seconds) returns to the opening, with two aerial shots of the megalopolis. There is a second voiceover from Dredd, which repeats part of the first: ‘Mega City One: eight hundred million people living in the ruin of the old world and the mega-structures of the new one. Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: judges.’ The combination of reproduced reality with Dredd’s gravelly saw-cutting-through-bone voice configures a cinematic event in which zero tolerance policing is endorsed as a response to violent crime, his authoritative tone supplemented by pictorial and statistical evidence.

One of the unusual features of Dredd is that the eponymous character experiences no psychological or moral change during the course of the narrative. Dredd is a model law enforcer, completely convinced of the moral necessity of his role, neither exercising discretion nor employing extrajudicial force. In contrast, Anderson has doubts about both her ability and the role, being selected solely on the basis of the potential value of her extra-human psychic powers. The central plot of the narrative is initiated when she and Dredd are trapped in Peach Trees mega-block, run by Ma-Ma (played by Lena Headey), the ruthless head of an organised crime group. The ethical movement of Dredd is focused on Anderson’s moral maturation, from her uncertainty about non-discretionary policing to her extended confrontation with Kay (played by Wood Harris), one of Ma-Ma’s lieutenants, to her embracing of the necessity for non-discretionary policing and flourishing in its execution. This change is partly constituted by a withdrawal of sympathy for the residents of Peach Trees, made explicit by the juxtaposition of two scenes. In the first (in the sixteenth minute), Anderson responds to Dredd’s cynical attitude towards the ‘underclass’ residents by reminding him that she was herself born in a mega-block. Approximately forty minutes later (fifty-third to fifty-fifth minute), Anderson appears to be exercising her sympathy when she interrupts Dredd’s brutal interrogation of Kay. Instead of reducing the level of coercion, however, she amplifies it, using her psychic abilities to frighten him into complete compliance. The ethical perspective enacted by the combination of form and content thus endorses a punitive perspective on criminal justice, in which zero tolerance policing and the increased use of custodial sentences are employed in response to increases in violent crime.

Film form is itself determined by the context of the production and reception of a film. Dredd is a British production and the relevant context of its release is the combination of the ‘culture of control’ with austerity. Criminologist David Garland charts a transatlantic change in criminal justice culture from mid-century welfarism to a fin de siècle culture of retributivism, punitiveness, and control, which is motivated and sustained by the twin pillars of market and moral discipline. The rise of this criminal justice culture was encouraged by the ‘Great Crime Decline’, a sustained decrease in violent (and other) crimes in the US and UK (and elsewhere) from 1994 to 2014. Advocates of the punitive perspective claimed responsibility for the drop in violence, but its cause remains unclear, contested by a host of rival hypotheses, including decreasing lead levels in drinking water. Dredd began filming in November 2010, five months after the official announcement of fiscal austerity – a dramatic reduction of public spending – in the UK. The likely consequence of this measure during a period of high unemployment was fewer police officers (in virtue of reduced budgets) dealing with an increase in crime (in virtue of the combination of reduced welfare with increased unemployment). Dredd both represents and reproduces these circumstances, not merely endorsing non-discretionary police practice as a response to rising crime, but providing a rationale for and justification of an increasing use of force by a decreasing ‘thin blue line’. This context regulates Dredd’s form, calibrating cinematic realism to the culture of control and structuring the cinematic event in terms of Dredd’s three saw-through-bone pronouncements of the moral impeccability of zero tolerance policing. Much like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009), released three years before, the comic book façade masks an ultra-reactionary and deeply conservative worldview. ***

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