The Japanese cult director refuses to sell out his premise for the sake of audience satisfaction
Devotees of Japanese director Takashi Miike’s violent, cult-horror style will go to “Shield of Straw” hoping for something other than what Miike has in mind. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The worst thing a filmmaker can do is stagnate, relying on the same formula. There is no danger of that happening with Miike, who has often dipped into different styles throughout his prolific career. His latest, in competition at Cannes, is another step in a new direction. It could leave viewers less than satisfied as it adheres to its objective, refusing to give his audience the blood lust it seeks.
“Shield of Straw” is about a police security team hired to protect a loathsome criminal who is in custody for brutally raping and killing a seven-year-old girl. Disgusted, the girl’s grandfather offers a bounty to anyone who can successfully kill the prisoner. The grandfather adds two conditions: It must be sanctioned by the police and it must be considered “involuntary manslaughter.” But those conditions don’t appear to be on the minds of those who want the billion-dollar reward for carrying out the execution.
As the security detail attempts to deliver the prisoner to Tokyo, they are hit with one vigilante attack after another. In the film’s standout action sequence, a truck loaded with explosives smashes through police cars. The sequence is so breathtaking that the audience at the morning screening in the Lumiere burst into spontaneous applause.
But as the police get closer to delivering the awful man to the proper authorities, they are challenged in more unexpected ways. They are trying to be honorable, to do their jobs and not succumb to their (and everyone else’s) urge to commit justifiable homicide, but they are being plucked off one by one until only three are left.
Miike wants us to hate this man so much so that we ourselves would love to put a bullet through his head. But he also asks us where we draw the line when the easy impulse is to do what Dirty Harry and countless other morally flexible movie heroes have done in a similar situation.
He piles on one repulsive characteristic after another – there is no reason this man should live while so many others die. But that is what the law dictates.
This is may help explain why “Shield of Straw” is such a frustrating film to watch — and why it has been the only film so far to inspire the famous Cannes chorus of boos. To the crowd's credit, there were also cheers and applause at the end. Still, this isn’t your average revenge pic. It seems to want to be, but its conscience prevents it. There is a higher price to pay than selling your morality for a billion-yen payoff.
Miike is an imaginative director; that “Shield of Straw” makes you think more and react less is what sets it apart and gives it heft. If “Shield of Straw” sold out its premise for the sake of audience satisfaction, it would become a huge hit worldwide. As it is, it is more likely to go down as a noble experiment.