Good People is a 2014 film with a screenplay written by Kelly Masterson, based on the novel by Marcus Sakey. This is not a quality film. That said, the ideological issues have remained wholly untouched by paid reviewers, who focused on the problems within the action thread of the plot. Good People is an excellent example of why we need more feminist film critics, not to mention women in the writers’ rooms. The human-relationship thread of this plot makes for a faux-feminist story, created in a room full of men.
The Moral Dilemma of Good People
Discovering a stash of cash in their dead tenant’s apartment, a couple in debt take the money and find themselves the target of a deadly adversary – the thief who stole it.
With a premise like that, the audience is encouraged to scrutinise our own moral code. The story thus begins, with a clear (though contrived) moral dilemma:
- If you found a stash of dirty money would you hand it in to the cops?
- What if you were about to lose a house you’d been working on?
- What if you were about to be evicted from your flat?
- What if you desperately wanted to procreate but couldn’t afford IVF?
- How far would you go to keep it?
An Overview of Criticism
It’s a little unfair to criticise the film for its unrealistic action thread. Fans of realism should steer clear, but you could argue equally, a realistic romp into London’s gangland is not what this film is about:
Crime thrillers typically have an advantage over the public in that their depictions of illicit worlds need only to look believable. The vast majority of us who aren’t gangsters and detectives require little to be convinced of the realism. But here, viewers will repeatedly call into question the far-fetched nature of scenes designed to keep the plot moving in a contrived fashion.
Reviewer Jane Crowther uses the term ‘morally dubious’ to describe the decisions made by the characters, in which ‘cold-blooded murder with DIY tools turns out to be entirely excusable, and strangely in a film ostensibly about consequences goes completely unchallenged.’
Good People reminds reviewers most strongly of Straw Dogs, in which characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are terrorised in their home by thugs. Unfortunately the madcap sequence reminds others of Home Alone, which undermines its adult action-thriller cred.
Good People reminded me of No Country For Old Men, but only because of its character web.
The Character Web of Good People
- Both films star the ‘ordinary’ guy who is economically unfortunate. Except Llewellyn lives in a trailer and — let’s be real — Anna and Tom of this film are hardly destitute, and if they are, it’s their own damn fault. (More on that below.)
- There is a range of ‘evil’ in the opposition web, ranging from common crims right up to a sociopathic, cold-blooded murderer who isn’t in crime for the money anymore, but is propelled forth by his own moral code. He’s in it for vengeance and power. The degrees of bad in the baddies is the best thing about this film, though their evil is completely undermined when they’re proved so easy to trick. (A teacher kills them without using a gun. They have guns.)
- The husband makes a decision that implicates his wife, all without telling her. But she sticks by her man and goes along with him.
- Soon she is drawn into the trouble, along with a peripheral woman who is used as collateral damage. In No Country For Old Men it’s the wife’s elderly mother. In this one it’s the wife’s best friend and her baby. The female friendship feels completely unrealistic. Women aren’t in the habit of saying shit like, “You’re in a bad mood. Are you on your period?” Not if they’re actually friends, that is. These women are meant to be friends, make no bones about it. The strength of their friendship is tested later in the plot. Male writers need to do better when writing women. A good place to start would be this: Treat women as if women are human, without feeling the need to embellish with extra ‘femaleness’ stuff like talking about menstruation in the one scene when men are out of the room. (This awfully written conversation cancels out the passing of the Bechdel test.)
- Then there’s the track with the cop. The cop in this one has a predictable backstory of a dead daughter, who overdosed on drugs. This can be done well. It’s not done well here. The psychology of the bereft cop remains wholly unexplored, whereas in the much better written Happy Valley, the emotions of the police officer who has lost her daughter are more fully explored, including the psychological toll of grief and trauma. Only then does death of a daughter avoid feeling like a cheap gimmick to satisfy the ‘ghost‘ section of the character. (The cop’s wife only exists to make him look better in her reflection — she, like Anna, supposedly works in a caring role.)
A huge problem with the main characters: They’re not likeable… which is fine. Characters don’t have to be likeable. They just have to be interesting.
The problem here: the storytellers think they have created likeable people. We know this because we can see them pulling out all the writerly tricks. But Tom and Anna are not likeable. Now that is a problem.
Genz does his best to make us like them – they’re grafters in a rough patch who do all those things Hollywood would have us do, like have sushi nights when fertility levels are high or go running along the Thames.
What Makes Characters Accidentally Unlikeable?
Apart from the obnoxious jogging and expensive sushi and wine nights, that is. It’s worth taking a closer look at why I do not like this couple. Others may feel differently, perhaps because they like the actors. My response went like this:
- The physical chemistry between Tom and Anna is depicted as great, but this is masking a deeper problem with their relationship — massive, destructive deception. And the deception is wholly one-sided. (More on that below, but this is the huge sinker for me.)
- We’re meant to feel sorry for this guy because he’s been working so hard on this house. (Anna tells her friend he’s ‘always at the house’.) This is a guy who is a hard worker. We’re meant to respect that. But it turns out they inherited the house. They didn’t work hard for that. I know how much housing costs in London. The minute they inherited that massive reno project, this couple were millionaires. If they’re about to lose their wholly inherited fortune, it’s their own stupid fault. I don’t warm to stupid characters.
- I don’t like that these are Americans living in London. I feel like this is not their turf. (The book keeps them in America.) I don’t feel they’re part of the landscape. Also, why didn’t they just return to America as soon as shit hit the fan? For them that was always a viable option. They never even discuss it as a possibility.
- When the detective visits the house, they’re sitting in the kitchen and the wife answers questions on behalf of her husband. This is insufferable. She’s meant to be doing a bad job of masking her anxiety due to having stolen dirty money, but it’s a super annoying conversational tic in general. She also overshares, to the consternation of the husband. This shows how fish-out-of-water this woman is. Generally, Londoners are not known to overshare with strangers.
- Anna is supposed to be a teacher, which is supposed to mean she’s good with babies and children and all the rest, but we never see her doing her job. I know how busy teachers are. I taught in London. Teachers get home at about 7pm each night. But okay, maybe this is summer holidays. Still, if the writers wanted to imbue Anna with some of that teacherly empathy for humankind, they could’ve included one scene in which she’s with the kids that she teaches. She could have been lovingly preparing lessons. Or something to show she’s also got an actual proper job other than getting herself pregnant. (And she does get herself pregnant. We never see her husband go to the IVF clinic with her, which suggests the writers don’t know how IVF works. Or worse, they’re suddenly meant to have conceived naturally, now that the husband’s manliness — or virility — has been put to the test and he passed?)
- That scene where we Anna is actually super creepy. Any contemporary audience is used to stories in which an infertile woman steals a baby. This is meant to rely on desperation and grief experienced by women who ‘fail’ to give birth to her own. (In reality, men tend to feel more grief than women when deprived of the chance to become fathers.) When Anna kisses that baby’s head I’m half expecting Anna to steal her friend’s child. That is really not what the writers were going for at all. It takes me a while to get past this possibility in my head.
- Anna reveals herself as completely unlikable when she turns up to ‘pet’ her best friend’s baby, then declares that the godmother duty does not involve washing. (It totally would. How hard would it be to offer to take a load of washing home?) This is a soon-to-be mother who has no idea how big a deal it is for a washing cycle to halt when there’s a baby to take care of.
Problems With The ‘Strong Female Character’ Archetype
Good People is an excellent example of why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has fallen out of favour. At first glance it may seem Anna makes for a more feminist film because the writers have afforded her agency. Llewellyn’s wife (whose name I’d have to look up) accepts her fate with grace but she makes no decisions of her own, caught up in a web of male greed and violence. In Good People, Anna is soon revealed to be just as scheming and dangerous as her husband when put to the test. Anna becomes a trickster character, who manages to kill experienced murderers through wit and planning alone.
But female agency alone does not make for satisfying feminist entertainment. There is another huge problem with this film, to do with the underlying ideology.
At the beginning of the film the audience follows Tom and we learn information Anna doesn’t have. This ‘good’ husband tells his work partner that he’s gone over budget (by double!) on the house renovations but he hasn’t told his wife. Then he goes home and is served with an eviction notice. When Anna comes in smiling and happy, ready to have sex with him, he slides the eviction notice under a pile of papers and avoids telling her about any of this.
Clearly, Tom is not a good husband. In real life, this would count as economic abuse.
Partway through the movie, Anna reveals that she knows more about their financial situation than Tom realised. Wives are commonly portrayed in stories as all-seeing, all-knowing — as if women have some animalistic extra sensory perception. Cute. Tom refuses to admit their imminent eviction, however. He hasn’t yet admitted it to himself, you see. We’re supposed to admire his fortitude: He tells his wife that he has some jobs coming up and she doesn’t need to worry. The main issue — the relationship-crumbling issue — is that Tom lied to his wife… so that she wouldn’t worry. This is a man who not only loses their joint fortune, but who infantilises his life partner.
Anna is the ‘cool girl’ archetype. Any self-respecting woman would confront her partner about his enormous deceit. This never happens. Instead she matches her husband in his masculine bravado, and the audience is encouraged to conclude that, wherever our own morals lie, the wife is just as bad as the husband. This aspect is very Gone Girl, which is where the cool girl archetype entered popular culture as a trope. 2014 was also the year Gone Girl hit cinemas. But rather than critique the trope, the writers of Good People are oblivious to it.
Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
— the Cool Girl monologue from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Good People is clearly a wish fulfilment thriller, in which (supposedly) relatable characters get to go on an adventure without leaving home. They get to exact vengeance on some truly terrible baddies, making London into a (supposedly) better place. They don’t get to keep the huge bag of money, but they come out with what they wanted most of all: a pregnancy.
Clearly, the writers have aimed for a fleshed-out human angle to run alongside the wish-fulfilment action plot. But as so often happens in action thrillers written by a room full of men, the human angle has been completely mucked up. They failed to subvert a sexist trope, instead reinforcing it. They failed to show a healthy relationship, despite their best intentions. In genuinely healthy relationships the partners are economic equals. They speak to each other with honesty. Yet here they are, freshly pregnant, about to drive into the sunset to outro music which suggests this is a woman who will stick by her lying, economically abusive husband no matter what.
More than that, the film has ‘proven’ her to be ‘just as bad(-ass)’ as he is.