Audiences will go in to Shield of Straw hoping for something other than what director Takashi Miike has in mind, especially devotees of this director’s more violent, cult-horror style. 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 with that with Miike, who often dips into different styles throughout his prolific body of work. His latest, in competition at the Cannes Film Fest, will likely be another step in a new direction. It could leave viewers less than satisfied as it adheres to its objective, refusing to ever give his audience the blood lust they seek and is so seldom given.
Shield of Straw is about a police security team hired to protect a loathsome criminal, in custody for brutally raping and killing a 7 year-old girl. Disgusted, her grandfather offers a bounty to anyone who can successfully kill him. He 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 yen 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. It was so breathtaking, 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. First, they are trying to be honorable, to do their jobs and not succumb to their (and everyone else’s) urge to commit justifiable homicide. Second, they are being plucked off one by one. Finally, 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 do 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 probably why it has been the only film so far at the festival 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 such an imaginative director that even if Shield of Straw isn’t the film it sets itself up to be, it is still well worth the price of admission. That it makes you think more and react less is what sets it apart and gives it heft. We live in a time when Americans are buying weapons by the truckload due to unspecified fear that “something might happen” and they’ll need the weapons to be prepared for the worst. Why would we ever think that in America of all places? It’s Iraq or Afghanistan or Israel or Palestine — we’re the only country in the world that arms ourselves to the teeth in anticipation of imagined violence. Though it probably won’t play well in the US heartland because it raises controversial questions, it is a movie that America needs to see.
One of the characters points out that monsters are being born every day, those without remorse of any kind. Sooner or later something must be done, a stand must be taken, no matter how hard it is. This film goes there, admirably so. If it sold out its premise for the sake of audience satisfaction it would become a huge hit worldwide. As it is, it it more likely to go down as a noble experiment.