(This is an in-depth analysis of the film and contains big spoilers. This is meant for people who have watched the film. And you should be one of these people. Get your ass to the theatre.)
It's rather curious that this film is co-produced by Adi Shankar, who also produced the regrettable Punisher short film DIRTY LAUNDRY starring Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman. While the latter film seemed to celebrate the existence of its sick title character, expecting the audience to cheer for the brutal homicides he commits, DREDD is unafraid to delve deep into the moral complexity of its premise: a chaotic megacity where the law is enforced by judges who have the power to arrest and sentence, executing criminals on the spot if they consider it necessary, as adapted from the long-running British comic 2000AD.
The moral implications of that aren't dealt with in a few token scenes amidst cathartic showers of bad guy blood. The graphic violence in DREDD has surprisingly consistent thematic purpose. When Dredd and the rookie storm a room full of drugged Slo-Mo users, director Pete Travis uses the drug's effects to depict bullets shredding people in super slow-motion. At first this seems to be purely for the cool. Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography makes it all look gorgeous. But then Travis shows us the rookie's horrified expression, and it becomes clear that this film isn't violence porn.
In fact, DREDD uses its cinema-friendly drug to depict death in the most evocative and terrifying of ways. In one early scene, we see a POV shot of a man falling two hundred stories while drugged on Slomo. Falling at one percent of normal speed, his last moments are multiplied a hundredfold. Several minutes of watching the ground inch closer and closer. Of knowing he's going to die and there's nothing he can do about it. It's simultaneously frightening and liberating, and it could be seen as a representation of the slow death Mega City One itself seems to be suffering.
The film's commitment to its theme is such that it hurts the narrative every once in a while. Dredd and the rookie falling on the only skate ramp in the entire building, right below the floor they were in -- one of two hundred floors - is somewhat hard to accept. However, the scene depicts a bunch of kids playing outside the building in which hell is currently breaking loose. It comes off as a literal representation of a child's personal world, isolated from the horrors of real-life. I didn't think of that right away, but I felt it, and it eased the rather clumsy coincidence.
In another scene, the rookie reluctantly executes a criminal who had, according to the law, done enough to deserve a death sentence. Not long after that, she and Dredd hide in the apartment of a woman who turns out to be the man's wife. The coincidence is a bit jarring, but aside from it being more believable than the previous example, the scene is infused with purpose that is clear right away: to humanize the criminal that the rookie had just killed, to her and to the audience -- and it works so well that the coincidence is forgotten and the scene becomes one of the best in the film thanks to its intelligently ironic execution ("Don't thank me").
Travis and screenwriter Alex Garland are also effective in portraying the status quo of Mega City One. Violence is so common it has become almost casual. Right after a brutal shootout, a public address system warns residents that everything will be cleaned up in about thirty minutes. The building in which Mama runs her empire could easily be a sci-fi version of some Rio de Janeiro slums: an HQ for drug producers and traffickers, but mostly populated by average people having to deal with crime in order to survive.
With that and other plot elements such as the corrupted judges, DREDD not only avoids black-and-white storytelling, it embraces the grey area and makes it the point of the film, rising above most of the action genre without betraying it, because it's also an excellent action film. Always entertaining, well-paced and with a sporadic but effective sense of humor. Director Pete Travis depicts the action in an intense and brutal manner, particularly when Mama uses miniguns to obliterate an entire floor and everyone in it, civilians or judges. The super-slow-motion shots are beautifully composed and colored by Mantle, and editor Mark Eckersley avoids the inexplicable tendency to overcut that has consumed modern filmmaking, opting instead to let the same shot last as long as it needs to. Paul Leonard-Morgan's music pumps energy into the film most of the time, but also changes style to beautifully convey the effects of Slo-Mo (yeah, okay, it does sound like that Justin Bieber song that was slowed down 800%, but goddamn it, it works).
As Dredd, the ever charismatic Karl Urban does a mostly competent job, without overdoing the character's signature arched mouth and never wasting an opportunity for deadpan humor. The only problem is his voice, which changes depending on volume: when speaking normally, his voice is raspy. When speaking loudly, it remains deep but noticeably smoother, betraying the actor's composition. Which is just a blemish on a rather good performance, really. When Dredd is shown on a rare moment of vulnerability, Urban subtly manages to convey an inkling of fear, or at least aprehension, using nothing but his mouth. As the rookie Anderson, Olivia Thirlby uses her naturally innocent appearance to make her character feel like a rookie, but the actress also pulls off a rather convincing tougher attitude when her character arc calls for it. Her role is more challenging than Urban's, and she proves herself up to the task. Wood Harris as the prisoner Anderson and Dredd escort for most of the film also deserves applause for an interesting performance that is varied in its cruelty. Same goes for Domnhall Gleason as the man with huge robotic eyes and a constantly fearful expression that make him sympathetic even before his tragic past is revealed.
But it's Lena Headey who steals the fucking show. Avoiding any and all histrionics, her Ma-Ma is a terrifying kind of calm, as symbolized by the gorgeous slow-motion shot that introduces her. So when she takes the minigun and contributes to the destruction of an entire floor and its inhabitants, it's a stark contrast. It's at this point that it becomes clear: her seeming indifference to the suffering she causes is not due to never causing it directly. She's not some kingpin so far above her henchmen that she never has to get her hands dirty. She does get her hands dirty. And she's at peace with it. That makes her infinitely more threatening. And Alex Garland intelligently explains her backstory early in the film, resulting in a richer, truly fascinating villain brilliantly played by Headey.
But Garland's true stroke of genius is the parallel he draws between Ma-Ma and Judge Dredd.
Throughout the film, their actions and methods are eerily similar: the use of the public address system to intimidate, the killing of bad guys as an example, the willingness to execute pleading human beings. Dredd and Ma-Ma are both ruthless and display little to no humanity. Neither him nor her show any enjoyment as they kill people, but the thing is, they don't need to. Pete Travis goes as far as to show Dredd and Ma-Ma -- who are supposedly facing each other in that particular scene -- facing the same side of the screen in what constitutes a reversal of the camera's axis, and a very meaningful one. It doesn't really equate them. Dredd will only indulge his sadism within the freedom the law gives him, and he's quite simply not as cruel as Ma-Ma is. But their actions draw a fascinating parallel between criminal violence and state violence.
In what is the best instance of this throughline, Ma-Ma throws three men off the highest point in the building to make an example out of them. Not only does Dredd do the same to a criminal, he does the same to Ma-Ma. Inspiring himself on Ma-Ma's methods, Dredd drugs her with Slo-Mo and tells her the crimes she's guilty of, finishing with "How do you plead?"
Ma-Ma's scarred face is naked. The monster she has become, offspring of a broken society, plain for all to see. Aware that whatever pain comes next won't be worse than the pains that came before. She stares defiantly at Dredd, as if to say, "I have no illusions about who I am. Can you say the same from behind your mask?"
And then he throws her through the glass. She falls inch by inch, contemplating every floor of her empire on the way down. Watching her life go by as death approaches. And then Pete Travis and Anthony Dod Mantle deliver one of my favorite contre-plongée shots of all time: Mama closing her eyes, at peace with her death, as her face is crushed against the ground, the blood taking over the entire lens and morphing into another shot that depicts her heartbeat stopping. Unrepentant to the end she always knew would come.
This is one of the best scenes this year had to offer.
Garland and Travis don't need to point at their thematic intentions and go "This is what we mean!". They've succeeded in making me feel what they were trying to say. This is storytelling at its finest. They've managed to make a terrible person's face smashing into the ground in super slow motion something poetic and meaningful and sad instead of going for the cheap "bad guy dies horribly" catharsis. And they managed to do that in a hardcore action movie. It never feels like there's been a change of tone. It all blends together beautifully.
DREDD is a superb action film. Of course that it is possible I'm reading too much into it, but it's to the film's credit that it can comfortably support my interpretation. And one thing is for certain: it's a far smarter film than it's being given credit for, as several film critics seem to be either taking it at face value or more interested in describing super-slow-motion headshots.