“Snowpiercer,” the dystopian adaptation of a French graphic novel about the residents of a train that houses the last people alive on earth, has been tagged as a liberal movie by many critics and commentators. To a certain extent, the concerns of the movie align with the progressive-conservative alignment at the moment. The movie about a savage struggle between a small group of hyper-privileged people who live at the front of the train and a large number of desperately poor ones, lead by a young rebel named Curtis (Chris Evans), who live at the back. But while Bong Joon-ho’s movie is certainly political, in that it is concerned with policy decisions and their outcomes as well as power and bureaucracy, I am not sure that it is in any way straightforwardly progressive. Rather, it draws ideas from many traditions and current controversies. If there is a real enemy here, it is the mindless worship of a preexisting order.
The initial catastrophe is the result of an attempt to correct for global warming that ends up disastrously miscalibrated, freezing the Earth into extinction. The poor are fed protein blocks that turn out to be made from insects, in an echo both of Dana Goodyear’s 2011 New Yorker piece on their nutritional efficiency and the rise of Soylent, a food substitute that has gained some popularity in Silicon Valley. The privileged have a religious obsession with Wilford (Ed Harris), the entrepreneur who built the train, and they conspicuously consume everything from bespoke suits to club drugs.
The clearest enemy is the worship of order and stasis, enforced with a shrill malevolence by Swinton’s Minister Mason. In New York Magazine, David Edelstein described her as a “one-woman dystopia.” Mason is the chief evangelist for the quasi-religious ideology that rules the train, the idea that “Eternal order is proscribed by the Sacred Engine.” She lectures the residents of the cars at the back of the train, who live in squalor and extreme privation, on their ingratitude. When a man whose child has been stolen from him for unknown purposes throws a shoe at her, Mason declares “This is so disappointing. Passengers, this is not a shoe, this is disorder. This is size ten chaos.” Then, she has the man’s arm stuck out of the train, frozen solid and smashed off with a sledge-hammer.
What makes Mason terrifying is not so much her brutality as her insistence on order and propriety that verges on the obscene. She has a man deformed while lecturing on divine order and wearing a fur coat and oversees a massacre in a white suit festooned with military-style decorations. When Mason becomes a hostage, she asks if her manacled hands can be covered so schoolchildren will not see her as a prisoner and tries to ply her captors with a rare taste of sushi. They force her to eat the insect-based protein blocks instead. Even then, she cannot acknowledge disgust, smiling as the gelatinous subject colors her teeth and lips.
The most uneasy moment in Mason’s arc might be right after her capture, when she lets slip some sense that she knows the full monsterousness of the regime she is enabling.
“I can take you. I know the train. I can guarantee you safe passage,” Mason tells the poor passengers. But with one caveat. When they reach the front of the train and Wilford, “You have to kill him.”
This is hardly the first time Swinton has played a similar character: her marvelous turn in “Snowpiercer” actually seems like the climax of several other roles. In Wes Anderson’s period comedy “Moonrise Kingdom,” Swinton played so pure a representation of bureaucracy that her character did not even have a name. A child welfare worker on the hunt for a foster child gone missing, Swinton introduces herself as “Social Services” and occasionally refers to herself with a collective “we.” When she told a scoutmaster and a police officer, both of whom had developed a fondness for the boy before he went on the lam, that “nothing else is in your power,” other than to comply with her demands, the line was simultaneously menacing and hilariously stiff.
Karen, her corporate lawyer in “Michael Clayton,” is less controlled than either Minister Mason or Social Services from the very beginning of the movie. Accustomed to getting whatever she want from the people she’s hired, Karen gets rattled whenever something does not go her way. She is so offended by disorder and the loss of control that she contracts the killing of a former in-house counsel in order to win a big case and to restore her own sense of calm.
Nothing blows up at the end of “Michael Clayton” the same way it does at “Snowpiercer.” But there is a terrible clarity in Karen’s loss of control as her antagonist (George Clooney) tears through her facade of bureaucratic language at the end of “Michael Clayton,” and in the speed with which Mason sells out her purported ideals when her life is threatened.
Big corporations, dystopian societies and even 1960s child welfare agencies are powerful things. But in all three of these Swinton movies they are not omnipotent. And as Karen and Mason discover, these organizations do not always love the people who work hardest to support them.