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Webs and dolls: The good and the bad of women on the run

Two similar films were recently released, but only one is worth seeing

Sony’s most recent Marvel-adjacent project Madame Web, directed by C. J. Clarkson, was released on Feb. 14. Ethan Coen’s Drive Away Dolls hit theatres a week later. 

While both films feature women on the run from nefarious men, the former is one of the worst films in recent memory, while the latter is an enjoyable 90-minute romp.

Similar premises, drastically different films

Drive Away Dolls has what Madame Web lacks in terms of key requirements for a good “women on the run” film: compelling characters and a larger theme.

In Madame Web, Dakota Johnson stars as the titular madame (Cassie Webb), going from career paramedic to clairvoyant spider woman. In Drive Away Dolls, Margaret Qualley and Geraldine Viswanathan star as quirky road tripping lesbians.

Cassie is an apathetic yet effective paramedic in New York City who we watch become increasingly confused and able to see the future. Sydney Sweeney, Isabel Merced and Celeste O’Connor’s characters appear in only flashing glances before the film’s main action begins. The only differences between their characters are the specifics of their backstories and their levels of reluctance to sticking with Cassie throughout the chase.

Something that the Coen brothers never struggle with—which is no different in Drive Away Dolls—is characterization. Their films’ hair-brained premises provide perfect settings for zany protagonists.

Writing now with spouse (and longtime Coen brothers editor) Tricia Cooke, Ethan Coen taps into a familiar tone when introducing Jamie (Margaret Qualley) and Marion (Geraldine Viswanathan).

Their dynamic evokes perhaps the greatest “women on the run” duo: Thelma and Louise. Qualley adopts Geena Davis’s southern accent and southern energy, and Viswanathan plays the Susan Sarandon part, going from begrudgingly complicit to willingly engaged (her deployment of a bookish effect is much more convincing than Sydney Sweeney’s attempt in Madame Web). Equipped with Henry James’s The Europeans, Viswanathan successfully plays a boring character who is fun to watch.

While Qualley’s Jamie keeps her foot on the gas pedal, Johnson’s Cassie drives in fits and starts, preventing Madame Web from ever finding any momentum.

The spider girls cover the ground but it never feels like they’re actually moving. It’s not a coincidence that, like in Thelma & Louise (1991), Drive Away Dolls’ action begins and ends several hundred kilometres apart, while in Madame Web we start and end in essentially the same place.

The resolution to Jamie and Marion’s story is slightly rushed but that doesn’t take away from the success of their story. Madame Web ends with a coda that is just as flat as the rest of the film, adding nothing. The only reason it’s there is to set up a sequel. 

Movies made with sequels in mind

All criticisms of Madame Web can be traced back to that central issue: Madame Web is more concerned with its eventual sequel than it is with being a good movie. Films that are clearly made as a set-up for a future sequel can certainly be good (Dune (2021), but they fail when they are entirely beholden to a film that doesn’t yet exist.

The only reason to have Sweeney, Merced and O’Connor here instead of just one compelling co-lead is because Sony wants three more spidery superheroes in its future films. They were so confident we’d go see them in future films that they didn’t even allow them to wield powers or don supersuits in this film (save for one brief dream sequence).

The franchise-focussed tunnel vision of Madame Web undercuts any suspense or tension you need to make a good chase film. It’s so obvious that these characters will be seen in future films because they are never credibly at risk of being caught.

The same might be said about Jamie and Marion who never seem to be in danger of real harm due to the comedic tone of Drive Away Dolls. But unlike Madame Web, Coen’s film is actually about something more than what’s on the screen.

Recurring themes

The best “women on the run” stories do the same. Joe Wright’s Hanna (2011) dramatizes the rites of passage that children face on the road to adulthood. George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) draws similarities between the capitalistic destruction of the environment and the male violation of female autonomy.

A recurrent theme in many Coen brothers films is contempt for authority. Drive Away Dolls is a spiritual successor to their 2008 comedy Burn After Reading wherein preeminent goofballs Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt star as Linda and Chad, gym employees who believe themselves to be at the centre of an espionage conspiracy.

Their naïvety is played for laughs, but if you watch until the end you will understand the Coen brothers are more interested in criticizing the institutions supposedly protecting us and the way their failures impact the Lindas and Chads of the world.

In Drive Away Dolls, Jamie and Marion, who may be in over their heads during their time as renegades, are not the ultimate punchline. The shadowy cabals surrounding undeserving politicians are the true target of Coen and Cooke’s ire.Where it stands within the Coen oeuvre is up for debate, but Drive Away Dolls, in the aftermath of the abject failure of Madame Web, is certainly the better entry into the “women on the run” canon.

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