In 2020, the world we have known is no more. Viruses, terrorism, global warming and economic meltdown have taken a grim toll. The United States has collapsed into coast-to-coast civil war. Great Britain has only weathered the societal maelstrom under the iron-fisted rule of opportunistic, totalitarian high chancellor Adam Sutler.
The cunning ruler is a master of manipulation whose propaganda machine fans fear, spins the news and exploits religion to maintain its fascist stranglehold on power (the nation's motto is "Strength through unity, unity through faith"). Among the things that have been outlawed under Sutler's rule are free speech, homosexuality and Islam.
But a mysterious masked man who calls himself only V will have none of it. The underground crusader has spent 20 years plotting his overthrow of the regime. His inspiration? Guy Fawkes, who on Nov. 5, 1605, unsuccessfully plotted to blow up Parliament in London.
After rescuing a young British Television Network employee named Evey from being raped by police, V invites the young woman to observe the first strike in his one-man war against the powers that be: the orchestrally accompanied destruction of the Old Bailey building. Following this act of unprecedented vigilante demolition, V commandeers BTN and informs Londoners that the Parliament building is next in line, exactly one year hence.
In the months that follow, Sutler's agents race to identify the masked crusader. Evey, an outlaw herself for having associated with V (and saving his life), has to decide which side she's on. And a dogged police inspector named Finch begins to uncover the hidden story of lies, violence and deception that resulted in V's vendetta and Sutler's unlikely rise to power.
The overarching message of this often morally ambiguous movie is ultimately a positive one: Definably oppressive governmental tyranny is worth resisting. The same logic, after all, inspired America's colonial founders to overthrow British rule in the Revolutionary War. And had it been applied to Hitler's malicious machinations by Germans in the months and years leading up to WWII, that great war would perhaps have never happened. Likewise, V's vendetta against a corrupt, autocratic British government is fueled (in part) by his desire to resurrect freedom.
Still, both V and Evey (rightly) wrestle with the question of whether rebelling against their government is morally praiseworthy or merely an act of personal vengeance. Evey is horrified that V is tracking down specific corrupt government officials to kill them. And the film acknowledges that vengeance and justice may not be the same thing. (It ultimately leaves viewers to ponder this moral conundrum for themselves.)
V sprinkles many scenes with snippets of philosophical insight, often alliterated, gleaned from his broad reading ("Vindicate the virtuous," for example). He firmly believes that an idea has the power to change the world. Evey, too, occasionally contributes nuggets, such as, "Artists use lies to tell the truth. Politicians use them to cover it up."
On a more concrete level, V risks his life three times rescuing Evey from danger. Evey returns the favor once. As he gets to know her, V treats Evey with tremendous—albeit twisted—kindness. (The "twisted" method he uses to help free her of her fears raises significant moral questions; more on that in "Other Negative Elements.")
A Jay Leno-esque talk show host named Gordon Deitrich risks everything he has, even his life, to save Evey's. Finch makes a strong effort to set aside his political party affiliations and set his sights on truth.
Sutler has risen to power as a "right-wing religious extremist." His faith is negatively depicted as one motivating factor in his life (though it apparently offers no restraint when it comes to his moral impoverishment). A well-worn Bible rests on his desk, though Christianity is never referred to by name. Sutler's state-sponsored TV mouthpiece, Lewis Prothero, claims that America's self-destruction is God's judgment while Britain's continued existence is evidence of the Almighty's protective hand. ("No one escapes judgment," he brays.)
A high-ranking bishop in what appears to be the State-run church is complicit in a nefarious governmental plan to test viruses and biological agents on "undesirables" (homosexuals, Muslims, illegal immigrants). An elderly man by the time V begins his assault, his venal character includes love of money and sex with very young girls.
In his stash of cultural artifacts, Deitrich keeps an ornate copy of the Quran. He doesn't exalt the book for its religious assertions, but rather because of its exquisite artistry. Still, his reverent attitude carries spiritual weight inasmuch as it suggests that Islam has beautiful, worthy elements Sutler has willfully ignored.
Twice, the film makes positive mention of the fact that "God is in the rain." In context, this apparently means that nature's cleansing goodness is evidence of God's existence even if it's impossible to see Him in mankind's brutal actions. For the most part, V himself doesn't seem spiritually minded. But he has almost religious faith in something akin to providence ("I, like God, do not play at dice, and I don't believe in coincidences").
The film opens with an attempted gang rape. Nothing explicit is shown, but things get pretty intense before V rescues Evey from her attackers. As the story evolves, Evey is seen in various states of undress (though without frontal nudity). One scene shows her bare back in the shower; another shot depicts her in her underwear. She wears revealing tops.
To help V, Evey visits the lecherous bishop (who thinks she's there to have sex with him). To "please" him, she arrives wearing a little girl's dress. Lewd sexual innuendos pepper the Bishop's raunchy come-on. And when she resists him, he physically pins her down. Several scenes include Vegas-style showgirls in fishnet stockings and skimpy outfits.
Gay content includes Deitrich confessing to Evey that he's a closeted homosexual. A very brief camera shot in his hidden cultural vault shows lewd photographs of homosexual activity. (We also see "classic" nude statues.) Reading an autobiography secretly penned by an imprisoned woman, Evey conveys the story of a lesbian actress named Valerie. Flashback scenes show us snippets of Valerie's life, images of which range from blissful handholding and kissing to her and her lover being imprisoned and killed because of their sexual choices.
It's no surprise that a film with the word Vendetta in its title contains a significant amount of violence. It's even less of a shock that a Wachowski brothers' script (they're the siblings responsible for The Matrix trilogy) contains a significant amount of violence. Much of it, in this case, is administered by V. He brutally dispatches Evey's three assailants. Other scenes show him killing or knocking out police and government agents with clubs and knives. In cold blood, V murders several government agents individually, including one whose neck he breaks with his bare hands.
By far the most gruesome violence comes in the film's final moments, when—after being shot repeatedly by government forces—V uses swords to eviscerate roughly a dozen men. This intense scene combines the stylized, slow-motion violence of The Matrix with massive eruptions of blood, à la Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill franchise.
Several other characters, including Deitrich, Evey's mother and a government official are badly beaten; their faces are bloodied. TV images show rioters beaten by police. A hanging is depicted twice. Several people wearing Guy Fawkes masks are shot, including a young girl. (The outraged crowd that witnesses that shooting beats the police officer.) Several scenes show a burning man emerging from a blazing building. Evey endures torture; she is manhandled and her face is repeatedly held underwater. Finally, as Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" swells triumphantly, two prominent government buildings are dramatically blown to bits.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters take God's and/or Jesus' name in vain roughly 30 times, including three pairings of "God" with "d--n." Obscene slang for the female anatomy is used three times. The f- and s-words are used about half-a-dozen times each. Slightly less frequent are instances of the vulgarities "a--," "h---," "d--n" and "b--ch." The English profanities "bloody" and "b-llocks" turn up about 10 times total.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Hard liquor and champagne are consumed in several scenes. Prothero, who has a huge cupboard full of pills, takes a handful and washes them down with an alcoholic drink.
Other Negative Elements
The vigilante actions of the film's protagonist are not entirely for the benefit of others, as discussed in "Positive Elements." V suffered greatly at the hands of a government whose torture and imprisonment ultimately resulted in his horrible disfigurement (hence his signature Guy Fawkes mask). So personal vengeance is thoroughly mixed in with his purer desires to free his country from tyranny.
[Spoiler Warning] One of the morally murky themes the movie explores is V's assertion that "violence can be used for good." Not only does the masked vigilante believe this about overthrowing the government, but he believes it with regard to Evey as well. Following a raid on Deitrich's house, Evey is captured and subsequently tortured, supposedly by government agents. When it's clear she'll never give V up to them, she's given a death sentence. She welcomes it, only to be released from her cell. We discover, as she does, that V has been her torturer.
He insists such horrible treatment was the only way he could free her from fear. When she accuses him of being "sick and evil," he insists, "You've faced death, Evey. You are calm and still." Only accepting death, he believes, yields true and final freedom. His torture is not sadistic in the sense that he gets pleasure from it. Nevertheless, it's deeply disturbing to discover the lengths to which he'll go to accomplish his purposes.
Two explicit scenes show scores of dead, naked bodies being tossed into a mass grave.
The Wachowskis' Matrix movies were chock-full of religious symbolism and intense violence. Along with critical praise, they also drew censure from those concerned with the way they made violence look chic. V for Vendetta, for which they have now adapted the screenplay from Alan Moore's graphic novel, shares broad parallels with those films, interjecting today's hot-button social and philosophical issues into a glamorously violent story.
At the highest level, Vendetta's prevailing theme of overthrowing—what is by everyone's definition—oppression is a cause most would agree is a worthy one. But below the surface lurk some troubling questions. Levelheaded moviegoers will not, of course, imitate the violent acts they see here. Nevertheless, V makes blowing up buildings look very cool and very justifiable. It's hard to measure or predict the impact such images and ideas might have in today's culture, where blasting buildings to make political statements has become a raw reality.
The film also contains a veiled condemnation of the political and evangelical "right" in America today. Vendetta not-so-subtly implies that our current government is on course to end up like the one in the film. To make its point, it ropes in issues such as homosexuality, terrorism, electronic eavesdropping and the mistreatment of political prisoners.
Suffice it to say that the Wachowskis' don't have much good to say about the intersection of religious conviction and conservative politics. They suggest—partly through the omission of a single truly righteous character—that the presence of religious people in government necessarily results in abuses such as the murder of homosexuals and people of other belief systems in the name of security.
"Four-hundred years later," V insists, referring to Guy Fawkes' 1605 plot, "an idea can still change the world." Indeed it can. But what is to become of us if the God who created us shares no part of it?