SXSW 2017 Review | ‘The Archer’ Hits the Bullseye
Movies like The Hunger Games and (to a lesser extent) Brave have cemented the image of a warrior woman with a bow as a modern feminist symbol, but the thing about bows and arrows is that they are kind of archaic weapons, and the majority of modern audiences are only exposed to them in fantasy films (like The Hunger Games and Brave) or maybe the Olympics. So making a contemporary feminist archery thriller is a bit of a trick. Fortunately, Valerie Weiss pulled it off.
The Archer stars Bailey Noble (True Blood) as Lauren, a high school archery champion with a crush on one of her teammates. Said teammate has an abusive boyfriend and Lauren goes a bit overboard and pummels that jerk into a pulp. Before long, the condescending criminal justice system has remanded Lauren to the custody of a for-profit juvenile detention center, where physical and sexual abuse are common and edible food is not.
In charge of this persecution outpost is Gunnery Sgt. Robert Patrice (Bill Sage), whose “wise mentor” act barely obfuscates his sexist manipulations. Even his seemingly wise advice hides cruel intentions, robbing his inmates of their own success stories and taking credit for everything they could ever make of themselves. Bob’s second-in-command is his son Michael (Michael Grant Terry), who likes spying on his helpless detainees in the shower and is, however abusive his father may be, now himself an abusive monster in training.
The Archer does not deal in subtle metaphors. Lauren and her fellow female inmates step off the bus and come face-to-face with a boar that Gunnery Sgt. Patrice has killed and strung up, and later he describes his snooping prisoners as searching truffles with their snouts. But director Valerie Weiss still manages to keep The Archer wholly plausible, for better or worse. It’s impossible to disregard the treatment of women in this film as a dramatic contrivance, but perhaps a somewhat broader approach might have made the film even more heroic and inspiring.
Weiss appears to have found a solid compromise: a fugitive thriller with intense but realistic action sequences, punched up by a powerful score and impressive performances. By the time Lauren and her fellow inmate Rebecca (Jeanine Mason) are on the run with a bow and arrow and irrefutable evidence of Bob’s corruption, we are deeply invested in their plight. We know they won’t go all Commando on their misogynistic oppressors but that just means that when the arrows do fly they each have to matter. Every shot counts, every threat could mean certain death, and every victory is a rush.
There’s a bigger version of The Archer that probably has more blockbuster potential. It would be a shame if audiences don’t find this movie just because Bailey Noble isn’t blowing up helicopters with arrows, because The Archer hits the mark. Bailey Noble gives a star-making performance as a striking hero who finds power within what otherwise could have been called character flaws (an anger problem is arguably not a “problem” if your anger is wholly justified), and Bill Sage is a nuanced and terrifying villain. Their conflict drives all the action. They represent righteous feminism and oppressive patriarchy, respectively, and yet they can’t be reduced to mere symbols. The world is just a little bit more complex than that, but it’s still the kind of world where teen girls can successfully fight for their freedom while wielding an ancient weapon and looking totally awesome in the process.
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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.