John Wick(ed Witch)

I’ve been thinking about John Wick and one thing I think is interesting is that the John Wick world is a kind of fairy tale land. There’s a literal underworld that you can enter if you pay the price, a reference to the fee due to Chairon to cross the river Styx I suspect. There’s a scene in a hotel where John is shown to be descending down and down beyond the regular world until he finally reaches a door that can only be entered after first paying with a gold coin. And there he meets Ian McShane, who I assume is a kind of Hades figure.

Note: A bartender in the underworld tells him that she’s never seen him as vulnerable before. This is something that I think comes back later.

The movie drops clues about the fairy tale nature, though at the time I just thought it was hyperbole on the characters’ part:

They, these Russian mobsters, refer to John Wick as Baba Yaga. I thought this was an odd choice because Baba Yaga is a witch from Russian folklore. She is a hideous figure, apparently at times benign and other times malevolent, who lives in a house that walks on chicken legs. Why choose a female demi-god from Russian mythology for John Wick?

Then there’s the dissonance around the character of John Wick himself. Part of what I enjoyed about John Wick is the comedy around the character the audience knows as John Wick and the John Wick everyone else is reacting to. John Wick that the audience observes is a quiet unassuming man, almost a blank slate really. Everyone else seems to recoil in horror to him, though, and that just seems so at odd with what we observe that it’s hilarious.

But then there’s the scene where John Wick is tied to a chair and he tells his former boss that he’s back and to give him his son. That’s the Baba Yaga! That’s the person everyone was so scared of. He’s the man who will take your children away. He will force you to sacrifice your own children. I think John Wick was like that all the time in the period before the movie. So when the bartender says she’s never seen him vulnerable it’s because he was too busy doing the assassin equivalent of eating babies to stop and care about anything. Suddenly the movie cleverly reveals that John Wick is monstrous to the point of mythological being. They call him Baba Yaga because there’s nothing else that comes close to representing him.

Then the rest of the movie fell into place for me, in the fairy tale sense. A bad little boy went into the woods and broke into the house of a witch who lived there, waking the witch. Then the witch came and ate him. The cleverness of the movie is that we don’t realize that John Wick is the monster because for most of the movie we only know him as a pretty mellow guy.

I think that this is further emphasized by how John will spare “good children” from his wrath: specifically Aurelio the chop shop owner and Francis the door guard. Both are contrite and respectful to John, and so are spared. But the unrepentant son of the mob boss is hunted down and mercilessly killed. The entire movie is a two hour action movie equivalent of “be good or Santa Claus will shoot you in the head.”

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