Why Wanted Is a Secretly Brilliant Warning About Brainwashing

Poster for Wanted, Image courtesy of Wikipedia

So, the other week, having a few hours to spare, I decided to re-watch Wanted, the 2008 movie about supernaturally gifted assassins, starring James McAvoy. To be clear, the only reason I even put the movie in is not to analyze its plot structure or re-experience a story arc, it’s just a really crazy, fun movie, start to finish. But I’m here to talk about another aspect of that movie, one that I never noticed before.

Warning: This rest of this article will be heavily into spoilers, so you should stop reading if you care about having the end of a 5 year old movie spoiled.

Wanted is actually kind of brilliant, in a way, but it’s genius is hiding behind a plot twist, so that until now, I never really noticed it. Basically, the movie is about Wesley Gibson who is gifted in a way most people aren’t – he can slow down time, bend bullets, and generally kick ass, it’s just that he interprets the flare-ups of his power as anxiety attacks. So, for all intents and purposes, he has superpowers, which becomes important, because the superhero analogy is what prompted me to interpret the movie this way.

So you have a superhero, who is recruited, right at the beginning of the movie, by the supervillains, who kill whoever they want for money, while telling themselves they’re doing it to keep balance. They’re meant to be getting their orders from a loom, providing names of their targets, but without their knowing, the leader of the Fraternity has been manufacturing the orders to suit his own purposes. This is revealed in the plot twist. What they tell him, however, is that being in the Fraternity is his destiny, that his father was in it, and that his father was recently killed by a man named Cross. In actual fact, Cross is his father, and is the good guy of the movie, who was trying to save his son from the terrible league of assassins. We can see what he was saving Wesley from when we see the training montage he is subjected to.

They actually use fairly standard brainwashing techniques to rewire his brain. It looks like a particularly brutal training sequence until you know they’re the bad guys, but in the real world, that would be called torture and brainwashing. In one scene, he is literally beaten for days until he says he doesn’t know who he is any longer. I’m serious, watch the movie again, they keep beating him asking him why he’s there, hitting him for every wrong answer, and the right answer is self-dissociation. This is quite literally how you break a person, and get him to kill people for you. Then in the next scene, they take him to what they tell him is his father’s room, and tell him to pick an object in it to associate himself with, thereby giving him a new identity, now that they’ve beaten the old one out of him.

What’s more, Wesley isn’t the only member of the Fraternity that was completely brainwashed. Angelina Jolie plays Fox in the movie, and during a moment when Wesley questions his choice of joining it, she tells him a story of a little girl whose father was burned in front of her, and who was subsequently branded with a hot wire hanger. As she walks away, a scar is revealed, making it painfully obvious that she is the girl. She tells Wesley that she later found out that her father’s killer’s name had come up as a target for the Fraternity, but the assassin failed to pull the trigger, which is why she now follows the orders unquestioningly. Of course, knowing what we now know, that truth could just as easily be one of the following two.

  1. They lied about the killer’s name coming up to get her to join. It’s clear they’ve fabricated hit orders before, so this would be nothing new, and they’re clearly not above complete telling a traumatized person complete b.s. to recruit a skilled member.
  2. Her father’s killer could just as easily been a member of the fraternity himself! It’s clear at least a few members are nearly psychotic and completely willing to inflict terrible suffering under orders, and they believe the mystical source of their commands fanatically. And considering they knowingly send Wesley to kill his own father, it is clear there is no moral compass in the organization at all.

The saddest part of it is, Fox believes the lie so much, that she ends up killing herself in the climax of the movie when she’s told her name came up as a target, even though she knows about the fabricated orders now! That’s how deep the brainwashing goes.

Anyway, I realize none of this is groundbreaking, because the Fraternity is revealed in the movie as being evil, but I don’t think a standard viewing allows one to realize just how evil they actually are, because you don’t even question them while the most hideous of their crimes are being perpetrated (which is sort of like brainwashing the audience themselves). So, I guess, let that be a lesson – if you’re told you have superpowers and that a shadowy organization is going to help train you to avenge the death of the father you never knew, maybe try and question the situation a little bit instead of blindly jumping in, as appealing as all the assassinating may seem on the surface.

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