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I Came Into This Game for the Action

illustration by Tony Stella

Harry Tuttle is amazing. Harry Tuttle can appear from nowhere, disappear into the shadows, and always arrives just in time to save the day. He has all sorts of useful gadgets, ziplines between buildings, rappels into imminent danger, and can fix a problem without breaking a sweat. Harry Tuttle is a real action hero.

There is only one problem: Harry Tuttle is not the protagonist of Brazil. In fact, Tuttle (Robert De Niro) has less than 15 minutes of screen time in a film that runs for almost 2 ½ hours. Brazil does not follow Harry in his adventures, fixing thermostats and rerouting sewage lines into air filters. Instead, it follows lowly Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), who is not a hero, except in his dreams.

By focusing the film on a character like Lowry rather than the dashing Tuttle, director Terry Gilliam makes a very deliberate choice to dissect and deflate the stereotypical image of the action hero. Yet, Gilliam is by no means attempting to replace the hero with Sam Lowry. We as viewers are never intended to see the common man as the true champion over society’s ills, let alone the one to resolve the conflict of an action film. Gilliam instead demeans and belittles Lowry’s heroic ambitions at every turn, even in moments where Sam succeeds in his minor aims; Brazil soon pounds its main character back into submission, to the inevitability of failure, leaving Lowry with only his fantasy world as a safe haven where dreams come true.

It is because of these many dream sequences—some explicitly fantasy, others masquerading as filmic reality—that Brazil even qualifies as an action film. Aside from Tuttle’s occasional intrusion into Lowry’s life, Sam’s world consists mostly of awkward dinner parties, malfunctioning home appliances, workplace monotony, and Tuttle’s least favorite thing: paperwork. Ambition is something Lowry suppresses and even flatly denies. When his mother says to him “You must have hopes! Wishes! Dreams?” Sam replies, “No, nothing! Not even dreams!” The defiant denial is immediately undercut by a quick cut to Sam’s subsequent dream. With a magnificent wingspan, he flies across a lush green landscape through billowing clouds to reach a beautiful woman floating enveloped in a sheer, flowing cocoon. She seductively calls his name.

Gilliam and co-screenwriters Charles McKeown and Tom Stoppard eschew dialogue that tells the audience of Sam’s hopes. They instead allow cinematographer Roger Pratt and production designer Norman Garwood to show an unmistakable dichotomy between the dream world and the real world. Reality is grey, claustrophobic, and constantly invaded by gaudy ductwork. In the early scenes, Sam’s dreams are bathed in the peach-orange light of sunrise as he glides effortlessly through wide open spaces devoid of any intrusion. He and his lady love are all that exist in this idyllic fantasy world, where their feet never touch ground, and they have no action to take but to fly, float, and kiss.

The Sam Lowry of his own imagination is a great action hero in subsequent dreams, as his subconscious is invaded by nightmarish elements. Great skyscraper-like blocks burst through the pastoral landscape and pierce the sky. Sam’s lover is locked in a floating cage and dragged through the alleys between the blocks by hunched, skeletal beasts wearing baby masks. The imagery suggests an underlying fear of the mundanity and limitations imposed by child-rearing (specifically motherhood). Adventure and heroics seem less likely with a responsibility as daunting—and as grounded in reality—as being a parent, and the purity of Sam’s dreamt-up archetypes cannot abide transformation. To maintain the escapist illusion, the maiden must remain a maiden, the hero must be allowed his freedom. Sam arrives with great bravado to rescue the imprisoned goddess and acquires a gleaming sword he uses in combat with an enormous samurai foe.

Much like the side character of Harry Tuttle, Dream Sam would be a classic protagonist of a great action film. But Brazil only cares about Dream Sam inasmuch as he is a foil to Real Sam. Real Sam does not rush to the aid of those in need. When a news bulletin about a local bombing interrupts his favorite song as it plays on his car radio, he doesn’t spring into action, swerve his wheel to the right, and dive into danger like Batman. Instead, he gently turns the radio dial to the left and finds another station playing his song. When another explosion occurs just a few feet from the restaurant table where he and his mother are dining with her friend, Sam’s first impulse is to comment on the state of his meal, calmly reporting, “Aww. This isn’t rare.”

Sam is not alone in his apathy toward the maimed and bleeding diners on the other side of the restaurant. His mother and her friend continue their conversation, the quartet providing ambiance counts back into their piece, and the maitre’d apologizes for the disturbance while having a dressing screen placed between the Lowry’s table and the carnage. What does not affect us directly does not concern us significantly. The critique is made more effective, however, by making Sam just as aloof and thoughtless as the rest of his party. Here is our hero, the man who dreams of rescuing damsels in distress from monsters, the man we hope will topple the horrific totalitarian government we see oppressing and torturing its own people, and he cannot so much as turn his head and notice the suffering going on around him. The viewer cannot help but wonder: will Real Sam ever become Dream Sam? Will he be the action hero in his own movie?

To Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), Sam’s boss, Real Sam already is a hero, though. It is no accident that Kurtzmann’s voice calling Sam’s name echoes in the distance when Dream Sam first flies out of the clouds and onto the screen. Kurtzmann relies on Sam to fix errors on his computer and rectify work situations that prove too complex for his own simple mind. Most importantly, Sam is called in when a literal bug in the system results in the ministry torturing and killing Archibald Buttle instead of the similarly named Archibald Tuttle (the aforementioned heroic Harry Tuttle). Pratt again employs powerful visuals to emphasize Sam’s heroism—at least in Kurtzmann’s desperate eyes. When Sam sits at his boss’s computer to deal with the “Buttle-Tuttle Confusion,” the camera swings around behind the terminal to look at Sam’s face directly. Because of Gilliam’s chosen design for the film’s technology, tiny computer screens enlarged by enormous magnifiers, Sam’s face swells to a massive size, making him appear imposing, all powerful, and in complete control. Outside of his own dreams, Sam is not framed this way elsewhere in the film. It is his “hero shot” and it lasts but a fleeting moment.

The fleeting nature of that shot is appropriate, as Sam slowly learns that he is not a hero at all, but Kurtzmann’s accomplice in covering up the negligence of the ministry. Sam’s heroic action is soon undercut when he comes to realize the gravity of the “Buttle-Tuttle Confusion.” Still believing himself to be the hero, Sam signs, seals, and delivers the check from Kurtzmann to Mrs. Buttle as a refund of her payment for the torture and eventual death of her husband. Veronica Buttle does not, however, view Sam Lowry as a hero for bringing a meager refund check instead of her innocent husband. Her harrowing, accusatory cries make Sam, at the least, uncomfortable and at the most, suspicious of some dastardly activity within the ministry of information. The samurai that Dream Sam vanquishes in a subsequent dream manifests Sam’s internal conflict; borrowing directly from The Empire Strikes Back; its mask is removed to reveal Real Sam’s face. Where this detail in Empire warns Luke Skywalker of what he will become if he kills Darth Vader out of anger, here Dream Sam is seeing a glimpse into the real world and recognizing himself as a part of the system that perpetrates such heartless acts.

But it is not guilt or altruism that motivates Sam to take a promotion within the ministry and find out the truth of Buttle’s death; it is the sudden appearance of Jill (Kim Greist), the Buttle’s upstairs neighbor in a reflection on the Buttles’ floor that spurs him toward action. Jill just happens to have the exact same face as the woman in Sam’s dreams. Sam’s dream world begins to collide with the real world, but Sam is incapable of becoming Dream Sam. He is not the courageous, powerful, and resourceful hero that flies into danger with mighty wings and shining armor. And further, his world is not the simple dystopia that his subconscious has erected, with clear good and evil forces, able to be toppled through brute force.

A good protagonist is only as heroic as his antagonist is villainous, and Sam’s real world foe lacks an evil face. There is no “Chelsea Smile” Joker or green-faced Wicked Witch of the West to make a clear opposition to the hero and offer a menacing presence. Instead, we have two friendly faces who represent the oppressive regime: Jack Lint (Michael Palin) and Mr. Helpmann (Peter Vaughan). Jack is an old friend of Sam’s who always offers a smile and a friendly word upon seeing Sam. Despite working for “Information Retrieval,” a euphemism for torture and interrogation, Jack takes no joy from the work he does and how often he inflicts pain or even death. When Sam wanders into Jack’s office, he finds him standing in the corner, quietly moaning, and rubbing his face while wearing electric massagers to relieve the stress of his horrific occupation. But his demeanor quickly turns to affability upon seeing Sam. For Jack, torture is his job just like trash collection is someone else’s. He is merely following orders. In fact, he is subservient to his superiors to the point of changing his wife’s name when Mr. Helpmann gets it wrong.

Such a submissive, unquestioning minion would still be imposing if he had a dastardly, evil boss above him pulling the strings, but Mr. Helpmann is nothing of the sort. Instead, he presents a kind, grandfatherly air. With a chuckle, he attributes the rise of terrorism to “bad sportsmanship” and its 13 years of continuation to “beginner’s luck.” Even when he is visiting Sam during his incarceration and impending interrogation, he is dressed as Father Christmas and offering him a bottle of Barley Water. His disposition is always sincere and jovial; he is no vitriolic demagogue like V for Vendetta’s High Chancellor Adam Sutler or horrific cult dictator like Mad Max: Fury Road’s Immortan Joe.

This type of implicit evil is not a failing of the film, but a strength in conveying its message. Evil does not come wearing a black hat, twirling its moustache, and maniacally explaining its plot. The evil of Brazil’s establishment is in smiling to your face, shaking your hand, and stabbing you in the front. A challenge to physical combat is useless when an evil establishment takes the Claudius approach: “That one may smile and smile, and be a villain!” To the public, the government has cast themselves as the heroes and the terrorists as the villains. As Sam begins to dig into the details of the “Buttle-Tuttle Confusion” he recasts those players into familiar roles for your standard action movie, despite the kindly face of the government and his own lack of heroism.

If anyone is grossly miscast by Sam in his action adventure, it is Kim Greist’s Jill as the damsel in distress. The contrast between Dream Jill’s introduction (the nude goddess floating in a sheer, billowing cocoon) and Real Jill’s introduction could not be clearer. We first meet Real Jill in her dirty, dingy apartment, bathing in a tub of murky water, scrubbing her bandaged hands with a brush, smoking a cigarette, and chuckling at a scene from the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts. Real Jill is connected to her counterpart in Sam’s dream through her nudity in this scene, but in the bathtub she is defeminized, de-idealized, presented in full humanity, and almost traditionally masculine in her haircut, dishevelled appearance, and slovenly behavior.

This introduction of Real Jill is consistent with her character’s role through most of the remaining film. She wears dark, baggy clothing that hides her form. She drives a big rig truck carrying small houses on its bed. Most of all, though, she continually rejects Sam’s attempts to be “her hero.” At all times, even during the extended dream sequence that closes the film, Jill drives her truck and does not let Sam take full control of it. Even when the two are chased by government thugs (a pursuit Sam causes by refusing to “Stay calm,” and slamming his foot onto her gas pedal), it is Jill who maneuvers the rig through the tight streets and alleyways to evade them. She denies Sam his role as action hero by refusing to become his “damsel in distress” and fighting against his attempts to solve their problems with violence.

Not only does Real Jill have Dream Jill as her foil, but also Sam’s mother, Mrs. Ida Lowry, played by Katherine Helmond. Where Jill takes no concern for conforming to the societal norms of femininity, Mrs. Lowry goes to great lengths to maintain both her beauty and her youth. (In fact, she is literally stretched to great lengths by her plastic surgeon.) As the two major female characters in the film, their contrast is noticeable even in the early stages. Gilliam makes it even more literal, however, by slowly de-aging Mrs. Lowry until her final appearance has her played by both Helmond and Kim Greist in a curly red wig. There are obvious Oedipal implications in this choice, especially as it is soon revealed that this is all part of Sam’s elaborate self-delusion. The way that Greist plays the young Ida just as Helmond would gives us an image wholly different from the gruff, unfeminine Jill or the ethereal Dream Jill. She is perhaps the culmination of Sam’s idealization of Jill in the final act of the film. To keep her from the danger of the outside world, he secrets her to his mother’s penthouse, dresses her in Ida’s clothes and blonde wig, and has the old Jill legally declared dead via his connections at the ministry. Sam is not so much battling to save Jill from the government as from the unfeminine version of herself she is in the real world. Yet in trying to remake her in the image of his dreams, he has made her mimick the only real-world version of femininity he knows: his own mother.

Sam fails in feminizing Jill in multiple ways. When he awakes the next morning, she has already removed her wig to reveal her naturally short hair. She keeps the pink bow that indicates her body as a gift for Sam, but this moment of submissive femininity is soon interrupted by the ministry troops that storm Ida’s bedroom and take both Sam and Jill away. But Sam’s ultimate failure with Jill is the same failure he displays throughout Brazil: his inability to discern the difference between fantasy and reality. His action-packed heroics during the dream sequences lead him to believe that he can save Jill from the ministry through violence and decisive action. Each time he resorts to such, though, he is forced to confront hard truths about these solutions. Upon detaching the house from Jill’s truck bed, for instance, he celebrates the explosion of the ministry vehicle pursuing them, but quickly becomes horrified when he sees one of the ministry operatives emerge from the vehicle engulfed in flames. This is not the sanitized action of Sam’s dreams that only destroys imaginary foes; his choice of violence results in the suffering of real people, even if he has cast them as the enemy in his fantasy.

Just as Real Sam is denied the ability to contextualize his enemies into cleanly disposable foes, he is also denied the ability to recontextualize himself. As he faces a guard who grabs Jill in a department store, the image of the guard flickers and transforms into the samurai warrior of Sam’s dream. In a conventional action movie, this could be the transformative moment for Sam, as he grabs a mannequin arm and prepares to do battle with the giant samurai once again. A more traditional action film would then change Sam into his Dream Self and have him vanquish the samurai in combat, perhaps interspersing the footage of the Dream Sam versus samurai fight with shots of Real Sam heroically defeating the guard, as well. Jill might also transform into her Dream self and become the distressed and grateful damsel that Sam rescues. It would be the moment in which Sam realizes his potential as a hero and becomes the man he has always dreamed he could be.

But this is not that movie.

Gilliam never gives Sam the opportunity to transform. He frames him in an over-the-shoulder shot from the samurai’s high angle perspective that shows Sam as dwarfed and powerless by comparison. The absurdity of Sam’s arm raised to the sky clutching another arm, made of plaster, further highlights Sam’s weakness. And before he can even step toward this imagined monster, Sam is struck from behind by another guard, reminding us of the inexhaustible resources and power of the government. The true parallel for Sam’s attempt to confront the authoritarian regime is not Dream Sam fighting the samurai, but Dream Sam trying to cut down all of the massive skyscrapers that now loom over his pastoral paradise. It is a futile exercise, even in Sam’s dreams.

It is fitting then that the climax of Brazil is eventually revealed as Sam’s own withdrawal into his dreamworld. Gilliam has always claimed that the film has a happy ending, which can only mean that a retreat into fantasy is a true escape. Brazil forms a thematic trilogy with Gilliam’s previous film, Time Bandits, and his later work, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, centered around the role of imagination at different phases of life. Brazil, the bleakest chapter in the trilogy, suggests that creating your own happy ending through imagination and fantasy is a heroic act and the way to remake your reality into the world you wish it to be.

There is a clear meta-cinematic element to the film, as Sam’s dreams are surely informed by movies he has seen, including those that Kurtzmann’s employees secretly view when the boss isn’t looking. The western they watch is a traditional example of clearly identified villains (dressed in black) and obvious heroes (white hats) who use guns and violence to save the day. Sam—with Gilliam’s help—even imitates the second film the workers watch, Casablanca, when he meets with Jill after the department store bombing. He dresses in the style of Rick Blaine, and utters romantic phrases of heroic concern for Jill, while the two are enveloped in a foggy backdrop reminiscent of Casablanca’s famous final scene. The action becomes reflexive, as Gilliam’s protagonist mimics the heroes of other films, but only becomes the hero of his own film by retreating into the type of fantasy those movies inspire in us.

Gilliam believed in fighting for imagined spaces, too. It is impossible to disconnect Brazil from the battle that ensued between its director and Sid Sheinberg, the president of MCA-Universal, which was responsible for producing the movie. The two clashed over the length and content of the film, especially its ending. Sheinberg even went so far as to halt the release of Gilliam’s cut and hired editors to recut the movie into what has become known as the “Love Conquers All” version, which cut out nearly 50 minutes and made Sam’s dream escape appear to be reality. Clearly, Sheinberg did not understand Brazil. His version remakes it as the conventional fantasy action film, with obvious good and evil characters, righteous violent action, and an end that justifies the means. Gilliam’s film abandons all of that and practically condemns it as fantasy that leads to delusion. Yet, at the same time, Brazil places a strong value on the power of such fantasy when it remains in the imagination. It is a testament to Gilliam’s belief in fantasy worlds that he fought so hard (and even dirty) against Sheinberg and successfully released his vision of Brazil. Just like Sam Lowry, he confronted the monolith of the studio system, and though he did not topple it, he was able to maintain his own vision of the world, and live happily within it, no matter what atrocities still occurred in the real world.