SPOILER WARNING: John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014)
The denial of identity is a theme that is present in many films. From the Narrator denying but still indulging in his deeper wants and needs in Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), to almost every movie that contains the line “I don’t do that anymore,” it is a common a popular trope for a character to deny who they truly are, especially when the audience knows the correct answer. But rarely do films take the step of not ever flatly saying who their character really is. The trope of identity denial is a common one, and not one that is usually present for anything more than filler tension or poor character development. Few films work hard enough to take this theme and make it into more than a cheap element and into something that truly strengthens the film as a whole; and even fewer accomplish this while still basing much of the film around it. John Wick (Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, 2014) however, does just this. Through a combination of elements, motifs, and the overly simple narrative, John Wick executes the theme of a character engaged in self-denial without ever making the theme cheap or overblown.
One of the more obvious elements of the film that argues against John being anything other than a methodical, focused man who is very good at killing are the dogs that John comes into possession of. The first dog, a beagle that is a parting gift from John’s late wife, is in and of itself a testament to what John really is. Normally thought of being a typical domestic pet, beagles are high-energy dogs that are notorious for their stubbornness and even destructive nature when it comes to acquiring food. They are also adept at sniffing and following blood trails, and all in all they are much less adept at domestic life than many other, equally common breeds. Opposed to the pit bull that John acquires at the film’s conclusion, the beagle is a breed that is often misinterpreted by those who consider it. Pit bulls have a reputation, perhaps somewhat unjustified or overblown, as being a fierce breed that is not to be taken lightly. It is not hard to see the connection that the film is making between its two dogs, and where they come into play in relation to John’s position at each of their respective arrivals. The beagle, Daisy, is not only a representation the domestic life that John once believed that he could achieve, but also a representation of John himself. He is existing in a space that he does not belong in, but one that many believe that he can continue to do so in. In opposition to this, the pit bull has a reputation that is not entirely justified, but leaves little room for underestimation. John’s reputation is justified, but the film suggests that he has regained some humanity, as illustrated by his love towards his late wife and the fact that he takes another dog in the end.
Besides the dogs, the John Wick handles the opposition of who its protagonist thinks he is and who he actually is by way of its other characters. Every time John is asks about his motivations coming back into the business, he responds by saying that it is only temporarily. He is warned that a temporary return is not possible, but he discounts these warnings and continues down his path. However, John is aware that his brief time in the domestic life was something that he should not have been granted, and even that he did not belong there. This level of self-awareness keeps John as someone who can be taken serious, as any such ignorance on his part would lower his credibility. Even those who stand opposed to John recognize who he is, but also who he wanted to be and the impossibility of that. “People don’t change. You know that. Times, they do.” tells Viggo to John. And while some may discount this because of the status of Viggo as the film’s antagonist, everything that he says in relation to people changing and leaving their lives behind is proven true by the film. When he calls John after learning of his son’s transgressions, Viggo implores him to not follow his base animalistic instincts so that they can behave like civilized men. But John refuses this offer, and does the one thing he knows how to do. All in all, everyone understands John more explicitly than John does himself, but by keeping John aware of what he truly is the film manages to make the entire argument convincing.
When John loses his wife, he loses any hope he had for a domestic life, and he knows this. When he is grieving, he is not grieving just the death of his wife, but also the death of anything outside of the life of a killer that he is an expert at. John saw his wife as a way out of this world where he was just a killer, and her death testifies to John that he cannot escape. He buries his wife like he buried his suitcase of killing materials before her and after the death of his beagle, he buries her as well and resurrects the materials used in his old life. All of this is framed by Viggo speaking of the bodies buried by John in order to leave his life as an assassin. That which is dead may not be able to come back to life, but John’s old life was one of death and so he has little trouble bringing it back. When John tells Viggo that he is indeed back, he does not fully intend to follow through and is simply stating as such in the hope that he can bury another body and perhaps make another transition. This does eventually happen, as John is able to kill Iosef, but as John once again tries to leave his life behind Harry is killed and so he chooses return yet again. Death defines John at every turn, and even though he may believe he can leave it behind, the film argues the opposite.
The important distinction in the film is that John chooses his own path. Every major action by him in the film, whether it be his choice to go after those who killed his dog and stole his care, or his choice to go after Viggo after Marcus’ death, are actions that John is not forced to make. He chooses revenge rather than living a life of relative peace; albeit a broken one. And while it can be argued that John’s initial return to his old life of crime is prompted partially by a desire to hold up his reputation, that same reputation is a part of a life that he claims to have sought to leave behind. The same is true in the final act of the film when John actually turns his car around to go back to the world he has endlessly worked to escape. Even though John may verbally claim to want to move on to a new stage of life, his actions repeatedly argue to the contrary.
John is little more than a killer. The narrative of the film reinforces this. A fairly simple revenge tale, John does one thing throughout most of the film and that one thing is killing. There are numerous hints at a much larger and much more complex world outside of what is shown in the film, but he simply passes through it as he would everyday life and the film does not define any more of it than is necessary. Overall, John is a simple person. He is motivated by grief and rage, and he responds to these emotions by doing only one thing. The film concludes with a shot of John walking with his new dog at the place where he was shown with his wife when she collapsed shortly before her death. At this moment, John has left his dreams of domestic bliss behind, and he has transitioned into an entirely new stage. John’s wife is dead, but now he has finally truly buried her as the spaces associated with her have begun to be defined by something new. In effect, John has begun to move on. The presence of the pit bull argues against the possibility of John returning back to a domestic life. That possibility died when his wife did, and now that he has accepted her death and truly buried her, he has also buried his chance at a return to that life. He has dipped a pinky in the pond, and be has been pulled back in.