by Caroline Jarvis
I have struggled with the idea of what it means to be grown up. Like so many other so-called adults, I often feel like a child playing pretend, make-believing I’m in control of my life and hoping I pass for a real grownup. Most days, I don’t feel terribly far from my eight-year-old self with her cupboard full of costumes and pint-size plastic stove. I know the truth is a matter of perception: I look like an adult, so I am treated like one. But there is a space that exists between childhood and adulthood where the line is blurred and for a moment we waver back and forth, hovering and flailing between past and future.
In Violet & Daisy (2011) two young girls dressed as pizza-delivering nuns dismantle a coterie of fellow criminals with gracefully-aimed gunshots and a few well-timed whacks of a fire extinguisher to the face. The titular characters are two teenaged hired killers with comic book parlance and a penchant for pop music. They’re about to take a vacation from their life of crime, when they’re persuaded to accept one more job for extra cash. But what begins as an easy gig becomes a moral dilemma when they develop an emotional attachment to the man they’re meant to murder.
Violet (Alexis Bedel), like her night-blooming namesake, has an aura of darkness about her. She has a past, an ex-partner, and a tattoo to prove it. She curses and calls the shots and her attempts at dark humor are met with Daisy’s comically innocent blank stare. We learn that a group of hit men once locked Violet in a dumpster and Daisy unwittingly implies that they may have raped her, too. "It looked like someone had taken the life out of her," Daisy says. Interesting choice of words for a pair of professional life-takers.
Although Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) may be relatively inexperienced as a gun-for-hire, legally speaking she has just crossed over the threshold from childhood to maturity. At eighteen you can be charged as an adult for all felonies, Violet grimly points out—a significant fact for a pair of gum-chewing, gun-toting assassins. For Daisy's eighteenth birthday, the girls celebrate like it’s her eighth—a tea party, cupcakes, and a stuffed panda guest—poking fun at the concept of adulthood. These are children, the film insists again and again. Eighteen is a meaningless milestone.
I wasn't far past eighteen when I started seeing John. He was just shy of fifty and I was twenty-two, living in my mom's basement and working the front desk at a chain hotel. My uniform seemed more like a costume with a blue striped silk scarf, worn at the neck like a flight attendant from the sixties. It was my first post-college job and I felt like I was an impersonator in the adult world. I had just begun to perfect my "How may I assist you?" when he started coming around the desk telling me to smile. That should have been my first tip-off.
I had a feeling he liked me and I figured it had something to do with the twenty-seven year age gap. Somehow, this didn't bother me. Instead, I thought of it as a game: I'd make him believe it was all his idea. While bored at work, I made a bet with myself that I could get him to ask me out the next day. That evening, I drove to JoAnn Fabrics and bought a spool of blue satin ribbon. When I showed up to work the next morning with the ribbon tied in a bow in my high ponytail, he strolled by the desk and asked for my number.
Violet & Daisy is littered with such markers of youth: a red yo-yo, a pop idol, and twin pairs of wide blue eyes. The girls jump on beds. They dance barefoot in matching dresses. They give wet willies, and they snap bubblegum, and they play hopscotch. In place of a newspaper, they get Celebrity Weekly delivered to their door and go nuts over a new fashion line. They ride a tricycle on their way to a job. They also shoot up a roomful of men (twice), skate across a bathroom floor slippery with blood, and dance up and down on the bodies of their kills like they're bouncing on a trampoline.
The girls are used to aim and shoot. Cut and dried. No chit chat, no get to know you. When the man they're being paid to murder (James Gandolfini)—a big, fatherly man in a sweater vest and rumpled shirt—comes home to find his would-be killers fast asleep on his couch like sleeping children, he covers them with an afghan and waits patiently for them to wake up. Everything before this moment is unreal. Every victim before this man is a cartoonish goon.
Their target never gets a name. He is simply billed as The Guy, a male figure whose presence, and whose unexpected humanity, throws a wrench into the plans. It’s unclear if he’s simply a sitting duck, giving himself up with his hands in the air, or if he is manipulating Violet and Daisy with a sort of emotional misdirection. Regardless, he dodges death with the calculated maneuvers of a magician. Their childish solution is to squeeze their eyes shut and pull their triggers, but when they open their eyes, they find The Guy has reappeared behind them with a tray of freshly baked oatmeal cookies, one hand in an oven mitt like some 1950s housewife. They lower their guns.
Throughout the film, the roles keeps shifting. One minute you're looking at two little girls with milk mustaches, and the next you're seeing two femmes fatales defeating a gang of rival mobsters. They're young, even occasionally naive, but they know how to use their youth to their advantage. Other people let their guard down—fathers, killers, cops—but the girls stay wary. "This might be some kind of test," says Violet. "Everything's a test when you're a career woman," Daisy replies with uncharacteristic wisdom. There is power in the ability to hover between child and adult, but there is also danger in that vulnerability. If you allow a man to see you as a child, to cover you with a blanket while you sleep, you risk relinquishing control to him. If Violet and Daisy allow The Guy to go free, they risk losing their careers and ruining their reputations. If they shoot him, they will no longer be playacting as stone-cold killers in silly costumes. This crime will be real in a way none of the others ever were before.
While Violet’s out buying bullets, Daisy plays patty cake and thumb wrestles with their intended victim. They are hostage and captor, faux father and daughter, criminal colleagues with common enemies. He pulls a quarter from behind Daisy’s ear and her eyes grow large in wonder, then squint in delighted skepticism. The Guy’s kindness and concern is a novelty, and Daisy can’t help but respond in kind. When he tells her he is dying of cancer, Daisy returns his secret with one of her own: she has never actually shot someone. All this time she has been using blanks, leaving the real killing to Violet, but never letting her know the truth. Daisy is an innocent, and it's her innocence that lies at the crux of the film, that forges its central dilemma: the impossibility of killing someone she’s accidentally befriended, and the necessity of proving that she is capable of pulling the trigger.
The first time I went to John's house he asked me what my favorite meal was. "Turkey dinner. Like Thanksgiving," I said. The second time I came over, there was a turkey roasting in the oven. This was not what I had expected. He might as well have appeared behind me with a tray of cookies. I could feel my trigger finger relax. Still, like Violet and Daisy, I remained wary. "I'm not looking for anything serious. I'm probably moving to New York soon, so don't fall in love with me," I warned him. Later I'd refer to him as the one-night stand that lasted two years. Like Daisy, I toppled into the relationship before I realized what I’d done.
John liked to drink scotch and tell dirty jokes. He knew them all; it was impossible to surprise him. He had kids, too: a teenage daughter and two older sons. His ex-wife was listed in his phone as The Bitch. Early on he told me about how she'd called the cops on him more than once. Claimed he'd hit her. "You're just full of red flags," I said, and he laughed like I was making a joke. I knew it could only end badly, but it wasn’t enough to stop me.
I didn't mean for it to go on as long as it did. To be honest, I was bored. I was lonely. "Beats data entry," as Violet would say. I thought I'd have a silly little affair—aim and shoot, cut and dried, no chitchat—and before I knew it I was going on family vacations with John and his daughter. Sometimes we'd go out driving in his Corvette at night. I'd close my eyes with the wind in my ears, my hair tangling around me. At eighteen or twenty-two, a roofless car in the dark can make you forget that you've ever had a past.
John’s past was still affecting his present. He was going through a divorce and his daughter spent most days with her mom. Their relationship was nothing like the one I had with my dad. Sometimes I got the sense John wanted to prove he could take care of someone, get it right this time. I wanted his guidance and resented it at once. He called me Bunny and rarely responded to my emails. I was drifting somewhere between being his peer and his pupil. I hated his ugly ties, his unstylishly large suits. "Sometimes it feels like the whole world is controlled by tall men in suits," I wrote in my journal around this time. "Who are these fathers, making all the decisions?"
Violet and Daisy report to The Boss — an unseen father specter, a godfatherly authority that sends well wishes on Daisy's birthday but doesn't show up to her party. And what about real fathers? Violet hasn't seen hers in a long time. Their target's daughter wants nothing to do with him, but her presence is everywhere — on The Guy’s answering machine, in pictures hanging around the apartment, in her father's voice when he speaks to the girls. Daisy tells him, "I'm a daughter, too," but what she means is "I understand your daughter's anger, her pain."
Contrary to his title, The Guy is far from interchangeable with the other guys who populate the world of the film — bad guys, tough guys, wise guys. Yet his moniker still makes sense. He is a stand-in for the guys that Violet and Daisy have been missing: the voice of reason, the absentee boss, and the estranged father.
John was all of these things and none of them. I started drinking wine while he smoked cigars. He changed my car tire when I got a flat, and once chastised me for sending an email without a subject line. He wanted to teach me things I had no interest in learning. Deny, deny, deny, he'd say, and I could tell he was speaking from experience. Still, there was the problem of emotional attachment. I'm not invulnerable to the charms of being looked after. You can't befriend your target without making a mess of things. Beneath his condescending gaze, I was backsliding into adolescence. Like Violet and Daisy, I found myself in something of a predicament — tied to a man I had no intention of loving.
I used to drive up to his big, empty house in my tricycle-red Saturn, wearing a white blouse and a Catholic schoolgirl skirt I’d picked up at the Salvation Army. I'd practice old ballet steps in his living room, pirouetting on the carpet in bare feet. On Halloween, I came over dressed as Little Red Riding Hood. A bit on the nose, perhaps, but I felt a little like the whole thing was an inside joke with myself. I was baiting him, I suppose, challenging him to end things between us. I kept trying to disentangle myself from our relationship and finding myself further ensnared. I wonder now if I was more cunning or naive. Did I trick him into caring for me or was I tricked into thinking my youth gave me the upper hand?
In the end, I moved to New York like I always said I would. He came to visit and hated my new apartment, thought everything in it was too small. "It's like being inside a dollhouse!" he'd whine, and the analogy secretly pleased me. I loved that apartment. I loved it more than I loved him. It wasn't too small; there just wasn't enough room for both of us. Still, I was afraid to break up with him. I felt stuck, dependent, unable to leave and unable to carry on as we were. Doomed relationships wield a certain inscrutable power. I dreaded the idea of navigating adulthood on my own. I dreaded the possibility of marrying him.
Daisy kills The Guy because she has to kill him. There is an inevitability to their relationship, a forward motion into the future, propelled by her desire to prove herself and absolved by The Guy’s willingness to die. When she shoots him, there is a finality to the act, an echo of future actions that cannot be undone. This is adulthood with no opportunity for backsliding. Their tricycle has disappeared from outside the apartment. A few days after our second anniversary, I broke things off over the phone with John. Perhaps it was a childish way of ending it, but sometimes you just have to close your eyes and pull the trigger.
Violet tells the story of how the cops apprehended a group of thugs holding up a convenience store where she happened to be buying some bullets. When the action dies down, a cop asks her if she's ok and she replies by provoking him, "Officer, how do you know I wasn't in on it? What makes you think a girl can't be in on it?"
Picture me in front of the mirror, tying the blue ribbon in my hair. I was old enough to know what it meant to evoke youth, to use it like a twinkling lure, like a magic trick. I was young enough to find his warning signs appealing. I did and didn't know what I was getting myself into. I was in on it and I was in over my head. I was jaded Violet and juvenile Daisy and after it was over I found a comfortable in between, playing dress up and decorating my doll-size apartment, and never forgetting that I was in possession of a past.
Caroline Jarvis lives in Brooklyn where she has perfected the art of subway crying. You can find her crouched in the stacks at The Strand, or buried beneath the pile of books she has been meaning to read.