Death Becomes Her


Toni Morrison in her book Playing in the Dark:Whiteness in the Literary Imagination offers an interesting instructional guide to readers of early american fiction with its cursory depiction of characters of color. She stresses reading not just the caricature or absence of characters of color, but in fact to analyze what the color-coded notion of blackness connotes in a fiction beyond the color of a character’s skin.  While this method isn’t exactly the same when turned to a movie like Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day it’s important to look at what the contours of the story are saying about our culture. What the film is specifically saying about a society in which Black Lives Matter becomes a necessity to identify the massive discrepancy between the amount of force-related deaths by law enforcement in the African American versus the white community. Creating a horror movie about a white female repeatedly murdered, makes you wonder what exactly the movie is saying. Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is such a despicable character it’s hard to believe the filmmaker aren’t in on the schadenfreude of watching her die continuously.

Inverting the tag at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, where the Misfit, the murderous villain tells his henchmen after dispatching the main protagonist, “She would of been a good woman…if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”  By the end of the film, Tree doesn’t seem to necessarily be a better person, simply more adept at relating to others in a way to collect things that she wants. In this kind of world, we’re left to ask what exactly is this power Tree has been left with? Seemingly her ability to create the kind of space that she might navigate more easily parallels her role as a figure of privilege. Tree attends college, is in a sorority, seemingly has expendable income as seen by her ability to drift through a day without any job or responsibility, unlike some of the other characters. Within this position of constantly reworking the same days, there appears to be something beyond priviledge or identity politics though these markers are very strong. Waking up in Carter’s room (Israel Broussard) the love interest of the film, Tree finally asks him whether they’ve had sex, assuming that passing out in a stranger’s room she would naturally be raped. When Carter says he wouldn’t do that, she’s shocked, giving him an affectionate smile. Perhaps this sequence is the most perverse moment in the movie. Because of her expectation of victimhood, Tree is shocked that she hasn’t become the victim, that her position has not made her one.

The movie then is a chance to relive a life of being victimized, a chance to stop the constant sexaul and social violence in Tree’s life. Of course, there are great contingents of white guilt in this movie about the importance of a white life. The killer at the end of the film is a woman of color, one who has been victimized in a different way by Tree. That Tree is victorious gives the film a queasy kind of cosmic justice. It seems to say that all is right with the world, once the center of the movie has conquered those forces seeking to victimize her. Tree’s life and the life of the narrative hinges on the predominance of her character, while there are grasping scenes where she defends an African American character and others, the film’s story is not one of redemption, but of status quo. The topsy turvy repeating day is only present for Tree, ensuring her ability to game the system. Tree never dies because her position doesn’t allow it and because of this she collects the implements of growth without truly moving beyond her position at the beginning of the movie.    

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