I went into Dredd with mixed feelings. A friend of mine who’s a lifelong fan of the character couldn’t stop singing the film’s praises. Of course, with only the 1995 Sylvester Stallone adaptation to go by, there was nowhere to go but up. And I was a little put off by the similarity between Dredd‘s story and that of The Raid: Redemption. Both have as their core the good guys trapped in a building with the bad guys and having to fight their way up. Although there’s talk that the Dredd script was around before The Raid came into being, The Raid got there first, and was a thrilling ballet of action. So the comparison is inevitable. Fortunately, Dredd is its own thing, the steamroller to The Raid‘s sports car. And believe it or not, what on the surface looks like pure testosterone has something a little more cerebral going on. Because the journey of Judges Dredd and Anderson up to take on gang leader Ma-Ma has all the trappings of a walk through the psyche as envisioned by Freud.
Freud divided the psyche into the id, the ego, and the super-ego. The id is primal, instinctual, all about avoiding pain and satisfying needs. The ego attempts to bring organization to this, sorting out perceptions, rationalizing the unconscious urges of the id. And the super-ego contradicts the id, often criticizing the id’s impulses, a sort of internal parental figure for the psyche. And if we’re to look at the Peach Trees tower block as the human mind, Dredd, Anderson and Ma-Ma are the aspects of its psyche, fighting for control.
Anderson is a mutant, able to read minds and manipulate thoughts. In a sense, she’s the embodiment of the ego, attempting to bring some semblance of order to the subconscious mind. She does this literally, as when she mentally breaks down the crude, sadistic thoughts of a capture suspect, and figuratively, serving as a sort of moral barometer for Dredd, forcing him to call into question some of his unwavering beliefs. Dredd himself comes across as an odd mix, clearly representing the sheer instinctual determination of the id but also adhering to a strict interpretation of the law that would seem to characterize the super-ego. He’s even challenged at one point by four rogue Judges, who turn their backs on the law for the promise of monetary gain, pure expressions of the id that Dredd overcomes. And Ma-Ma, a parental figure in name as well as authority within the tower, is clearly another manifestation of the super-ego, demanding absolute control of the Peach Trees; the whole plot of the film hinges on her unwillingness to allow an arrested underling to be questioned and reveal the secrets of her operation. This, of course, brings her into opposition with Dredd’s id.
As the film unfolds, Ma-Ma never wavers from her desire to keep control, but Dredd and Anderson each take on aspects of the other, an exchange that is key to their success. Anderson, a rookie, seems out of her depth, yet she slowly adopts Dredd’s toughness and determination, using it to add a vicious edge to her psychic abilities. Meanwhile, Anderson softens Dredd’s stark black and white outlook, often invoking the spirit of the law rather than the letter. The fact that he tells his superior office that Anderson passed her evaluation when, by its strictest terms, she technically failed, reveals his changing attitude. And when it comes time to defeat Ma-Ma, it’s a combination of reason and sadistic pleasure that ultimately undoes her, with Dredd reasoning that the transmitter she carries won’t reach the explosives it’ll trigger from the ground floor, and testing that theory the fastest way possible: flinging her over the balcony and down 200 stories. His id is indulged, but via a logical, organized set of assumptions.
Look, Dredd isn’t some deep psychological drama. It’s a fun, brutal action film with plenty of stylistic flair that overcomes its apparent budgetary limitations. And I can’t honestly say any of this was on the filmmakers’ minds when they were making it. It’s probably not even a perfect analogy, and I’m sure any psych student would have a field day tearing this apart. But part of the fun of watching a film is looking for different ways to read it. Besides, it would be sort of appropriate if Dredd‘s correlations to Freud came about totally subconsciously. And whether by accident or design, it’s certainly got more going on upstairs than Stallone’s version. Which, honestly, wouldn’t be very hard to do.