Spoilers ahead! Go watch the film on Netflix if you haven’t seen it, then come back.
Gilliam, Wilford, and the Brilliance of Casting Chris Evans
The ending reveals that there are two leaders in control of the train, Snowpiercer: Wilford and Gilliam played by Ed Harris and John Hurt respectively. These are two older, white men (traditional heads of patriarchy) with long-standing gravitas in their acting careers. They use their engineering skills (not just for trains!) to manufacture a new leader in Curtis who they hope will take Wilford’s place in the engine. The two have somewhat different ways of guiding Curtis into this position.
Gilliam speaks directly to his spiritual side, leading him from cannibalism and inhumanity to empathetic concern for the other tail-section dwellers. While Curtis takes this as truth, and certainly Bong Joon-ho seems to agree, we have only ambiguous indications that Gilliam himself believes this. Yes, he sacrifices both an arm and a leg to bring the tail-section in line. And ultimately he sacrifices his life during the rebellion, but his final advice to Curtis is to cut out Wilford’s tongue when he meets him, to not let him speak. This advice is to keep the lie of the rebellion in place. If Curtis believes he is the natural leader through revolution, he will take Wilford’s place and attempt to equalize the classes of the train. Gilliam may believe that equalization is possible, but only if Curtis believes in it, or he may simply know that if Curtis finds out the truth, he will be too shaken to assume leadership.
Wilford takes a different tack, appealing to Curtis’s intellect and practical, strategic mind. Wilford saw in Curtis the man who counted the seconds the doors were all open, gathered resources from the various hovels of the tail-dwellers to put together a battering ram/moving tunnel, and correctly interpreted each of his one-word clues for progression. Curtis, to him, is a man who sees the big picture of the train, the one man who has walked the train’s entire length, who has physically and morally been from the tail to the engine. Seeing this in him, Wilford decides to just lay out the entirety of his job thinking Curtis will see the great responsibility before him and be pulled in.
Gilliam turns out to be right. Curtis fails to cut down Wilford before Wilford reveals the truth of the train’s engineered ecosystem, including the revolts, and Curtis’s belief system is shaken down to his last core belief–the importance of sacrificing strength to protect the weak and the young.
Now the brilliance of Chris Evans as Curtis:
- He is another white male, so when the reveal comes that he’s been hand-picked by the older white males to perpetuate the train/class system, it makes sense. It’s equally intriguing that he chooses to throw aside the system, ultimately, to end the oppression of the classes. Not only have the tail-dwellers been blinded, so have the front-dwellers. The children are used to either be workers in the machine or brainwashed to be obedient, faceless soldiers protecting the machine.
- We expect Curtis to be the hero Chris Evans is now known for playing. Chris Evans sought this role out after doing multiple Marvel films, perhaps with the idea of keeping his range visible to the public. Ironically, Curtis is a perfect anti-Captain America. He seems, at first, to be that hero fighting for the weak against tremendous odds. He’s brave, smart, caring, and a good fighter. But he’s also been what Captain America has never been–inhuman, self-loathing. He addresses this issue early on in the film when he discusses Edgar’s hero-worship as being undeserved with Gilliam, his own hero. Gilliam says few heroes are truly what we think they are. It foreshadows the reveal of Gilliam working with Wilford but also points a finger at our own expectations of Chris Evans.
- There’s even more intertextuality with Captain America: Winter Soldier. Spoiler alert for Winter Soldier. In the Captain America sequel, Cap is disturbed to find out the people he’s been working for, S.H.I.E.L.D., has been infiltrated by the terrorist group Hydra. He’s been used by Hydra to further their nefarious plans of world domination by instilling fear in the public. Fear will make the people look to authority for guidance and safety. They will give up their rights in the name of safety. This is also true for Curtis in Snowpiercer. Wilford has used fear of the ever-present death outside the train to keep the train in line. Curtis believes he’s doing right by rebelling against the system. He doesn’t realize his actions feed into the plans Wilford has to perpetuate that same system. Taken together, these two films both offer a critique of a very familiar society–our own. The class inequities. The policies which have taken our rights to supposedly insure safety. Both films ask what the cost is and offer scathing answers.
- Although I don’t tend to think of dramatic gravitas when I think of Chris Evans, I’m not sure just any ol’ actor could believably pull off this monologue without it passing into complete campiness. Those lines are cringeworthy, the subject matter is certainly cringeworthy, but Evans sells the speech, and I for one bought it.