Klute: The Psychological Thriller through a Feminist Lens

Klute: The Psychological Thriller through a Feminist Lens

When it comes to psychological thrillers, "Klute" stands out as a film that delves deep into the complexities of gender dynamics and power struggles. Released in 1971, this movie directed by Alan J. Pakula highlights Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels, a call girl who becomes entangled in a murder investigation led by detective John Klute, played by Donald Sutherland. The 70's was a unique time in Hollywood, where more independent voices were being given studio backing and space to explore themes centered around outcasts & the fringes of society. Right at the beginning of the decade Klute came out, and gives us a great example of how a genre film during this time could fit more than the traditional who-done-it formula into its runtime - it could also act as a stunning character study, shining a light on a guarded woman's internal dialogue.

Close up of Jane Fonda's face with a completely dark background from the film Klute

How does "Klute" challenge traditional gender roles?

One of the key aspects of "Klute" is its exploration of female agency and autonomy. Bree Daniels is not portrayed as a victim, but as a complex character with her own desires and motivations. She navigates a male-dominated world of pimps and cops on her own terms, challenging traditional stereotypes of women as passive or submissive. Funny enough, though the film is named after the male detective, he's never really the main focus of its contents - which was pretty strange for the time it was crafted. A cop movie that isn't about the cop? Similar to Psycho, it sets you up to think you're diving into one story, then guides you into a different character's inner-workings and experiences - and for many at the time who would have no interest in a woman's story, but plenty of interest in a sleazy crime drama, it moved them to reconsider how incredible a female-focused detective tale could be. 

Jane Fonda sitting on a green couch with a man standing in front of her, film still from the movie Klute

What feminist themes are present in the film?

Throughout the movie, themes of power, control, and self-determination are prevalent. Bree's journey to assert her independence and confront her past traumas mirrors the broader struggle for women's rights and empowerment. The film highlights the importance of agency and the right to make choices free from societal constraints. Another thing to consider is Bree's consistent fight to de-compartmentalize herself and find a space where she can allow all sides of her personality to appear. As a call girl, she's often guiding the intimate situations she finds herself in, establishing a powerful side to her psyche. In other parts of the film, she sits through waiting rooms for the possibility of modeling contracts and therapist offices for the possibility of an outside perspective - both in hopes that parts of her she wishes were appreciated more could be paid attention to and understood. The ability to portray on screen a multi-faceted woman, as opposed to a single-sided caricature on a New York Street, was nearly unheard of at the time of its release, and no doubt had much influence on female-lead films that followed it.

Close Up film still of Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland

How does "Klute" subvert the typical thriller narrative?

Unlike many thrillers that rely on female characters as mere plot devices or victims, "Klute" places Bree at the center of the story. Her complexity and agency drive the narrative, challenging the audience to see her as more than just a stereotype. The film subverts expectations and offers a nuanced portrayal of a woman grappling with her own identity and place in the world. Jane Fonda had a lot of say in the way Bree was captured on screen - being home alone relishing her solitude, glass of wine, joint, and book in hand. She's fully living in her own world, incredibly self-aware, and willing to explore and soul-search to continue being the most authentic she can be. Pakula's ability to listen in on many of Fonda's suggestions for the film gives a nuanced look at a fully developed character, with all of the thriller elements instead acting as background and ambience, making it a truly unique entry in the genre.

Overall, "Klute" is a thought-provoking film that offers a feminist lens through which to view the psychological thriller tropes. By centering on a strong, independent female character and exploring themes of power and agency, the movie challenges traditional gender norms of the time and invites viewers to question their own assumptions about women, sex work, and society.

Are you a fan of this 70s gem? Be sure to pick up a shirt or sweatshirt featuring my Klute inspired illustration, only available until the end of March! :
Ringer T Shirt with illustration of Jane Fonda as Bree Daniels in the cult film Klute

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