Anatomy of a fight
Since I’m fresh off having seen The Force Awakens for the sixth time yesterday, I wanted to write an analysis of the fight scene and the dynamics of the action. It’s a really fascinating sequence, and it’s worth considering in detail.
It begins when Finn and Rey are confronted by Kylo Ren in the forest. He is dishevelled and wounded - blood leaks from his side, and he beats his fist against his injury to fuel his pain and rage. Finn and Rey are both disgusted and frightened by him, and Rey is impassioned when she calls him a monster - this ties back to the interrogation scene, where Rey referred to Kylo as a “creature in a mask”. While he attempted to undermine that impression then by removing his mask and revealing his human face, the Rey who faces Kylo at the film’s climax - the Rey who witnessed the murder of Han Solo - is wiser and has learned that monsters can have very human faces. And Kylo himself has dispensed with any niceties. He tells Finn and Rey that Han Solo cannot save them, positioning himself as a predator preparing to attack two helpless, orphaned children lost in the woods. It could hardly be more fairy tale-esque if it tried.
I’ve seen various people say that Kylo was attempting to murder Rey by flinging her back into a tree after she attempts to fire at him, and while it’s clearly a cruel and violent gesture I really don’t think that was his intention. I think he planned on stunning her, which is exactly what he achieved. Kylo is painfully aware of Rey’s burgeoning powers (thus the many brief scenes of him stalking around Starkiller Base looking for her and receiving updates from stormies - he is conscious that he needs to stop her, and stop her quickly), and he knows immediately that she needs to be removed from the equation. His only miscalculation is in not knocking her out thoroughly enough - he merely dazes her, leaving her semi-conscious.
I analyse what’s going on with the “TRAITOR!” moment thoroughly here, so won’t repeat myself. Suffice to say that Finn inspires a frightening pitch of rage and malice in Kylo, and that this comes through in how he fights him. Particularly striking is the moment when Kylo and Finn have locked lightsabers, with Finn pressed against the tree and the crossguard of Kylo’s lightsaber burning a hole into Finn’s shoulder. Kylo’s face is alive with sadistic pleasure and malice as Finn screams in pain, and that’s the scream that stirs Rey to consciousness. Kylo is utterly indulgent of all his darkest impulses with Finn, and he demonstrates not even the remotest flicker of pity or respect for his victim. By slicing Finn’s spine open, Kylo wants to damage and ruin him - it’s the ultimate payback for Finn’s treachery, in all its manifestations.
The scene where the lightsaber flies past Kylo to Rey is easily one of the most powerful moments in the film, and it’s stupendously played by the actors. They form a tableau against the snow, with Kylo seeming to move his arm in slow motion as he regards Rey with a strange mix of awe, wonder and disbelief. When he looks at her in the film, it’s the same moment where he says “it is you” to himself in the novelisation. He knows who she is, and is electrified by that knowledge.
The main fight between Rey and Kylo can be neatly divided into two stages: before and after the offer. Before, Rey is very much at a disadvantage - while her strength is extraordinary, her fear and inexperience are vividly on display, and she focuses most of her energies on putting distance between herself and Kylo. She’s constantly scrabbling up rock faces and staggering back, aware she needs the distance if she’s to stand a chance. For his part, Kylo fights mostly defensively when Rey attempts to strike him - he takes a few swipes at her feet, presumably to try and disable her, but isn’t truly on the offensive. His approach with Rey could hardly be more different from his approach with Finn - he shows no desire to destroy or humiliate her, only a need to stop her.
When they both reach the precipice, the moment is a filmed in a way that underlines Rey’s massive disadvantage and apparent helplessness. Her body is bent backwards, close to falling, from the power of Kylo’s blade pressing fiercely against hers. Her face is contorted with fear and despair, alight with terror, and Kylo is clearly on the brink of victory.
And this is when he makes what is perhaps his singlemost ruinous error of judgement. Instead of finishing the fight as logic dictates he should, he offers to become Rey’s teacher. There is no mention of Snoke or even the Dark side - Kylo is intent only on Rey, and the offer he makes is an offer made between the two of them. In short, Kylo is ruined by his self-indulgence - his regard for and fascination with Rey win out over his duty to Snoke. He selfishly wants her to himself, and his vanity and arrogance mean he thinks he has her in a position that will force her to submit.
When Rey closes her eyes she is clearly drawing on the Force for strength. Ridley’s performance is particularly brilliant here, with her face transmuting away from exquisite peace and serenity the moment she adopts an animalistic snarl. While the Light side of the Force enabled her to steady herself and resist Kylo’s temptation, the Dark side of the Force is what empowers her to strike back against Kylo with rage and fury. The Dark side is fuelled by passion, and that’s the word that best describes Rey in the second half of the fight. She is transformed by her rage, becoming unstoppable and relentless. She is slender and small, and her size alone should mean she doesn’t stand a chance - but she’s powered by something greater than herself, something that means she can wrestle with a man far stronger and taller than she is and overpower him.
At the culmination of the fight, Rey’s approach to Kylo is disturbingly reminiscent of Kylo’s approach to Finn. They both appear to derive a kind of satisfaction from causing pain, dealing out unnecessary, brutal blows intended to scar, punish and humiliate their recipient. Rey didn’t need to brand Kylo’s face, but she clearly wanted to, even if only for the moment it took to make the strike - and that, I think, is the biggest hint we have about the direction that’s going to be taken in Episode VIII.
Right, that’s my latest bit of meta delivered for your reading pleasure! As always, this is just my interpretation - I welcome discussion, so would love for any of you to bounce your ideas off me. Let me know what you make of my take, and present your own!