Posted on December 21, 2017

Misreading Othello in the new Thriller, Dismissed


Dismissed (2017) is an interesting film for anyone who is involved in education. Anyone else might find its central story of a psychopathic teen, Lucas Ward, played chillingly by Dylan Sprouse, a bit flimsy. Would a kid really be driven to rather absurd sadistic machinations and even to murder because his English teacher, David Butler (Kent Osborne), gives him a B+ on his paper? (Admittedly Butler later changes Lucas’s grade to an F after Lucas threatens him and calls him out on the fact that he got his degree from Iowa State rather than an Ivy League university. But still . . . ) Directed by Benjamin Arfmann and written by Brian McAuley, Dismissed is a rather lackluster and contrived entry in the psychopathic stalker subgenre. I personally found it enjoyable, though, and not only because I happened to be watching this story of a student who flips out over a grade during grading period at the end of a semester.

Dismissed has something that you almost never see in film: a scene in which two characters engage in a close reading of a literary text. Some of you may now be having unpleasant flashbacks to your last English class, but stay with me. This really is an interesting scene. (It begins at about 25 minutes into the film.)

Lucas is undoubtedly a psychopath: this diagnosis comes up in the film itself, and Lucas’s character suffers from the hallmarks of psychopathy. He doesn’t know how to feel things, for instance, and so we see scenes of him as a small child practicing basic human emotions for a camera.

One of the ways in which Lucas manifests his psychopathy, though, is that he shows himself to be a bad reader.

Lucas’s monstrous “paper”

The infamous paper (actually more like a thesis) for which Lucas gets the B+ is about Shakespeare’s Othello. Specifically, it is a defense of Iago entitled “Honest as I Am: A Defense of Iago.” After Lucas gets the B+, Mr. Butler tries to explain why he didn’t give Lucas the coveted A.

Mr. Butler (Kent Osborne) explaining his B+ to Lucas (Dylan Sprouse)

Here’s the dialogue:

Butler: Your thesis that Iago is a heroic character is just a little off-base.

Lucas: I feel that I supported my argument with textual evidence.

Butler: Like, this quote from the end of the first act [Act I, scene 3], “Hell and night / must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.” Now you say this is about Iago exposing Othello as a monster.

Lucas: That’s right.

Butler: No, it’s not right. The monstrous birth he’s talking about is his own evil plan. See, he knows he’s doing bad. He just doesn’t care.

Lucas: Othello was a charlatan. Iago is the only honest character throughout the entirety of the play.

Butler: Actually, “honest Iago” is used as dramatic irony because we know that he lies.

Lucas: Not to himself. Never to himself. He knows who he is. It’s everyone around him who doubts and questions themselves. They’re weak. Iago is the only strong character who is true to himself. What’s more heroic than that?

Butler: Look, Lucas, I appreciate your passion about this . . .

Lucas: Mr. Butler, where did you get your degree?  . . . Where did you go to college?

Butler: Iowa State

Lucas: Perhaps my interpretation of the text befits an Ivy League mindset—and that’s why we’re having this miscommunication. . . .

Lucas: . . . just give me the A.

What emerges from this interesting moment of competing close readings (something you rarely see outside an English class) is that Lucas approaches Othello without any of the moral feelings one would expect a reader to have and with an overly literal way of reading. The title of his paper, “Honest as I am,” and his belief that Iago is indeed honest, is based on Iago’s saying to himself “As honest as I am,” in Act II, scene 1. But, as Butler says to Lucas, this line is ironic since Iago is not honest. The line is usually taken to mean, “as honest as I am presumed to be” (by those whom he’s managed to deceive). Iago has fostered the belief in those around him that he is honest, while the play makes it clear he’s not (and Iago knows it; lying and deceit are integral parts of his plan). Lucas doesn’t seem to get the irony of this moment, for one thing. But he also sees ways in which Iago is actually honest (to himself) because he’s not deterred by Iago’s constant lying to everyone else. As a psychopath, he just doesn’t “get” that that’s wrong.

Lucas also reads the “monstrous birth” Iago wants to bring to light not as his own evil plan (the conventional reading that Butler gives) but as Othello himself, whom Lucas thinks Iago will (rightly) unmask as a “charlatan.” Again, this is not the way people usually read the line, since they are cued to see Iago as malevolent and Othello as his (more or less) innocent victim. But Lucas simply fails to be touched by any of the usual emotions that drive the usual moral readings. Indeed, he reads through the lens of himself, through a self that is empty (as psychopaths are) of normal human emotion. Like Iago, Lucas has plans to bring charlatans (intellectually inferior English teachers) into view; and, like Iago, Lucas lies to others, although he’s true to himself. Presumably Lucas thinks of himself as both “honest” and morally justified, then.

Lucas shows himself to be a “bad reader” because he is, as a psychopath, bereft of normal human emotions. But in reading ”badly”—that is, in reading through the lens of his own emotional makeup—he also shows that we all interpret what we read through the lens of our selves.

Dismissed is an example of what seems to be an emerging re-ignition of interest in the psychopath. Chris Peckover’s Better Watch Out (2016) features a psychopath and, for the first time since Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 adaptation of William March’s novel, the word is that Lifetime is going to be re-making that classic study of psychopathy, The Bad Seed. What makes Dismissed, for all its flaws, an interesting film, is that it places front and center the different ways in which psychopaths interpret the world around them. Lucas not only champions Iago as Othello’s “hero,” but he also, we learn, write a history paper on Nazi Germany that argued “perfectionism is an admirable goal. It’s just that Hitler’s methods were a little wrong.” Psychopaths indeed see the world differently.

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