Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Descent (2007): Rape-Revenge as a tone poem

Descent (2007)
dir: Talia Lugacy

Recently, I went off looking for horror movies directed by women.  Reel Grrls recommends Pet Semetary, which leads to the catalog of Mary Lambert films.  There is Stephanie Rothman, whose pre-1980 catalog will certainly get looked at here as I find copies of the movies.  Mary Harron has a couple under her belt, including last week's review American Psycho.  The Soska twins who directed American Mary, a rape-revenge movie crossed with body horror.  And, then I stumble upon Talia Lugacy's Descent.

Descent is as much a tone poem as it is a horror movie.  It attempts to explore the depths of the emotional devastation a woman suffers when she is raped and the distance she'll go through to get revenge.  Yeah, guys, this is yet another rape revenge movie...but this one is quite different.

The story of Descent is a bit different to begin with.  It's the story of Maya (Rosario Dawson), a college girl who swings both ways.  She's experimental and intellectual.  She's aloof and a little bit pointy when she talks with men.  She has men run the gamut of her brain through trials in order just to go on a date with her, nevertheless to hook up with her.  She also lets down her walls with women a lot easier than she does with men.

While at a house party, Jared (Chad Faust) forcibly hits on her until she gives in and chats with him at the party.  They hit it off enough to go on a separate date.  The date is nice, though it is a bit of an intellectual ping pong game.  Maya goes home with Jared.  He lights candles.  Puts on subtly sexy music.  And, they start making out.  Until Maya decides that she doesn't want to go all the way, and Jared date rapes her because he is too far gone.  This isn't the explicitly anti-woman rape of American Mary or I Spit On Your Grave or Victim.  Nor is this the drug-clouded crossing the line of The Skin I Live In.  This is a date rape where the lines weren't explicitly drawn prior to making out by 2 adults, and then 1 adult draws the line as the other is charging right over it.  It's still just as violating, but the situation is much more common, and risky to report.  It is all the more violating when the date rapist knows he is forcing himself on the woman and is whispering all sorts of misogynistic and racist epithets in her ear.

After Jared violates Maya, she dives into a hazy world of distanced depression, alcohol, and drugs in a hip hop club that may be kind of underground.  The details of this fall are left intentionally vague to make a more poetic universal representation of depression instead of something more explicitly plot laden.  Through this, she connects with Adrian, a DJ at the club who takes in the helpless.  Adrian is also a powerful force, as shown by some guy who worships him enough to smoke a cigarette from between his toes?  Yeah, the movie is going into D/s land here.

The movie is also exploring the racial reclamation of Maya.  In the first act, she had been the usual college girl, generally reserved to doing average white college girl things like going to white college house parties.  Or, so the Talia Lugacy wants you to think.  Apparently, house parties are only the domain of whiteness while the underground hip hop club is the essence of blackness?  Lugacy's racial politics here are exceedingly amateur, especially compared to the loving care that she puts on the feminist touches of the rape revenge portion.

During the second act, in a vague sense, Maya and Jared concoct a revenge plan on Jared, which provides the third act of the movie.  The revenge has Maya making Jared strip naked, tying him up, then violating him...and then has Adrian violate Jared as well.  This rape scene finale is over 20 minutes from strip to to end in the NC-17 edition.  Just to contrast, the rape scene in Irreversible is 9 minutes. To further contrast, Descent's first rape scene is about 10 minutes from basement wine to end, with only 3 of those being the actual rape portion.

Descent works and it doesn't.  And it doesn't work for the same reason it does.  The whole film is practically tonally flat.  From the opening scene all the way up to the strip scene, the tone and pacing of Descent remains remarkably cold and distancing.  For the middle portion of the film, this makes sense as it matches Maya's descent into depression, but the opening of the film is tonally exactly the same as the post-rape sequences, leaving an similarity that shouldn't exist.  We should feel like Maya is more in love with life before the rape than after.  Instead, it feels like she's as disaffected as she always was.

The second act also stalls almost.  The emotional descent is more of a meander in a vaguely downward direction.  Maya wanders into this club life and becomes infatuated with Adrian for some reason or another.  But, its all so vague and hazy and then there's school and work.  This feels exactly like life. The dialogue really doesn't even need to exist in this film for it to work.  You could watch this movie on mute, and it would be an even better film.  In that manner, it is a much more emotional film that tries grasping at the depression.  While the second act of the movie totally achieves the distancing emotion of post-trauma, the first act is so similar that the impact just isn't there.

Where the movie really really differs from the other rape revenge movies is that there is hardly any sexualizing of Rosario Dawson's body.  She never gets naked.  She isn't wearing slutty clothes.  She is just a woman.  Even in American Mary, Mary is frequently traipsing around in more revealing fetishwear for the camera to linger over. However, in the NC-17 edition of Descent, which is (surprisingly) streaming on Netflix, Chad Faust gets fully naked.  Fully frontal nudity.  And, Adrian is stripped halfway down his ass.  Descent allows for the sexualizing of the male body while denying the men the pleasure of sexualizing the female body.

Through the eyes of Descent, this is the first feminist rape-revenge movie that truly doesn't pander to an assumed male audience.  It violates the male, and also sexualizes the male completely.  It provides a completely different experience to the other rape-revenge movies with those changes.  But, that doesn't mean that it isn't problematic.

The main moral problem is that the movie uses homosexual acts as a punishment, thus othering the gay act even as Adrian is exclaiming that he's not a "faggot" and that he's just raping Jared as revenge. Basically, Tulia Lugacy thinks it is more OK to use homophobic epithets than it is to use racist epithets, which...ugh. Adding on top of that the D/s relationship of the foot smoker in the club, it really makes for a disappointment in the edges of the message.  Considering the innovation that Talia uses for the rest of the movie and the great pains she goes to in order to successfully desexualize the female, and exploit the male, I can't help but feel a bit hurt that she couldn't have innovated a way to not make the rape scene use so much homosexual action.

However, Descent gets the tone of the finale correct.  Even though we're not given the explicit build up, nor even an honest feeling of how Maya turns from depressed victim into vengeance seeker, the climax is astounding.  It's intimate.  Maya is excited despite herself.  Adrian, the tool of the vengeance, is eager to violate the man that violated his friend.  But, Maya has no satisfaction from the revenge.  In the end, she still is violated and has now participated in and perpetrated the violation of another human being even if that human was her violator.  With just one look, Descent calls into question the revenge based justice system that people frequently tout.  Is revenge justification enough to completely punish offenders?  Will it actually bring closure and satisfaction to the families of the victims?  Will it just compound the hurt and the anger?  Descent doesn't answer these questions, it just brings up the idea that revenge does not make everything whole again.  This same final shot is used as the final shot in Zero Dark Thirty to call into question the moral toll of torture.

Descent isn't a pleasant movie to watch, but it also isn't as raw and disturbing as other rape/revenge movies reviewed here.  It is more harrowing, and more of a tone poem than a horror movie, though it is quite horrific.  Make no mistake, it is quite explicit in the finale (though it doesn't go so far to feature actual penetration if you're looking to get your kinky jollies out on the screen).  But, the feminist changes in Descent make it an intriguing and different addition to the rape/revenge genre.

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