A blog about movies and filmmaking.

This is why no means no…

In drama on July 6, 2009 at 1:45 am

I don’t know what it says about me, that this is my second movie comment dealing with “date rape” like scenarios (see my post on the movie TEETH, for the other), but I blame it on the trailers and premises selling me on the picture. In this case we have the Rosario Dawson starring, and producing, movie DESCENT. The movie is written and directed by Talia Lugacy, who has been a friend and collaborator of Dawson’s for a while, but this is their first feature-length movie. (The script is also co-written by Lugacy’s cousin, Brian Priest)

Maya, played by Dawson, is a shy young college student who we first meet at a small grocery store and she walks up to a group of girls who are talking about something and ask her opinion. She meekly agrees with whatever and then we get to her small apartment. Then she is out with a friend at a party, where they become separated, each being distracted – or accosted – by a boy. The one that blocks Maya from making an escape, and convincing her to “just talk” on the back porch is Jared (played by Chad Faust). This turns into a promise of a date, since he kept his word and cutely accepted her denial of even a kiss.

On the date, they talk, he tells his story; about being a musical prodigy but wanting to only do things that are alive – and classical music is dead – and then they go back to his place for wine and a candle lit atmosphere. Of course, this leads to a make-out session, which leads to Maya attempting to ward Jared off and him overpowering her and then not only raping her, but also intimately spitting out racial epithets and demeaning her. We then cut to another segment – each one labeled by season, seemingly of the school year – and we’re at a graduation ceremony. We listen to a ridiculous commencement speech, and only catch a glimpse of Dawson, when one of the other people there to assist in the event moves out of the way for a second – revealing Maya standing in the far back away from everyone.

Maya’s own decent seems to be played – what we see of it onscreen – by watching her get a job and allowing herself to be outcast (leading her co-workers, who don’t seem to come off as nice people) assume things that are wrong with her – like being a lesbian) and hanging out at bars, despite her being underage. The movie, here gets a little muddy and not really clear in what’s going on. Maya falls in with a new crew, lead by the intimidating DJ, Adrian (played by Marcus Patrick), who takes her into his house, hangs with her in his DJ booth; and does drugs with her in a VIP-like lounge. The part that is clear, is that Adrian by example brings back Maya’s confidence, and awakens her from her coma-like life. There’s never any real sign that there is any kind of relationship between Maya and Adrian, other than one of just mutual respect, and almost a sibling sort of connection.

This then leads us back to the Fall when the new school year starts, and Maya is introduced as one of three proctors for a class, that she then notices that Jared is in. And we see on her face, almost all humanity and composure that she might have regained, drop. It’s a couple scenes later when she catches Jared cheating on a test, that the decision is made that Maya feels that she is up to the task of getting back at the guy who abused and broke her. So, we next see Jared, walking up to Maya’s apartment, wine in hand. And she lets him in and the game is quickly on. She says that he promised she could do what she wants, so she tells him to strip. After some teasing of his body with a black, silk piece of fabric, she blind folds him and leads him into another room; where she throws him onto a bed, ties him up and then starts talking to him (after a couple of moments of telling him not to talk, he’s gagged – much like he did to her). Of course, this is only the beginning of what takes up the last 15 minutes of the movie. It’s difficult to not talk about it, but it’s also almost as hard to want to re-imagine the final scene.

The movie, while seeming a little heavy handed, and at the same time not trying to pass judgement – really – on any of the characters, is very powerful. The mood is dark, and the lighting in a number of scenes is sparse. One scene in particular, which is seemingly meant as the point of complete reawakening of Dawson’s character is of her dancing her way through a sea of bodies dancing, and a spotlight only on her, as she undulates through male and female forms. The scene of her being raped, and the final scene are very grainy, and shot in low-light, creating almost a horror movie atmosphere.

Rosario Dawson is the show in this movie. I’ve enjoyed her in everything I’ve seen her in. Probably the first movie I saw her in was SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK, then I saw her in KIDS (I didn’t watch that for a long time, after it came out), and probably my favorite role of hers is in Spike Lee’s THE 25TH HOUR, with Edward Norton and Barry Pepper. The fact that she’s pretty easy on the eyes, but also that she is very talented, makes her someone that would draw my attention to this kind of small movie, where initally I thought we were going to be seeing a lot more scenes of her crying and just being a broken individual. And she performs beautifully here – which is odd to say, considering the subject matter – but one of the strongest things about this movie (and seemingly one of the most frustrating to critics) is that we don’t see her immediate reaction. We don’t see her fight with the choice of going to try and turn this guy in for what he did, or having someone not believe her. We don’t even see her breakdown from this experience. When we meet her, we know that those are the “normal” things that you’d think you’d do; but instead we just get a glimpse of her, having totally withdrawn inside herself. No histrionics, no melodramatic outbursts. And for that, we get a seemingly realistic portrayal of what this character is going through.

We also get a deeper understanding on the kind of person – well, a little deeper, anyway – Jared is. When we firsts see him again, after he’s raped Maya, it’s after a football practice, where he’s telling a teammate some story about a guy getting beaten down. Then someone else comes up and starts taunting Jared, who proves to be pretty powerless to stand up to this guy. Chad Faust does a pretty good job in bringing life into this role and even allowing the audience to get an insight into this person being more than just a monster – if there’s a slight taste of trying to justify why he takes out his aggression on women. On the day that we see that he’s in the class that Maya will be in charge of, he’s getting dressed after a night of sleeping with another girl – a legitimate girlfriend? Another victim? We don’t know, or find out. I also wasn’t completely sure if he was even supposed to have remembered Maya, during their confrontation in class, or at what point he might have realized it. (Mostly, because I can’t imagine trusting someone who I had raped with tying me up…but, then again, that’s the difference in personalities, I guess.) And during the final scene, Faust (who has seemingly only done TV for the most part til now) does a great job at portraying the emotions that he’d be going through in those circumstances.

The only other main character in the movie is Adrian, who is a hulking latino – possibly African American, or mixed – man with giant tattoos on his back and a deep accented voice. (Which, I don’t know how natural it is, since his bio says he’s from the UK) At first I wasn’t really sure what his role was going to be in the movie. We see him walk up to Maya in the club, then we see her wake up on a couch, still dressed, with some woman standing over her. And the way the woman talks, it’s kind of like she’s now a captive. But, then she goes in to get her purse from Adrian and he tells her to leave, because she’s too innocent. This is the only moment where there’s the slightest hint of a possible sexual connection between them – but the next time we see them it’s in his DJ booth. His confidence and ability to take control of people, is easy to buy as realistic, and a key to why Maya might latch on to him. Patrick does as good a job as is really needed here. An attractive, giant of a man, who we instantly realize what he’s about to do, the last time we see him.

And finally, I can’t NOT talk about the final scene. So, if you’re reading this, and you don’t want to know the details of how this movie ends, turn away.

We know, that Maya isn’t going to just blindly accept Jared on this second go-round – as he kind of naively thinks it will – and when the sash she’s been stroking him with turns into a blindfold, we know that something is about to happen that we’re not going to like…and Jared, especially isn’t. So, when she straps him to the bed, tells him to shut up – and gives him a final warning, that if he utters one more word he’s going to lose his tongue – we know that this is far beyond a joke. Of course the tension builds as Maya talks on and on about how she’s changed and all this, while painting something on Jared’s body (which we never ultimately see) and finally she starts to cry as she talks to him about her life.

When he starts to mutter that it’s alright, that’s when she grabs something and jams it between his legs. I first thought we were going to get something akin to MISERY or Takashi Miike’s AUDITION; but it’s soon revealed through her rhythmic arm movements, that she’s raping Jared with something. After going on for a while, and throwing his taunts back at him; when his screaming has quieted, that she asks if he wants her to keep going. The fact that he’s not emphatically screaming no, gives us an insight into the character that perhaps he’s not quite as against this scenario as he might have thought.

That it’s then revealed that she’s been using what looks like a table leg on him, is pretty distressing; but then we see a hand caressing the inside of Jared’s thigh and hear a belt buckle loosening and then is the wide-shot of a giant, tattooed back hovering over Jared’s body. Adrian is there to finish the job, and seemingly give the personal touch that Maya couldn’t. The fact that this scene – just of Adrian raping Jared – is ten minutes long, makes this traumatic enough.

But, it’s the mirroring and also the difference in the way it’s shot that sets what happens to Jared different than what happened to Maya – not to take anything away from either one’s situation. But, in the scenario with Jared and Maya, it was shot only on  their faces – with short cuts to a wide-shot, not really revealing anything, it wouldn’t even totally be read as sex if it weren’t for the close-up shots. Jared seems to be getting off not just on the actual sex act but from the tormenting that he’s verbally doing. In the situation where Jared is now the victim, there is a lot more shots of thrusting and grunting. We get interspersed shots of both Jared and Adrian, as he spits out little insults while continually thrusting.

It’s then at the end of the scene, that it’s noticeable that Maya is not watching, and in fact doesn’t seem to feel the slightest bit of relief from having put this boy through the same kind of trauma that she went through. Adrian asks her if she feels better, and we just get a minute of her looking straight at the camera (us) and expressing, that no, this isn’t a cathartic experience for her. Then it cuts to black.

The ending really verges on the line that I tend to straddle with movies. There’s the kinds of movies that try to push, or in some instances punish, the audience for watching them. Mostly coming from creators like Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke. Trier, whose movies I attempted to watch with DOGVILLE, and couldn’t even finish (because I actually fell asleep, and didn’t feel like trying again), Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE (which DESCENT was compared to a lot) is the kind of movie that I just don’t have an interest in watching, as I have heard about it’s rape scene many times – and that aspect on it’s own doesn’t appeal to me; and finally, Haneke, who I actually kind of feel like this movie is the most related to, has shown that he appreciates the art of implicitly drawing in the audience to be party to what is happening on screen, but also doesn’t make the judgement call in making you feel like a bad person for having seen it. (He makes it clear, with the kind of humor and breaking of the fourth wall in FUNNY GAMES – which I’ve only seen the American remake of – and in CACHE, where we’re continually caught off guard by whether what we’re watching is a part of the scene, or part of a video that the actors are watching.)

But, DESCENT was a powerful experience, if not a great movie, and I’d recommend that it should be seen.

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