Well, this is a difficult film to review. I might as well state for the reader right now that this review will not have the same tone as my usual work. The light-hearted tone I adopt for most of my reviews is inappropriate, if not a little offensive, to use with this subject material in mind. I’d also like to put a content warning here that this review covers a film whose main narrative hinges on sexual assault and rape. If you don’t wish to read any further, I understand. If you want to continue reading, I’ll be approaching the subject with the respect and dignity it deserves. I may just be writing about a film here, but to many people, including some close to me, this subject is a stark reality. I’ll be including some phone numbers to victim support hotlines at the end of this review, too, just in case a reader or someone they know needs it.
Firstly, let me start by saying that I generally don’t like it when a film uses sexual assault as a plot point, especially in horror films. It’s cheap, lazy, and very rarely done tastefully – not that such a thing can be ‘tasteful’. It’s typically not done in service of the larger narrative, but done to make us empathise with a female character; but if the only way you can think about building sympathy for a female protagonist is to depict them being assaulted, I would suggest that you NOT write female characters, or don’t write at all.
All this being said, however, it can be done; it’s just rarely done right. I think the problem with them using this trope in horror films is, in general, horror tends to portray its female characters as sexual objects, to begin with. This is starting to change in modern times, admittedly. Still, looking back at “classic” horror films, what are the main characteristics of any female character? One who isn’t played by Jamie Lee Curtis? They’re there to have sex, maybe flash some skin, and get murdered. Throw sexual assault into that mix, and all you’re subliminally saying about your female characters is that they’re sexual objects, there to either be killed or to be felt sorry for because they were assaulted. This is the root of this trope’s laziness, and particular films compound this feeling too. Films, like I Spit on Your Grave, are just nasty pieces of work.
All of the above is a qualifier for the rest of the review because (spoilers) it’s going to be a very positive one. Still, I feel this is a conversation I needed to start with to preface the review. Even though this film successfully uses assault in its narrative, it doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it. Actually, it feels like that’s the point of the movie. It’s supposed to make us uncomfortable, as that’s how we get its message. It isn’t a message that everyone wants to, or can stand to, hear, but it is just as necessary, maybe even more so. It made me feel uncomfortable, but it didn’t make me want to turn it off. It compelled me to carry on watching, despite my discomfort, because I thought there was a lesson to be learned here, that this film needed – nay – deserved to be heard. Far be it for me, a white man, to call this film out for being ‘uncomfortable’ when the reality is that this is some women’s lives. In fact, it reads like a checklist of every piece of harassment, large and small, a woman goes through in their lives. I don’t assume to talk for all women there, but most women will watch this and recognise something from their experiences, I’m sure.
What also makes this film such a gut punch in the emotions is its timeliness. We’re a few years into the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, but they still feel like the zeitgeist. They’re still more important with each passing month. Of course, it’s always been an issue, but only now do we seem to be finally confronting it like this. What also makes this particular take refreshing is that it is a woman’s story. Directed and written by a woman and produced by a few notable ones too. It feels refreshing and sad that this story is probably a lot closer to the truth than many attempts written by male writers. It has a feeling of authenticity to it which, if anything, just adds to the discomfort and the tension.
The cast is what really makes this movie, though. Carey Mulligan is the film’s star, and a star she certainly is. Her commanding performance is magnetic, insidious, and intense. She manages to be both empathetic and unlikeable in equal measure. Her quest for revenge is unnerving to watch, yet still so satisfying also. Her complex nature is perfectly complemented by her co-stars too. It would have been easy to make all the male characters sleazeballs preying on young women, but that’s rarely the case. Yes, they are creeps to a certain extent, but they have more going on beneath the surface, making them all the more interesting.
The apex of this characterisation is Ryan, played by the wonderful Bo Burnham, who is a perfect love interest for Mulligan’s character. He seems like the antithesis of all the other guys Cassie (Mulligan’s character) meets. He’s sweet and unthreatening, but like everyone else, he has his complexities. Which is what ultimately won me over most about the movie. The characters are so well thought-out and played that it lifts it above the usual revenge thriller by making almost everyone three-dimensional. There’s no lazy writing on display here, and it is so refreshing.
Again, I can understand if this isn’t your thing or if the uncomfortable atmosphere is too much for you. I felt uncomfortable too, but the way this film makes me uncomfortable is worlds away from how I Spit on Your Grave does it. There’s a reason why this wants to make you uncomfortable. It wants you to feel how its protagonist, and by extension, women, feel when they’re set upon and vulnerable. It serves a purpose, it has a lesson to teach, and more to the point, it’s in service of the narrative; it doesn’t happen to make you empathise with its main character. It happens because that’s reality, and that’s the saddest thing of all.
In conclusion, then, this film is a phenomenal punch to the gut. Incredibly acted, written and directed, it left me absolutely gobsmacked after its perfectly bittersweet ending. I was literally speechless, and it’s been a long time since a film has done that. I just hope people who watch it take away the right lessons and see it as I see it, an uncomfortable truth. One we have to confront no matter how much it scares us.
If you, or anyone else you know, is affected by any of the issues talked about in this review, help can always been found, below are a series of numbers for helplines there to help sexual assault victims.
Victim Support – 0808 168 9111
The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) – 0808 801 0331
Hourglass – 0808 808 8141
One in Four – 0800 121 7114
These phone numbers are for UK-based charities and services, please check Google for any services local to you.