Sunday, August 19, 2007
DESCENT: A REVIEW
Rape is about power. It is about the domination of the physical body, mental state and emotional psyche.
“Descent”-starring Rosario Dawson as Maya, an intellectually gifted undergraduate honors student at a nondescript, academically rigorous small liberal arts school in the Northeast (insert Wesleyan, Swarthmore, Amherst, Oberlin or Haverford for emphasis) who barely survives a brutal sexual assault-makes this vividly obvious and clear, dramatizing the act with level of stark vividness I have never seen in any film, American or otherwise.
Maya is attacked by someone she knows. It is Jared: an All-American, former pianist turned second-string football player (Chad Faust). He flirts with Maya at a party one spring, clearly in awe of and taken by her mixed-race beauty and, after a couple of tries, eventually convinces her to go on a date that ends in a candlelit, makeshift love shack in the basement of his apartment building.
The ordeal is over in minutes. Maya never reports it. But, during the Summer (the film is broken into sections that follow the changing of the seasons) her rage over what happens grows, and is acknowledged and transformed into an act of extreme sexual violence in which Maya sinks to Jared’s level.
But, “Descent” is not just about power. Directed by Talia Lugacy, a first time filmmaker who met Dawson when both were students at The Lee Strasberg Institute, seems very committed to exploring the psychic violence associated with rape and how Maya attempts to rebuild her life and move on from it. But, Lugacy also explores how this rape destroys Maya’s perspective on race and sexuality and her own freedom, all of which is violated by Jared when he calls her vile and racist names (“baboon”, “bitch”, etc.)
This is where “Descent” becomes more than a rape-revenge fantasy. What Lugacy (and writing partner Brian Faust) have done is to place this film in the academic, yet very real space of the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and identity. Up until now, one can assume that the issue of race was something Maya never addressed in her life. This rape awakened (in a very brutal and difficult way) Maya’s consciousness as a woman of color—a woman who is both objectified and reviled because of the very potent and real space she lives in and navigates as a woman of mixed-race (presumably, the viewer assumes that Maya is Black and Latina, but even then, this treads into an area of unfair and equally as damning and problematic labeling that many individuals who are mixed-race face by those who are not willing nor able to understand how “fluid” racial identity can be and is in this society).
This new racial consciousness is symbolized by Maya’s visits to a dance club in the city and her relationship to Adrian (British musician turned actor Marcus Patrick), an Afro-Latino DJ she meets after a night of hard partying. Even though it is implied, this consciousness is seen when Maya finally finds the courage to dance among the writhing bodies on the dance floor, and starts to experiment with drugs all in an effort to reclaim what Jared stole from her.
But, this attack makes it clear that Maya will never be able to go through life being judged on her intelligence and character. Maya (like all men and women of color) will be judged on her racial and sexual identity as well her beauty. She figures this out by hanging with Adrian, an extremely physical and sexually potent man who gives her bits of advice and “street wisdom” while slowly introducing her to cocaine and other drugs. Adrian is a bit of an anomaly himself: while clearly positioning himself as “straight”, it is obvious that Adrian is, more or less, omni/pansexual. He is a fan of the ladies and men, as evidenced by an “all-American” White boy whose racial and sexual desire of Adrian is played up for humiliation and laughs when he makes the boy smoke a cigarette from between his toes. It is here that power comes into play for those who are “oppressed”; Maya becomes more assertive when playing out and playing up her racial and sexual identities for White people who are obsessed by her looks: two particular scenes speak to this when Maya forces a White girl to wear makeup, and when Maya blindfolds (flirting with aspects of bondage) the very boy Adrian humiliated in an early scene, conceptions of power and how it can be interchanged become an additional space in this movie.
It is here that “Descent” transcends the rap-revenge fantasy motif (done for laughs and exploitation in such films like Irreversible (2002), The Last House On The Left (1972), and I Spit On Your Grave/Day Of The Woman (1978), and countless other Hollywood films in which women are subjected to various forms of objectification and rape—both physical and emotional) and becomes more about the ways in which is both a very sobering and ripe metaphor for racial, sexual and cultural domination, and how the consequences and retribution for this is always inhumane and extremely callous.
Rather than go into Jared’s “karmic undoing” and ultimately telling the truth of who he truly is, Maya’s retribution makes the nine-minute anal rape of Alex (Monica Bellucci) in Irreversible seem like a soft-core joke, and the graphic rape and murder of the girls in The Last House On The Left seem like a bad comedy. The scene is graphic, disturbing, extreme, and infinitely expected. But, it leaves the viewer with the question: Was it worth it? Did Maya really get her “vengeance” and “freedom” from what Jared did to her? This is left up to the viewer when the camera holds on Maya’s face during the final minutes of the film, and she is crying, silently, and in theory, back in the same place she was at the beginning of the film.
This film could not have worked without the powerful and ridiculously engaging performances by Dawson, Chad Faust, and Marcus Patrick. To say that this is a career-making performance for these actors is tame. All three DESERVE the right to be considered and INCLUDED in all nominations for the upcoming awards season.
Rosario, finally able to show the dramatic chops she rarely gets a chance to show in past films (with The 25th Hour, He Got Game, and Kids being exceptions), truly gives a bare, revealing, and very profound performance as Maya. In Maya, Dawson gives the viewer an insight into the perspective a woman who has been violated by rape, and the difficult attempts she makes to overcome it and heal. I think Maya also speaks to the small numbers of men who are also victims of sexual violence and don’t have the voice to “speak” about their assault because of cultural and societal mores. Maya also embodies the countless students of color who attend colleges just like Maya’s: lily-White, “All-American” environments where those who are “different” or “other” are rendered invisible, or reduced to being nothing more than racial and sexual objects for consumption by White men (and women) who are both unknowingly and actively objectifying their peers who are of color.
Extremely hard to watch and difficult to see and take in, “Descent” is a film that is needed to not only start and expand the current dialogue on rape and sexual violence, but to also have a very honest discussion about power and how it influences the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and identity in very negative and frightening ways. Both realistic and theoretical, “Descent” takes you to an uncomfortable place. But, a place that is honest and raw and one that we all need to be in order to fully address and combat sexual violence against men and women in society.
DESCENT is rated NC-17 and is currently playing in a limited-engagement run at CC Village East Cinemas (181 2nd Avenue on 12th Street).
GRADE: A- (for the performances)/B+ (for the writing)