The Reeler


August 7, 2007


Rape-revenge fantasy's title also applies to the fate of its narrative

Labeling Descent, Talia Lugancy’s directorial debut, as a rape-revenge fantasy might undercut its noble thematic aspirations, but the final sum of its enigmatic alienation plot is exactly that. The very talented Rosario Dawson plays preppy college gal Maya, whose freshman year of college culminates in a romantic misfire during which seemingly friendly gentleman caller Jared (Chad Faust) ignites a flame of interest at a party and convinces her to visit him at home. Once there, she tries to put the breaks on the degree of intimacy they share, but in the restrictive domain of his basement, Jared commits an unforgivable act, with Maya as his victim.

“Rape-revenge fantasy” is not necessarily an insult, if the loud, crude invasiveness implied by those terms matches the production in terms of mood and intention. But the supposed payback in Descent cheapens the subtle drama that comes before; there’s no question that getting raped has an irrevocable effect on Maya’s faith in human goodness, but her retribution has a psychotically primal edge that belies her character’s thoughtful prowess.

After the rape, Maya seems to lose the spark in her personality. The event is left unresolved as the emotionally scarred protagonist spends her summer sulking in New York, only to return to her quaint college campus with a highly demented ruse to put Jared in his place. Her plans, not fully revealed until the film’s ridiculously over-the-top finale, subvert the eerie intellectualism that dictates Maya’s personality for most of the story. At the end, she’s a vengeful warrior, and the abrupt transition -- so unbelievable it becomes exploitative -- prohibits Descent from transcending mere genre experiment.

This narrative “payoff” has worked before in a slightly different configuration. Consider Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (forgive me for dwelling on the same movie master that everyone else has been talking about lately, but the comparison helps in this context). The structure of Spring -- reiterated 12 years later in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left -- follows an innocent Christian girl until a trio of goat herders rape and murder her. They subsequently take shelter with the dead girl’s parents, whose discovery of their visitors’ deeds lead to the enactment of a brutal revenge scheme. Moral purity dies with the ill-fated young woman, leaving a world ignited by a secular ferocity and belligerent interpretations of justice. It’s a credible transition because the focus of righteousness (the girl) is eliminated. In Descent, however, Maya is still standing, leaving us to assume that her altered state arises because the rapist has killed some component of her personality -- but nothing in Lugancy’s script tells us what the nature of that change might be.

It’s the last scene that really ruins the show, but the second act is where the descent of Descent begins. Maya’s brooding time in New York City takes place in the company of a slick-talking bartender named Adrian (Marcus Patrick). A strangely moralizing lord of urban grime and Maya’s newfound mentor, he teaches her about the rigorous individualism necessary for maintaining self-esteem, or something to that effect. Her murky summer experience culminates with a montage of club scenes that showcase Maya’s transition from victim to predator as Adrian’s existential guidance intones in voiceover. At that moment, Descent moves from the pseudo-intellectualizing terrain of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan to the underground grime of Abel Ferrara’s movies and, finally, reaches an unsteady combination of both.

It bears repeating that Descent aims to deal with a very real, too common situation, and it initially applies an admirable amount of integrity to exploring its terrain. Arriving at the end of the first act, the certifiably creepy rape scene plays out with elegant performances by Dawson and Faust, creating a forceful voyeurism that pushes our discomfort into isolated regions reminiscent of the conclusion to Larry Clark’s Kids (a movie where Dawson’s performance as a sexually promiscuous character works much better). But the finale is discomfiting in a different way. Intentionally or not, it substantiates a type of behavior that the rest of the movie allegedly condemns. The title may describe instability of mind, but it also applies to the instability of the film.

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