Descent

2007, Movie, NC-17, 110 mins

Review

DESCENT
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Comparisons to such high-minded films about abuse and retaliation as EXTREMITIES (1986), DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994) and even HARD CANDY (2006) may reflect the high-minded aspirations of this rape-revenge picture. But its lurid provocations owe more to MS. 45 (1981), I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) and SUDDEN DEATH (1985), all of which are less pretentious and clearer about what they have to say.

Studious 19-year-old Maya (Rosario Dawson) meets handsome, cocky jock Jared (Chat Faust) at a frat party and is unimpressed by his smooth-dude moves. "That's flattering, in a restraining order kind of way," she sneers when he retreats from his initial swaggering come-ons and tries to win her with poetry. But he eventually persuades her to join him for dinner and then turns on the charm until she lets down her guard. They go back to his apartment and make out, but when she wants to stop he rapes her. Flash forward to Spring: Maya has cut her hair short, stopped wearing make up or going to class and cut off contact with her mother. She prowls hellishly lit nightclubs, exposing herself to further abuse, sliding into a hollow-eyed routine of anonymous sex and drugs. Then she meets handsome, predatory Adrian (Marcus Patrick), whom she's told "helps the helpless." Flash forward to Fall: Maya is back in school, proctoring an exam and catches Jared cheating. What does she have in mind when she makes a date with him?

Dawson and director-co-writer Talia Lugacy met as teenaged acting students, and this project was the product of a longstanding desire to make serious films together. But for all its evident ambition to address issues of race, class and the psychology that perverts feelings of worthlessness into violence, it's too elliptical to be convincing. With its long blackouts between scenes and longer gaps between the three acts of Maya's story, it feels abstract in all the wrong ways. There's too much arty writhing and too little concrete character development, leaving too much room to ask obvious questions like, what did Maya do after the assault? Go to the police, speak to a campus counselor, confide in the roommate who's apparently her best friend but vanishes after the first act? Ironically, a film like Abel Ferrara's MS. 45, which was marketed as an a flat-out exploitation shocker, is actually smarter and more disturbingly ambiguous in its depiction of the politics of rape and revenge. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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