Thanks to the secretive background maneuvers of the Almighty Algorithm, the very first thing I saw online after my private screening of Women Talking was a few viciously negative tweets declaring it one of the worst movies of the year. I understood them, even though I do not agree. Sarah Polley’s latest is a stage play adaptation of a hot-topic novel, one with prescriptive declarations to make about the rigidly gendered power dynamics of mass-scale sexual assault. It’s an opportunity for some of the most critically lauded actors in Hollywood—Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley—to dress up in rural-America poverty costumes and deliver perfectly tailored Oscar-clip soundbites with industry-damning implications about the post-Weinstein fallout of #MeToo. It’s also visually ugly, recalling a 2000s era switch to digi filmmaking that used to clog up the broadcast schedules of IFC and the Sundance Channel (back when they used to play movies at all). I totally understand how someone could be coldly cynical about Women Talking as Bad Art with Good Politics. Personally, I found it to be crushingly powerful from start to end, more than I had emotionally steeled myself for. Even its drained, pallid color palette, which looks like a fundamental flaw from the outside, completely works in the moment. Everything in the film is grim, grey, grueling – even its stabs of humor. It’s an earnest, wounded, furious howl into the soulless abyss of traditional gender dynamics. Like any political protest, you can either join in its righteous chorus for personal, communal catharsis, or observe how small & ineffective it looks from a distance.
Inspired by true events, Miriam Towe’s source-material novel details the aftermath of the habitual, conspiratorial rape of women in an isolated Mennonite community in the 2010s. Drugged with livestock tranquilizers and assaulted in the night, the women were told that these acts of violence were “the work of ghosts or Satan [. . .] or a wild female imagination” by their abusers, communally gaslit until those same men were caught in the act. Thankfully, Polley only revisits these violations in flashes. Most of the film details a hayloft meeting where the women decide what to do now that the men’s crimes have been exposed: leave, fight, or forgive. The camera drifts around the barn in an attempt to make cinema out of this stationary debate, recalling William Friedkin’s tight-set stage play adaptations The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band. Mostly, though, this is a movie of ideas not images, as indicated by its dim, dingy color grading. As the women draw up very simple Pros & Cons lists for each of their painfully shitty options, the deliberation gets broadly philosophical in a way that reaches far beyond the specifics of this particular atrocity. It starts with the tension between the impossibility of forgiving such a heinous act and the possible denial of access to Heaven if that forgiveness is withheld. From there, they push past the religious implications of their decision to ponder more universal conundrums about the violence men put women through on a mass scale, and whether the pleasure of their company as individuals is worth the potential harm of their power as a unit. Both within the context of this story and in the world outside it, there are no easy answers.
There were a couple fleeting moments in Women Talking where I was disappointed by how literal & straightforward Polley was being in her messaging. The movie gets its point across plenty clearly without horror-tinged flashbacks to victims smearing their blood on bedroom walls or onscreen text declaring “What follows is an act of female imagination.” As a dialogue-driven Movie of Ideas, however, I can only report that it weighed heavily on my mind & heart. Despite their shared religious beliefs, the titular women are all drastically varied in age, experience, bodies, and temperaments. The only thing that unites them, really, is their victimization by the other half of the colony; they are united by hurt, anger, and grief. Even the “woman” narrating the story is a child’s voice, a sharp indicator of how predatory men see their fellow human beings. This is not an easy sit. It’s typical to the types of two-plus-hour misery dramas that crowd the movie release calendar this time of year. It asks bigger, more devastating questions than most Awards Season weepies tend to, though, even if its philosophical prodding can easily be mistaken for political didacticism. And since its initial ecstatic praise out of the festival circuit is now being swatted back by a few loud, indignant cynics on Twitter, I assume it’s going places. It’s going to reach, challenge, and upset a lot of people – as long as they’re willing to engage with its troubling questions beyond initial reactions to its muted imagery.