Rose Plays Julie (2021)

Rose Plays Julie is a subtle, well-made movie built on subtle, well-played performances.  A psychological thriller about a young veterinary student’s increasingly dark mission to uncover her place in the world as an unwanted adopted child (and, more to the point, about the generational trauma of sexual assault), it has all the potential in the world to swerve into a sensationalist rape revenge tale with a violently heightened sense of style.  Instead, it keeps its mood low-key & pained, allowing the Greek tragedy of its doomed characters’ downward trajectory to quietly unfold at its own pace.  It’s one of those thoughtful, tasteful indie chillers that I appreciate in terms of intent & craft but only help clarify my personal disinterest in subtlety & restraint.  I wish I could appreciate this quiet, finely calibrated psych-thriller on its own terms, but instead its coming-of-age fury & vet school setting just made me wish I was watching the explosive coming-of-age cannibal horror Raw instead.  That’s just the kind of audience I am, to my shame.

It’s okay that Rose Plays Julie works better as an exercise in craft than as a cathartic, stylistically expressive genre film.  It’s explicitly about performance in a lot of respects, which shines a direct spotlight on the actors in three central roles of Daughter (Ann Skelly), Mother (Orla Brady), and Rapist (Aiden Gillen).  Gillen puts in the same raspy creep performance he’s been delivering as a manner of routine since he was cast in Game of Thrones, but the drama is more centralized on the women he’s hurt anyway.  The mother is an actress by trade, shown avoiding her traumatic past by getting lost in her roles on period dramas & vampire movies.  The daughter—the surviving result of a rape—is an actress by choice, taking on her imagined persona of the name on her birth certificate (paired with an unconvincing wig) as an undetectable alias while pursuing revenge against the mother’s assailant, her “father”.  The tension between them is a feel-bad triangle of gloom that each actor ably performs through several layers of self-protective artifice.  The avenging violence that breaks that tension is just as dejectedly sad, providing little emotional catharsis for the generations of hurt at the film’s core – presumably on purpose.

To wish Rose Plays Julie was more expressive or cathartic would be wishing for a more divisive, if not outright irresponsible kind of filmmaking that it’s just not interested in indulging.  This is a very serious film about a very serious subject, and I’m sure there’s a larger audience out there who’d prefer that sober approach to genre storytelling over what’s usually offered.  Personally, I could only appreciate the craft of its individual performances rather than the larger purpose they served.  It’s a terrible thing to admit, but if it were even 10% trashier or flashier in its delivery, I’d probably be much more enthusiastic about where it fits in the modern revenge thriller canon.

-Brandon Ledet

Promising Genre Winner

It might be something of a Hot Take to say so, but I overall really enjoyed Soderbergh’s stripped-down, intimate Oscars broadcast – especially considering the context of this year. The general complaint in the weeks leading up to the 93rd Academy Awards was that none of the movies nominated matter/exist to most people, so it was kinda sweet to see an intimate, personalized broadcast pitched directly at the niche audience already in the know.  I don’t think the streamlined, de-glitzed format would work as well in a year where people gather in groups for Oscar parties, but I had a nice pizza-on-the-couch night myself.  Still, I can’t say I was especially invested in any of the night’s Big Wins, at least not as a casual movie nerd.  My two least favorite films that I caught up with before the Oscars—Nomadland and Another Round—won major prizes; my two very favorite films nominated—Emma. and Pinocchio—were ignored even as technical achievements; and a lot of the awards in-between went to expensive-to-access 2021 releases that I have not yet seen: The Father and Minari.  I was surprised, then, that the award that most excited me this year was the Best Original Screenplay win for Promising Young Woman, a film I only liked just Okay.

I remember listening to an interview with the executive producer of Horror Noire, Tananarive Due, a few years ago (on the now-defunct Shock Waves podcast) about the Black cinema documentary’s then-upcoming release.  Due explained that the doc was greenlit the very next morning after Jordan Peele won his Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out (Peele was a producer and interview subject involved in the production of Horror Noire).  Then she & the Blumhouse reps in the room alluded to several other black-led genre projects in the works that got launched at that same time, ones Peele was not involved in whatsoever.  That interview has stuck with me over the past few years as the noticeable uptick of mainstream Black horror films & TV shows have made their way into wide distribution, making it so that it’s almost already time for a Horror Noire sequel.  Some of those projects have been great; some have been godawful.  All of them directly benefited from the prestige of a Get Out Oscar win, no matter what you may think about the pageantry of Entertainment Industry Awards shows.  That’s why it’s important to root for artists you like getting Oscars attention for work you appreciate, even if most of the other statues are handed out to movies you don’t care about at all.

I don’t believe Promising Young Woman is as successful or as Important of a film as Get Out by any stretch.  To be honest, I can’t say I had a particularly strong reaction to it at all, either positive or negative.  For such a deliberate Provocation—a bitterly funny rape revenge thriller with a music video pop art aesthetic—it’s a relatively timid film, deliberately withholding the shocking violence of its genre’s inherent trauma and catharsis.  Pretty much everything I admired about it was tackled so much more fiercely & directly in films like Revenge, Felt, and Teeth, except this time with a poisoned candy coating that distinguishes it more as a stylistic flex than as a thematic discomfort.  To its credit, the movie appears to be self-aware in the ways it’s sidestepping the trappings of its genre, like in the way it teases bloodshed to reveal only a leaking jelly donut, or in how it exclusively casts comedic actors as its Nice Guy villains.  My personal favorite detail in that respect is the traditional Monster Movie music that hits every time Carrie Mulligan reveals herself to be stone-sober to the men taking advantage of her “drunken” state, as if there’s nothing scarier to a date rapist than a woman’s clear-eyed sobriety.  I don’t believe Promising Young Woman overhauled or subverted the themes or content of the rape revenge thriller in any substantial way, but it’s at least playing with the form, which is all we usually ask of genre filmmakers.

While I’m not emphatically in love with Promising Young Woman as a film, I am totally invested in its significance as an Oscar-winner.  Any time an over-stylized genre movie wins a major Academy Award—Get Out, Parasite, The Shape of Water, even Joker—I find myself celebrating the win no matter how in love I am with the movie itself outside that context.  Even if I find the movie itself to be just passably Okay, I’m stoked that a hyper-femme, button-pushing genre film decorated with rainbow-pastel nail polish and Britney Spears & Paris Hilton music cues won a major Academy Award this year.  That means that more, better funded genre movies tuned to my sensibilities are on their way.  Hell, even Jordan Peele outdid himself after his Get Out win with the much wilder, more daringly surreal creep-out Us, so Promising Young Woman‘s win might even mean that writer-director Emerald Fennell’s next film will totally bowl me over the way I wanted Promising Young Woman to.  Regardless, her win is a win for hyper-femme, discomforting genre filmmaking in general as a viable business, and that’s the victory I’m choosing to champion the loudest this Oscars cycle.

-Brandon Ledet

Revenge (2018)

I’ve been hearing high praise for Coralie Fargeat’s hyperviolent gross-out Revenge for months, but have avoided following through on the recommendation out of squeamishness for its chosen genre. This is a rape revenge thriller, my least favorite corner of genre cinema & very much the reason why I’m cautious about approaching any 70s grindhouse titles without first glancing over their plots. The typical rape revenge structure is the male gaze at its most maliciously weaponized, leering at length at the violent sexual assault of a female protagonist and then hurriedly offering her supposed retribution through empowering ultraviolence of her own as an afterthought. I’m always suspicious of the rape revenge thriller, particularly in classic examples of the genre like I Spit on You Grave, for the obvious pleasure & titillation in the assault they later pretend to deplore & counterbalance. Where I find skin-crawling misogyny in the rape revenge thriller, however, some feminist genre fans have found emotional catharsis, which is where Fargeat appears to land on the subject. In its earliest stretch, Revenge shamelessly participates in the worst tropes of its chosen genre. Its teenage protagonist steps onto the scene in full Lolita drag—sunglasses, lollipop, bare skin, and all. The camera drools over her body, lingering on the leggy flesh that peeks out at the edge of her skirt’s high hem. This initial leering is a necessary evil to get to the subversive payoff of the film’s commentary on more nuanced topics like complicity, victim-blaming, and flirtation as obligation. It’s also an early source of tension before the violent fallout that follows. The worst exploitations of sexual assault in genre cinema is when it’s deployed as a cheap, easy motivator or plot catalyst (often for a male associate of the victim) when any other conflict would have done just as well in its place. It’s just as lazy as it is cruel. Revenge corrects this problem not only by rebalancing the weight of its depiction vs. the screen time afforded its fallout, but also by making sure the story is about the power dynamics of the inciting assault, fully engaging with the severity of its subject.

A millionaire playboy and his teenage mistress retreat to a romantic getaway in a remote, desert locale that can only be reached by helicopter. Their secret tryst is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of his slobbish hunting buddies, who shamelessly leer at the outnumbered girl’s body. She meets this increased attention with accommodating flirtation, performing her youthful femininity for all three men’s entertainment as a kind of gracious hostess. This harmless flirtation is misunderstood for consent & invitation by the entitled male party guests, leading directly to her rape & attempted murder. Instead of fixating on the graphic details of the rape itself, Fargeat instead captures to toxic cultural forces that allow it to happen & go on unpunished: flirtation’s entitled misinterpretation as obligation, witnesses’ complicity in silence, victim-blaming, financial bribery, the threat of physical abuse, etc. The conflict established in this first act assault is all too real, even considering the way the protagonist is left for dead, powerless, and without resource. What develops from there is revenge fantasy, where she practically gets her vengeance from beyond the grave. Impaled, choking on her own blood, and eaten alive by ants, she crawls to a secluded place to repair herself in self-surgery, using peyote as an unlikely painkiller. Once that peyote kicks in, Revenge transforms from a damning exploration of the power dynamics of rape culture & masculine entitlement to a frantic, reality-detached bloodbath. There are only three potential victims to the vengeful wrath indicated by the title, but their demise is a prolonged descent into hyperviolent gore that lingers on all the explicit violence avoided in the depiction of the rape that instigated it. “Resolving” rape through gory bloodshed may be a faulty narrative impulse, but the way Revenge filters its all-out gore fest indulgences through psychedelic, sun-rotted fantasy is an especially novel mutation of a genre formula that must evolve to be sustained. The trick is having the patience in watching Fargeat participate in that genre for long enough for her to be able to explode it from the inside.

For all that’s commendable in Revenge’s pointed, angry commentary on complicity & entitlement in rape culture, the movie also excels as an exercise in pure style. The peyote & champagne-driven desert mirage of this film’s extensive indulgences in hyperviolent gore are incredibly stylish & confident, especially for a first-time director. Like last year’s blistering debuts We Are the Flesh & Raw, Revenge feels more like a surreal, distant echo of the New French Extremity movement of the early 00s than it does a subversion of 1970s schlock, at least in it its intensely gory visual cues. At times, the film also feels like as successful version of the rotted pop art sunshine horror attempted in The Bad Batch, especially in its desert-set psychedelic freak-outs. Its overall effect is entirely a vibe of its own design, however, even if it occasionally dips its toes into traditional genre markers like the base pleasures of neon & synths. There’s, of course, a moral self-contradiction in marrying these stylistic pleasures to such a grotesque narrative, a tension felt in almost all genre cinema. Personally, my favorite subversion of the rape-revenge narrative is in the much more muted Felt, where the inciting assault occurs before the movie begins and is only implied through context clues. Revenge at least does its part to match Felt’s focus on the aftermath & surrounding atmosphere of its assault, rather than the details of the event itself. It damns the macho culture that allows it to happen, then pulls out that culture’s guts to rot on public display in the desert sun. I was initially highly skeptical of how far the movie was willing to go in participating in its cursed genre’s worst tropes before launching itself into that sunlit psychedelic revenge fantasy. Once it fully reveals the scope & nuance of its cultural targets and floods the screen with a river of gore, however, I had little choice but to be overpowered by its potency. This might be the choice in genre that requires the most narrative & thematic justification for its continuation into the 2010s, but Revenge easily clears that bar in legitimizing the transgression. It’s an angry, beautiful gross-out of a debut and I’m glad I got over myself enough to give it a chance.

-Brandon Ledet