DESCENT

NC-17
Reviews

Date rape is abhorrent, as is revenge taken to sadistic extremes. That doesn't mean a movie about those things has to be abhorrent as well. Or sludgy and slack. Or pointlessly vague and abstruse. Or give us a prolonged ending that could pass for hard-R gay porn.
Produced by star Rosario Dawson, and directed and co-written by longtime friend Talia Lugacy—who gives her pal more prolonged, intimate close-ups than Nora Desmond ever dreamed of—the slow-moving Descent centers on serious and studious 19-year-old college undergrad Maya, who the movie depicts as completely irresistible to both men and women. OK, so she's been blessed with full, pillowy lips, soulful puppy-dog eyes, smooth milk-chocolate skin and ridiculously bountiful breasts, but…well, alright, she's irresistible to both men and women. But the movie doesn't have to be so show-offy about it.

None of that, of course, excuses what happens to her when she meets Jared (the accomplished and admirably daring Chad Faust). The snakiest faux-sensitive frat boy in all of WASP-dom, he squirms his way into her wary grace—and when the best you can say for somebody is that he doesn't use a roofie to rape her in his candlelit apartment after they start kissing, you're dealing with serious sleazitude.

Unfortunately, the movie cuts directly from this autumn scene to late spring, where Maya has cut her hair short and behaves almost catatonically through her summer job at a boutique. We don't know if she went to the hospital to do a rape kit and report Jared to the police, or whether she tried and was rebuffed by cops because she's black, or because the guy's got family clout, or any of dozen of things that would give a foundation for what she becomes and why she does what she does. Maybe the movie is saying that none of those motivations matters and that she's so wounded that she's striking out. Which, if that's the case, makes this no more than an exploitation revenge drama that moves with the pace of a snail on Quaaludes.

Abel Ferrara's famed rape-revenge cult film Ms. 45 (1981), in which a deaf-mute seamstress uses the titular automatic pistol to kill her attackers and then becomes progressively more addicted to the taste of blood, gave both intellectual and visceral underpinnings to what becomes a revenge rampage, and then does a slowly dawning U-turn on our expectations. We might take satisfaction in her meting vigilante justice to the criminals who violated her, but then, whoa, wait…what's she doing? Seeing what violence and vengeance do to her humanity sobers us up past whatever romanticized righteousness we may have felt. Likewise, the highly polarizing grindhouse film I Spit on Your Grave (1978) gave the victimized heroine her due…and then she just kept going, a single damning step over the line.

We know far less about Maya—and frankly care even less, given what a cipher she is—than we do either of those earlier heroines. The same holds true with a ridiculous character named Adrian (Marcus Patrick), a club DJ and maybe pimp or Fagin figure—it’s wholly unclear, given Lugacy’s non-existent narrative skills—who acts as irresistible as Maya and gets off on humiliating people. Either he or else the now sadomasochistic Maya's imagining of him shows up in an endless climactic scene that does to the audience what he's doing to someone else.