Descent concludes with an unsurprising but nonetheless intriguing act of wish fulfillment. Director Talia Lugacy understands how rape can leave a woman without the authority of expression, and so she pitches her feature-length debut as a work of careful instruction and, finally, rebellion—a means for victims of sexual aggression to grapple with, if not necessarily overcome their feelings of powerlessness. Rosario Dawson is Maya, a college student who succumbs, despite her better judgment, to the suave sexual advances of a meathead played by Chad Faust. Seduced with a bottle of wine and contrived come-ons, she is raped by Jared (Faust) after their first date, and over the course of a few seasons, the girl descends into an ambitionless oblivion of party drugs and sex in the city. Image and sound are subjected to all sorts of distortion, suggesting the fibrous grasp of nightmares—or a life unhinged. Descent then ponders if ascension is possible from such depths.
Each section of the film is a heady and artful consideration of Maya’s torment, which Dawson conveys as a wounded puzzle of shame and denial. During what is either a sparsely attended graduation ceremony or a rehearsal for one, Maya appears as a blank slate behind a crowd of fellow ushers, captivated by a man’s ramblings about the nature and value of words and the need for context to fully gauge their effect. The creative synergy between Dawson and Lugacy is arresting: The actress’s heartening sense of nuance complements Lugacy’s more deliberate and forceful feminist agenda, and though the material is sometimes over-determined (a scene in which Maya is crassly talked about by her co-workers is a rather cheesy denunciation of the presumptuousness a victim of rape might be unknowingly subjected to), Dawson’s tenderness is alleviating, preventing Descent from devolving into a trite academic manifesto.
When she wakes up inside a club’s private room, the morning after she tries cocaine for the first time without raising much fuss, a zonked-out Maya stares at her reflection in a bathroom mirror, at once repulsed and excited by the scarlet trickle of blood that peeks out from one of her nostrils, burying her humiliation beneath a phony show of strength. Dawson gives profound expression to the denial that often grips victims of abuse, and when Maya catches Jared cheating during an exam in a class she TAs for, the actress conveys the character’s overwhelming sense of torment with a similarly expert lack of pretense: whether to act now or later against Jared’s indiscretion, and what any possible delay in action may say about her as a woman and a victim.
Like the film, Maya is always thinking—about what she should or shouldn’t do, and if doing necessarily guarantees survival—and Lugacy’s audio-visual experimentations are gripping articulations of Maya’s depressing downward spiral; just as the character lives out a predictable descent into victimhood, so does the film’s creepy dreaminess suggest a death march. And though she is always on the side of her main character, Lugacy miraculously finds something close to empathy for Jared, tracing his pathology in one scene to his feelings of under-accomplishment on the football field. Victimizer will eventually become victim, and as Jared stands before Maya, using his hands to embarrassingly cover his cock, the psycho actually inspires pity.
The filmmakers grapple with the politics of rape, considering the way words, sometimes without the backup of sexual violence, are used to manipulate people into states of submission (even Maya’s ostensibly non-physical friendship to a blatino hottie constitutes a form of exploitation), and as it builds to its revenge-fantasy climax, Descent doesn’t so much evoke Irréversible as it gives the finger to it. Jessica Winter, writing for City Pages, rightfully branded Gaspar Noé‘s approach to rape as “slasher-flick simple”; Lugacy concurs, responding not only to the empty indulgence of Irréversible‘s backward chronology but also to Noé‘s vile homophobia.
But Descent also goes where the chickenshit Hostel films were afraid to—turning torture on itself, testing the pleasure principle, and throwing satisfaction for a loop. It poses the questions Eli Roth thinks he was asking and gives none of the answers he presumes to know. Thus the film is recognizably human and legitimately scary.