Movie Curiosities: Women Talking
This shit is another reason why I don’t like the Oscars anymore.
Every year, we get really great movies that get huge critical buzz, made with incredible talent, they get a ton of awards campaigning and year-end list placements… and you don’t get to see them. Not right away. Not unless you’re an awards voter, a professional critic, or someone else who gets screener DVDs in the mail. Or unless you go to a film festival or a handful of theaters in LA or NYC for a brief window of time.
A movie gets only the bare minimum of releases in December, just enough to qualify for awards consideration. And it doesn’t go wide or get screened anywhere else until late in the January doldrums, dumped with the rest of the trash. Or, in the case of Women Talking, we don’t get to see it until after the awards nominations have already come out.
Well, it’s a good thing the film did indeed get nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, so that timing turns into great publicity. Otherwise, it would’ve backfired and the distributors would’ve looked really fucking stupid.
All that griping aside, we’ve got Sarah Polley writing and directing a female-driven parable about rape. The cast includes such luminaries as Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, and producer Frances McDormand. Oh, and we’ve also got Brad Pitt exec-producing through his Plan B shingle. I might add that the film is being distributed by Orion Pictures, the studio that’s taken great strides in making more inclusive and socially conscious cinema ever since the new management took over (see also: Till). With all of this going on, who wouldn’t be intrigued?
Before going any further, I feel compelled to issue a CONTENT WARNING. Pretty much every character in this film is a sexual assault survivor, and any analysis of the film will involve heavy discussion of rape and its aftereffects. You’re welcome to close the review if any of this is overly upsetting or triggering. Your mental health is important.
We lay our scene in the far-off distant past of 2010. The film takes place in a highly isolated Mennonite community in which the local women have been repeatedly drugged and raped by the men of the village. Those in charge have done less than nothing, insisting that these assaults are simply bad dreams, the work of the devil, women lying to get attention, and so on. This naturally means that the culpable rapists are only encouraged to keep up the sexual assault, as more women are impregnated by their rapists and/or compelled to suicide. Seriously, pretty much every grown woman in the colony — and more than a few of the young girls — has been a victim of sexual assault by this point.
Finally, one of the assailants is identified and arrested, and he rats on his fellow rapists. All of them are bailed out by the other men in the village. The town elders have given the town women a deadline of two days to forgive the rapists for all their transgressions, or be excommunicated from the kingdom of heaven.
The town women take a vote on what they’re going to do. Aside from the small minority in favor of forgiving and forgetting, they’re undecided on whether to stay and fight or pack up and leave. So it is that nine representatives have been elected to meet in the hay loft and decide what the town’s women are going to do.
What follows is 100 minutes of blistering debate, made all the more bitter by the knowledge that the best case scenario is not possible. The town elders and the men of the village have made it perfectly clear that the rapists will not face any kind of justice, nothing will be done to prevent further assaults, and women sure as hell won’t be given any kind of power to decide anything. Yes, there’s concern that going against the elders means going against God, but if that means they can’t protect themselves or their children from sexual predators, that’s a risk they’ll have to take. Doing nothing is not an option here.
So. Do the women want to stay and fight? Well, there’s an open question as to what that would look like. How exactly would they fight back, and what happens after the fighting is done? How many men and women would be left standing, and what would be left of the town after all the collateral damage? More importantly, how many of the women would be comfortable with themselves and each other as murderers? Because if they stay in the town with the way things are, it’s a guaranteed certainty that someone is going to get killed.
This village full of rape survivors only wants security and freedom for themselves and their children, which is no longer possible in this town. But the decision to leave presents a million problems in turn.
The women of this town are uneducated, practically illiterate and dependent on their male family members by design. I feel compelled to mention a sequence in which a government worker rolls through for the 2010 census, and nobody comes out to be counted, implying that no government bureaucracy has any record of their existence. And in turn, these Mennonites know nothing of the outside world. So how the hell could they hope to start again somewhere else?
There’s also the question of what to do with the children. Of course the daughters will all have to join the exodus, but can these mothers be expected to leave their sons behind? If not, then what’s the cutoff age before the sons can be considered an internal threat? No joke, one of the characters seriously pulls the “Not All Men” card in the discussion about who might pose a threat to those on the exodus.
Oh, and let’s not forget the question of why the victims should have to be the ones to uproot their entire lives when they’re the only ones who did nothing wrong. It’s hard to shake the impression of cowardice, like they’re the ones getting bullied out of town. Then again, there’s a subtle difference between leaving and fleeing. Much like how forgiveness and permission aren’t quite the same thing.
Forgiveness is a crucial recurring theme throughout the film. How to move on when some unforgivable sin is still causing hurt so many years later. How to forgive those who will not repent or acknowledge wrongdoing in any way. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the issue of how to recognize when trauma begets more trauma. There are at least one or two women on this council — deciding the fate of all their peers in the village, remember — who are so overcome by hatred, so obsessed with their own pain, that they’ll burn down the whole damn village and drag everyone with them to Hell if it means getting revenge and ending this pain.
The filmmakers do not pull any punches with regards to showing the effects of sexual assault and domestic violence. There is blood. There is bruising. There are PTSD flashbacks. Did I mention all the blood? Couple all of that with skillful camerawork and meticulous editing and you’ve got something that perfectly threads a very fine needle, such that it’s unsettling enough to get the point across without being outright masochistic to sit through. There’s certainly nothing erotic or titillating about the presentation, I can tell you that for free.
All of that said, I have seriously mixed feelings about the visuals. I’ll grant that the film is set within an oppressive Mennonite community, so it’s not like we were ever getting any bright colors up in here. And yes, I realize that this is an extremely bleak movie about a subject that should be treated solemnly. Even so, the whole movie is aggressively desaturated. It got boring and frankly exhausting to sit through a movie so drab that it might as well have been shot in black and white.
It’s hard to single out any particular actor, as they all work superbly together in a marvelous ensemble. Special kudos are due to Rooney Mara as our de facto protagonist and moral arbiter, though Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley give fiery and memorable performances as well. I was also rather fond of Michelle McLeod’s performance here.
But then we have Ben Whishaw in the role of August, whose mother was excommunicated for asking too many questions about the town leadership. August then went away to college and came back to serve as the boys’ schoolteacher. As one of the few men in town both literate and trustworthy, August serves to keep minutes of this council meeting, and he’s got some valuable insight with regard to how dangerous the young boys of the village could be. Even so, August knows that he’s not a member of this council and he’s always careful not to put his opinions where they’re not welcome. I might add that August is hopelessly smitten with Rooney Mara’s character, but he’s careful not to press too hard and he takes no for an answer.
Put simply, August is a feminist ally. I always appreciate a feminist movie that thinks to include a role model character to show the male audience members what an ally looks like. Kudos.
Even better, we’ve got a trans male character on the roster! Yeah, there’s a character named Melvin (played by a non-binary actor named August Winter) who was assigned female at birth, but identifies as male and dresses in typically male clothing. But of course that didn’t stop the other men from raping him, and the trauma has left him more or less mute. It’s a shame the character gets so little runtime, I’m sure his story would be enough to fill a whole nother movie.
There’s only one major weak link in the cast, but it’s a doozy. I sincerely hope that Frances McDormand made a huge difference as producer, because she did jack shit as an actor here. I think her character might have been intended as the town’s old-fashioned matriarch, the minority vote who wants all the other women to shut up and keep to the status quo. But that doesn’t really come across when her character has zero impact on the plot and she doesn’t even get a line of dialogue. What a waste.
Women Talking is not a pleasant film to sit through, but it’s definitely an important one. In terms of portraying and discussing sexual assault, this might just be one of the all-time definitive pictures on the topic. It’s bleak yet ultimately hopeful, blunt and uncompromising yet engaging, superbly written and acted, all shot through a harsh lens.
This is the kind of movie that demands to be seen ONCE. I’m glad I saw it, I emphatically recommend it, the movie will stay with me for a very long time, and I don’t expect I’ll ever want to see it again.
For more Movie Curiosities, check out my blog. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter and Mastodon.