Appellate Judge Tom Becker learned of a terrifying descent when he checked a genealogy chart.
Naïve college girl Maya (Rosario Dawson, Kids) meets oily college boy Jared (Chad Faust, The 4400) at a frat party. He pursues her with roses, an expensive dinner, and tedious conversation. When she accompanies him home after an evening out, he takes the opportunity to date rape her.
Months go by, and when we next see Maya, she's got a bad haircut and a blank expression, and she's working as a clothing folder in a pretentious boutique run by a pretentious woman. But at night, Maya seeks out dangerous clubs where people take drugs and smoke cigarettes openly. She meets muscular Latin pansexual Adrian (Marcus Patrick, Days of Our Lives), and together they engage in all manner of uninspired debauchery. As we know from countless other movies and TV shows, the club world is a soulless pit, inherently degrading and anonymous, so what better place for post-abuse Maya to troll?
She apparently pulls herself together enough to get a coveted TA position the following semester, and who should saunter into the lecture hall but the heartless and horrible Jared. When Maya catches him cheating on an exam (pulling notes out of his pocket, for Heaven's sake) and threatens to turn him in, Jared thinks it's a come on. We practically see the light bulb click on over Maya's head as she realizes that this is her chance…for vengeance!
Descent seems to want to be a high-minded rape-revenge film, nobler and artier than grinders like I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, and Ms. 45; while it eschews the bloodletting of those films, it is no less hokey and exploitative.
The talented Dawson gives it her all, but the 28-year-old actress is badly miscast as an unsophisticated teenager. Dawson's a beautiful woman and a formidable presence. It's hard to believe she'd give the boorish and obvious Jared a second look, much less that she'd end up in a position where he could take advantage of her.
But then, no actress could really make this character believable, since writers Brian Priest and Talia Lugacy (who also directed) fail to give Maya any real personality or transitional moments. The rape scene is harrowing, effectively shot and acted, but it just ends, and the film jumps forward several months. We don't see the immediate aftermath. We don't even know how the evening ended. Did Jared drive her home, give her a kiss, and say, "Later, Babe?" Did Maya cry and call him a rapist? Did she go to the police? Did she tell anyone—a friend, her mother, a counselor? We really didn't know that much about her to begin with, so when we see her with the bad haircut and the poor attitude, it's not jarring or interesting.
We also have no reference point for Maya's "descent" into the pervy club world. One minute she's folding clothes at work and shying away from any kind of interpersonal interaction, and the next, she's chugging beers at what looks like an after-hours joint and reveling in whatever comical depravity the scriptwriters dream up. If you've seen any other movie about amoral nightlifers, or if you attended a liberal arts college near a big city, you can probably run down the litany of excesses—bi-sex, anonymous sex, kinky sex, group sex, drugs that make people move in slow motion, and so on. Lest we forget that, like rape, all these shenanigans are rooted in power games, we have a guy who shows up to smoke a cigarette held between hunky Adrian's bare toes and is rewarded by Adrian telling him, "Good boy."
Since all the nightlife-as-trip-to-Hell business is filmed as a kind of edgy erotica, it's not particularly shocking that when Maya gets around to wreaking vengeance on the clueless Jared, the whole enterprise turns into alterna-porn. This does nothing to help the film's credibility or secure its place as a work of feminist cinema; quite the opposite, actually. Whatever statement Lugacy and Dawson (who's also a producer on Descent) are trying to make is lost in a murky bath of erotic ambiguity.
This ambiguity extends to some uncomfortable sideline observations on racial politics. With the exception of Dawson, the college is filled with goofy, generic white kids; the jaded and decadent club denizens, on the other hand, are almost all people of color (except for the submissive foot-fetish guy, who's white). We also have Jared murmuring racial slurs as he rapes Maya. Unfortunately, Lugacy never ties all this together; in a film rife with statements, this potentially provocative element is left as a non-issue.
At other times, the points are fairly obvious. We are given a bunch of scenes of Jared playing on the football team, and there is an extended sequence featuring a scary-faced, armless mannequin that Dawson dresses as part of her job. And of course, all the drug and sex stuff is filmed in glare, whether it's club glare or morning-after glare, including a post-party wake-up scene of Dawson staring into a mirror declaring, "Yeah, you are" over and over until her nose responds by spontaneously discharging blood.
The picture quality here is OK, nothing great, but the audio track is horrendous. I suspect this is the original mix rather than a problematic transfer, but the sound is wildly uneven. If there is music playing in a scene, it will invariably drown out dialogue. If there is no music, people whisper or mutter for no apparent reason. These problems also crop up in the commentary, which plays concurrently with the film's soundtrack, often competing with it (and losing). Why the soundtrack wasn't lowered or turned off is a mystery, as it makes listening to the commentary unpleasant and confusing.
The commentary itself, featuring Dawson, Lugacy, and Priest, is one of those super-serious and self-congratulatory affairs. These three really seem to believe that they've made a powerful and important film. They seem awestruck by moments that don't make sense without their explanations, and with the explanations just don't seem all that original or significant. An interview with Dawson, a Q&A with Dawson and Lugacy, and a short "behind the scenes" feature with Lugacy offer more of the same.
There are two deleted scenes, one of which—wherein Maya lets loose a verbal tirade on an obnoxiously PC dorm advisor—might have been better left in the film. Like the rest of Descent, it's awkward, obvious, and clumsy, but at least it addresses the issue of race merely toyed with otherwise, and it gives Dawson the chance to emote without being surrounded by the filmmakers' ideas of "shocking" visuals.
Descent sets us up for a thought-provoking experience, but it's best forgotten. Amateurish when it should be edgy, it's ultimately just your father's exploitation with some unexpected flesh and a hipster beat.
In this universe, everyone is guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: City Lights Media
• Commentary with Actress Rosario Dawson, Director/Co-Writer Talia Lugacy, and Co-Writer Brian Priest
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