Cinematic courtship is under siege. From Tarantino to Tyrannosaur, Hollywood’s relationship with its on-screen romances has been anything but simple. But with 2016’s distended list of toxic offenders, have we finally reached the point of no return?
In a 2011 interview at Sundance Film Festival, veteran actor Peter Mullan remarked that Paddy Considine’s script for Tyrannosaur had “a genuine connection to something you didn’t really know about, but from the minute you read it you knew there was something genuine and magical and incredibly entertaining at the same time.” Such is the somewhat perilous league Tyrannosaur situates itself in, but it is unfortunately those who stumble at the starting blocks who often achieve popular acclaim.
Premiering at Sundance six years ago, Considine’s debut feature-length directorial effort may be the most successful film to walk that perilous tightrope of abuse in the last decade of cinema, and by far the most delicate. Genuine, magical, incredibly entertaining; descriptions which repel like polar magnets when touched against recent films with ‘abuse’ foregrounded in their synopsis: The Girl on the Train, Nocturnal Animals, even critically acclaimed, 2015 award favourite, Boyhood. Whilst each takes its own portions, not one has successfully managed to capture the elusive trinity.
The cinematic exploitation of domestic abuse is a verifiably difficult feat to tackle, so let’s try not be overly harsh on its recent attempts. Where it can be labelled as problematic is when there is a significant, and often obvious, lack of inspiration for a film’s dramatic conflict and abuse becomes a stand-in for what it shouldn’t be. Take last year’s train-wreck of an adaptation, The Girl on the Train, as a fitting instance. Tate Taylor’s fourth directorial feature centres around Rachel, an alcoholic who would fly into fits of drunken rage at the expense of her now-ex-husband. However, in the dive for a memorable third act, we’re spun on our heads as it is rather brashly declared that Rachel has been unwittingly gaslighted and it was in fact the husband who was ‘the abusive one’. All unbeknownst to Rachel who had coincidentally blacked-out all important details, including: her whereabouts at the time of ex-neighbour Megan’s disappearance, the majority of her marriage, and every detail which could have helped solved the film’s central arc. That is, of course, until the film requires the plot to advance and she conveniently remembers every important detail and can enact something resembling revenge upon her abuser.
The big Hollywood plot twist is the abuse; the gaslighting. Ergo, thematic ideals of abuse are held at a glamorized gunpoint and manipulated to fit cinematic ideals of entertainment. Not to mention its over-reliance on Rachel’s addiction to mould the holding back and revelation of plot details in a formulaic Hollywood arc. This is not an important film. This is a film which manipulates violence and addiction to tick a check box next to Thrill Value.
So how can a filmmaker possibly create entertainment from material submerged in themes of violence? We could consider the films of Tarantino, famed for his blood-stained take on cinema, or Kathryn Bigelow (director of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) who claims that filmic violence can be “seductive,” unattached to those who go on to normalise violence. “One should make moral judgements for oneself,” she says, and should avoid even the news if so susceptible to on-screen violence.
Bigelow’s comment is important here. She misses the point of cinematic intention and condescends to her audience in the process. The difference between the BBC’s evening news and the bright canopy of the silver screen is the very purpose of entertainment; the former which indulges very little, and the latter which almost always does. With entertainment comes engagement and with engagement comes exaggeration. Romanticized and glamorized for its oh-so-spectacular phantasmagorias, and surrounded by its similar cinematic counterparts, appreciation for its artistic framing becomes an appreciation of its content. And finally, perhaps most importantly – and most dangerously – the evolution of appreciation into normality. Sensitivity fails to act as a major factor here; it is the responsibility of the filmmaker to divert that path. As for Tarantino, that certain prominent filmmakers’ names have become synonymous with gratuitous violence might be something we should start paying a little more attention to.
When conflict bustles and breeds, there is something which films directly concerning heterosexual relationships seldom consider. That is, the direct implications their thematic carpeting of abuse have on women themselves. Last year’s Passengers, a sci-fi romance in space, opens with Jim Preston awakening from hibernation on a spaceship far away from home. He’s the only one to wake, a malfunction in his apparatus forcing him from his slumber only 30 years into the proposed 120-year dormancy. Consumed with an unjustified loneliness, he deliberately wakes up another female passenger, pretending they were both the subject of apparatus malfunction whilst letting her slowly fall in love with him. And yet despite the eeriness of a synopsis more than fitting for a horror, Passengers, and Jim’s actions, were seemingly poised as plucked directly from the realm of the charmingly romantic. And, after the rudely awakened Aurora inevitably discovers what Jim failed to mention, she quickly leaves her anger in the lurch after being prodded to forgive him as the film hurtles through its third act.
Passengers is only the most recent from a long string of films condoning, even encouraging, stalker-like, abusive behaviour. ‘I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You,’ a study by Julia R Lippman from the University of Michigan, explored the responses of women after exposure to films which portrayed stalker-like behaviour as romantic. Interestingly, and perhaps inevitably, she found that the depiction of aggressive romanticized pursuits in normal courtship in the media led to an increase in stalker-supportive attitudes. Scary stuff. But apparently, nothing more than normal in the world of Hollywood heroes.
There is an emerging trend here, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, and one which Hollywood is undeniably guilty of encouraging. The problem has been building up for decades, spanning across countless genres, including exploitative thrillers and gendered-aggressive romances and little by little, our tolerance towards violence and abusive behaviour is being slowly chipped away. Perhaps the problem lies in Hollywood’s portrayal of men, caught in a web of sexually aggressive male hostility, capable of either destructive antagonism or whimpering entitlement. And as dangerous as the former seems, maybe it’s the latter we should be wary of evolving; the victim and the privileged.
And yet, every so often a film – usually coincidentally untied to Hollywood’s heavyweights – emerges which tackles abuse and violence, fear and rage, misogyny and persecution in exactly the right ways. And, of course, it usually gets overlooked. Constantine – known more for his acting filmography than his direction – made Tyrannosaur in 2010, perhaps seven years too early to be taken seriously. After last year’s The Girl on the Train, we as a collective of vaguely concerned individuals are gradually taking a bigger interest in abuse and addiction. Tyrannosaur, an expansion of Dog Altogether, Considine’s BAFTA winning short film, covers both and yet neither encourages nor exploits either. Of course, understandably, it’s a lot easier to exploit rather than encourage concrete violence. Tom Ford’s mouth-wateringly shot Nocturnal Animals, one of the BAFTA-favourite trinity leading the pack this year, is far from encouraging of either Ray Marcus’ or Edward’s shocking behaviour, but nevertheless exploits their domineering actions to push the plot forward and eventually make a fool of Susan (Amy Adams). Not to mention its luscious visuals often find their muse through sickening implications and revelations. A certain three-second rape scene comes to mind. This isn’t style over substance; this is style exploitative of substance.
Tyrannosaur rejects the notion. Brandishing an achingly symbolic title, and an even severer plot, it refuses the ideals of victim and perpetrator whilst acknowledging both. It’s the story of a troubled man, Joseph (Peter Mullan), filled with a boiling rage threatening to drop him over the brink of self-destruction, until he finds a chance at redemption in Hannah (Olivia Colma), a Christian shop worker. But Hannah isn’t just a checkpoint in Joseph’s flightpath from rock bottom, she tries to save in him what she cannot save herself. An abusive husband who urinates on her whilst asleep, sends her to work with a black eye, and purposefully mauls her reproductive system is what she comes home to every night. For both of them, there’s no way out apart from their own friendship. Blossoming is far from the right word, perhaps ‘thinly augmenting’ would be a better fit.
This is not a hopeful film, nor is this a film with any particular message. It is not a film you can take solace in. It is a film which depicts toxic relationships as bleak, as rich, and as unequivocally ruthless. It refuses to rely on Hannah’s bitter home-life as a means of enhancing tension, nor does it ignore her complexity and paint her as a mere victim. The final scene of Tyrannosaur isn’t pleasant for either Hannah or Joseph, but then again there’s a distinct lack of finality in it too.
Here’s hoping Tyrannosaur didn’t arrive six years too early. And let’s hope Hollywood stop ignoring the legitimacy of their subject material and delve into 2011’s British archives to lead example. After 2016’s ballooning list of awful representations, can 2017 be the year we finally stop glamorizing them?