There's an unavoidable visceral reaction that occurs while watching a victim exact revenge. It can make an audience cheer during the Death Proof segment of Grindhouse
. It's what keeps your fists clenched as the girl in Hard Candy reveals her twisted plans. Descent is a bit more complicated, a periodic test of viewer stamina that's occasionally stretched unnecessarily. When that occurs, Descent loses its effect and potency.Rosario Dawson
is Maya, a quiet college student who meets good-looking football jock Jared (Chad Faust
, The 4400) at your typical frat party. Excessively confident, Jared makes a quick play for Maya, droning on lyrically about the first time he saw her. A couple of conversations later, Maya softens. As this dance continues, Faust and Dawson are excellent; he's the slimy "tell 'em what they wanna hear" player, and she's the protective but hopeful girl, using her natural sex appeal skillfully. Article continues below
Then, in a scene reminiscent of Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, Jared rapes her. It's a quiet, dangerous scene that first-time director Talia Lugacy
drags on uncomfortably in a spookily lit basement. It's painful to watch, as intended, and considering the scene's length it's actually well paced. But once Jared begins whispering racial epithets, the rape feels like it may be just an overdone narrative device.
As expected, Maya collapses into her own silent world. She works at a clothing store where she ignores co-workers while in a near catatonic state. She frequents a dance club where house music pulsates, bodies grind, and everyone gets loaded. Dawson, playing the role well, just glides through her world -- as does the movie, and after a couple of extended club scenes, it feels like Lugacy is plodding along for the sake of "mood."
Months later in the story, coincidence places Jared and Maya in the same classroom and the film's depraved final act begins. It's no surprise that Maya's acceptance of her attacker is plotted, so the only unknown is in how much the filmmakers are willing to ratchet up the suspense and resultant acts.
In order to get there, the story forces us to oversimplify Jared's intellect. Is this guy so willing to do what he's told because he thinks he might get laid? It's tough to believe he would get involved with the girl he's raped, thinking she's unstable enough not to care. Without this suspension of disbelief we don't get the horrifying finale.
So the characters become more like pawns in a statement film, and it has the opportunity to make a heck of a statement. In methods ranging from subtle to immensely over the top, Lugacy and her co-writer/cousin Brian Priest discuss gender roles, sexual roles, survival of the fittest, race, and education. But too much of the film plays like a blurry nightmare, with long scenes becoming a game of keep-away; we get the sensory involvement but not much more.
It's difficult to overstate the sickness of the film's conclusion. This is not the eye-popping go-for-broke gore of something like Takashi Miike's Audition. It's an act of vengeance in its purest form, going on and on and on, reducing its participants to nothing but animals. Is that what we're here to learn? That violence begets more violence? Although Lugacy receives some shockingly courageous performances from her leads, there's not enough substance to make for a good movie. What we see in these characters is simply an exercise in human soullessness.