For those unfamiliar with the storyline, it is fairly simple: A young woman, Jennifer, rents a cabin in the woods, only to be brutally gang-raped by the locals and left for dead. She is very much alive though, and takes on her revenge with extreme cruelty and violence.
The film’s much talked about rape sequence is one of the more “interesting” ones I’ve seen in cinema (though I think the most disturbing and affecting is still in Bergman’s The Virgin Spring). It is not entertaining, it is not alluring, and it is not exciting. It is as cringe-worthy as it ought to be, and the filmmaker gives it a fair amount of time without dragging it out unduly. The film also very effectively portrays the immediate emotional invasion felt by a victim of sexual assault. Even before the men touch Jennifer, one has a grand sense that they have robbed her of the very basic respect all humans should be treated with.
The rape becomes all the more affecting by creating realistic characters that are not simple caricatures or monsters. Their actions are not justified by their emotional, cultural or social problems, but we are allowed a faint glimpse in the make-up that allows them to act so unforgivably. The prevailing influence however is a need to exert power. The evidence of their inability to control anything in their lives, least of all women, escalates up until the actual rape. The only one of them with any influence is the police officer, and that is what makes him the most reprehensible of the group. His level of hypocrisy, corruption and cruelty is unparallel. He is one of the cruellest cinematic villains in recent memory.
After the extended assault she experiences, Jennifer is left for dead. The men involved suddenly become anxious that she will be found. They spend the next few weeks searching the swamps for her body. After having so little respect for Jennifer’s body, it suddenly takes on a great deal of importance. This perceived power is perhaps why some people have latched onto this narrative as being feminist. Though we know little of whom Jennifer is, her femininity is quite obviously seen as an extreme threat to these men, and they seek to destroy it.
Jennifer’s body remains the centerpiece of the film, aesthetically and thematically. Though the film does not completely succeed it attempts to present her figure in a non-exploitive way, one can definitely see a progression of the way her body is treated. She is the most sexualized when seen quite literally through the eyes of the men, through the lens of a video camera. Though an obnoxious cinematic technique, it is undeniably used with purpose in this case.
When enacting her revenge, Jennifer very consciously avoids using her sexuality as a tool. There is just one moment where she brings sex back into the equation and that is when she blind-sides Johnny. Re-enacting a fantasy alternative of their first meaning, she is driving the same car, but is wearing nearly nothing. This particular sequence is not lurid or exploitive, as it reveals the egregiousness of his initial perceptions. She presents him with the situation he imagined and twists it in a deliciously perverse way.
The men don’t stand a chance once Jennifer begins her vengeance. There is nary a moment of struggle, and she dominates them far more completely than they were ever able to dominate her. It is not clear if they are simply weaker than she is, or that she is far better prepared than they were. It is here that the film becomes somewhat weak. Though Jennifer is interesting and compelling, she is also underdeveloped. The brief glimpses we have into her character and history don’t support the physical strength, intelligence and expertise she would have needed to follow-through. Obviously, the film is largely a “fantasy” but I can’t help thinking or wishing someone had beefed up her history.
The implication of Jennifer’s vengeance is fascinating, as she uses so deftly the words and actions of the men against themselves. In a very obvious sense, the film embodies the ruling of an “eye for an eye”. Somehow, the film makes me wonder if she’s even punishing them for their crimes. Well, of course she is… but what I mean is she seems less concerned with seeing them suffer or die, than to teach them a very permanent lesson. The lesson is one of empathy; of human understanding. Her actions almost seem contradictory, but the men have made their nature clear, and their complete lack of mercy has made their fate ultimate.
What I like best about the film is the creativity and absurdism that is infused in the revenge sequences. It is no less cruel or nihilistic, but it does have a dose of dramatic irony that makes it palatable. Even so, even some of the most hardened horror fans will no doubt cringe and *gasp* look away. The ambiguity in the film’s final act and Jennifer’s final “mona-lisa smile” ensure that the film sticks with you, it does not offer any comfortable closure and much of the film’s events remain open-ended.
I feel I’ve written a lot about this film, without having said very much at all. I have not even touched the rather strange and disturbing screening and subsequent Q & A period which only elevated the discomfort the film inspired. The detachment, anger and giddiness on display were even too much for me. Someone fainted; another person was nearly escorted away by security, and that only briefly touches on the strangeness of the evening. IT was a disturbing night at the movies, and much of that is owed to the filmmakers. I am still unsure as to whether or not I like it, it certainly hit a chord. It is at the very least a unique experience, and one that I would not recommend for a good 95% of the human population.