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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Easy Is the Path to Avernus
by Donald Levit

Descent, a 2007 TriBeCa première supposedly about “some of the country’s most taboo subjects [resulting in] innocence shattered, dreams destroyed and vengeance fulfilled,” stars Rosario Dawson and is the first feature from director/co-writer/co-producer Talia Lugacy.

Lugacy divides her tale into three parts -- causal exciting force; complication-descent into consequences; and further debasement into resolution, the latter two introduced by printed season titles and each technically and thematically worse than its predecessor. Despite false circuses like those trumpeting Tanya Brawley or three Duke University lacrosse players, forcible or drug-induced sexual violation seems to be nearing critical mass, even with many cases unreported or unprosecuted. “Statistically . . . overwhelmingly” the perpetrator is not an outsider but someone already known, i.e., date rape, while a sense of shame keeps the traumatized victim silent for years, or forever.

Amid confusions or contradictions, Maya (Dawson) is posited as a nineteen-year-old urban Claremont College student from Baltimore. To fight the ache of a failed nice-guy romance, she studies compulsively, even resorting to a Modern Psychology textbook to calm mother with white telephone lies of a non-existent attachment. Brief mother and an also brief unintelligible blonde are cursory attempts to give background life to this quiet, isolated professor’s dream who misses out on a teaching assistantship only because of a late application.

At a semi-make-out party, Maya brushes aside a few sweet talkers only to fall in with, and for, insistent blowhard Jared (Chad Faust). This wannabe jock pursues the game with obvious lines, flowers, a fancy dinner, rooftop telescopes and a candled basement. “Enough, I mean it! Let go! Off!” do no good, as he forces her while holding her black panties over her face in a gesture she will remember and reenact.

Shattered, hair cut shorter, eyes hollow with black shadow, skin white-powdered, she now works in a hip clothing shop. An aloof automaton whose spare-time specialty is folding blouses, she puts off coworkers and interested males, and puzzles viewers with a bald armless manikin. To highlight her loss of self-esteem, the story suddenly, unacceptably plunges the young woman into a world of underground blue-lit clubs, gyrating strobed dancers, drinks, drugs, degradation, followed by waking up on a couch, perhaps propositioned by an unexplained woman, and invited to DJ with him by muscular Hispanic barman Adrian (Marcus Patrick).

Story as well as photography (Christopher LaVasseur and Jonathan Furmanski) darker, cheesier and more unfriendly by the moment -- the dénouement will sin even worse -- Maya succumbs to, or embraces, this sexually, ethnically, racially ambiguous milieu of not precisely S-M so much as of control, domination and revenge for all sorts of things. She will symbolically repeat an incident where mentor and Vigil-guide (but not partner) Adrian obliges white client Danny to smoke a marijuana cigarette held between his toes, a contest of one’s will vs. the other’s desire.

Then comes written-titled “Fall,” the season, of course, but also the completion of loss of innocence or -- compromising any charitable view of the film’s vision of the violated as victim -- of grace. Yes, the girl had been trusting, too naïve for anyone’s own good; yes, her devil seducer is shallow, cocky, obnoxious, despicable; and, yes, Bronson, Eastwood, Snipes and large company made cheered American-hero careers with avenging wrecking-crew vigilantism. And, in the real world, yes, the violation of a human being, physically and/or emotionally, is a terrible sin, leaving victims scarred and justice often never served.

With a snip of (male) full-frontal, however, but lots of verbal and just-below-camera-level bestiality, the final long minutes test patience and stomach. Unexpected tears may indicate sorrow, repentance, love, or a strange identification. But assuming one can stay the course, no such subtleties remain, no one is justified or worthy of sympathy. Sadly, such atrocities do happen to women, but ugliness of story, character and technique cannot hold a movie audience and do more harm than good towards seeking a professed corrective. 

(Released by City Lights Pictures and rated “NC-17” for a brutal rape.)

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