Shy college student Maya (Rosario Dawson) would rather spend her evenings curled up with a book studying than going out to parties. When her friend finally convinces her to go a house party, she meets Jared, who uses his finesse with words to gain Maya’s trust. The two go out to dinner and have a lovely first date before he brings her back to his apartment. It is here that he lets his true intentions be known and after failing to coerce her to voluntarily have sex with him, he rapes her. Shattered by this violation, Maya spends the summer drifting distantly through a job and falls into an world of drugs and dangerous partying.
When she returns to school the following Fall, she finally lands a teacher assistant position, only to discover that Jared is now one of her students. After class one day, she insinuates to Jared that she would like to see him again. Jared, being too arrogant to even question her request, comes over to an apartment to meet her. But Maya is not the insecure woman he once prayed on, and is now full of a demanding confidence that Jared is about to meet head on.
The “rape and revenge” cycle of films in the seventies produced a string of fan favorites that to this day are able to shock and cause controversy. Now director Talia Lugacy makes her debut with an update to that classic exploitation motif with Descent. Together with co-writer Brian Priest, the two create a slow burn that builds up into one of the most uncomfortable and squirm-inducing final scenes to hit the screen in quite some time. This burn begins very slowly, as the first half hour of the film right until Maya’s violation could easily be mistaken as the first half hour of a slice-of-life romantic drama.
Rosario Dawson, who plays Maya, gives an absolutely astounding performance here. Dawson, who is in almost every scene of the movie and has a bulk of the screen time within those scenes, takes her time to establish the character and her emotions. In the past few years Dawson has found herself in mostly comedies and action flicks, and Descent allows her to tap into some very tough material and show her versatility as an actress. Everyone knows a person like Maya, and watching her life be destroyed is absolutely devastating. Chad Faust, who plays Jared, is equally excellent and convincing in his predatory role. Watching him smoothly operate and draw Maya into his trap is absolutely nauseating, made all the worse when in a small and quick line we realize that Jared has had plenty of experience in overpowering women.
Lugacy uses several long takes in the film to capture entire conversations in one take. She is very subtle with these scenes though, and often times go by without you realizing that there hasn’t been a cut. And as the script calls in several conversations to the importance of words, the film is mostly void of a music soundtrack, save for a few techno tracks during the clubbing scenes. Both of these elements collide during the final half hour of the film, as Maya’s is finally able to lure in Jared and take her revenge. Like Gasper Noe‘s Irreversible from a few years back and the abysmally cruel classic I Spit On Your Grave, the revenge sequence is raw and unflinching in its conviction. Lugacy, does take the high road during most of this sequence and frames the shot so you don’t see much of what is happening, allowing the you to fill in the missing pieces with your mind.
Lugacy and Priest are careful enough to call attention to the fact that getting revenge does not always equate to getting even, and leaves the film open for discussion and theorizing well after the credits have rolled. Descent is a cautionary tale that preaches the importance of gaining trust and giving your trust to others, and just how fragile trust really is. Descent is not an enjoyable movie, but it is extremely well done and worth seeing for Dawson’s performance and to remind us that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing in the world. At the time of this writing, the film is rated NC-17, and while the filmmakers should be commended for their choice not to bow to the MPAA, it is unfortunate that the film will have to fight that much harder to find an audience.
Descent opens August 10, 2007, in New York City and Los Angeles.