Last night I watched Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams. If you haven’t seen it and wish to, you might want to skip this post because SPOILERS FOLLOW.
The film concerns the owner of an art gallery (Adams) who’s made a right hash of her life. Severe Mummy and Daddy issues drove her as a young graduate to marry her childhood friend (Gyllenhaal) who’s a budding author but seems to be hopelessly naive about what that entails. For example, he complains his wife criticises his work, into which he’s poured his heart and soul. Well, wait until it hits the shelves pal, then you’ll know what criticism is. After two years of marriage she bins the author for some hot-shot Adonis she works with. The film takes place 19 years later when the Adonis is cheating on her with a younger, prettier woman and her gallery is failing. Cue lots of shots of her sitting in the dark, alone and weeping. The only thing missing was her securing an order for half a dozen cats down at the local pet shop.
I think the lesson we’re supposed to take away is that you should always follow your heart and stand by your first true love no matter what. The lesson I actually took away was that spoiled brat women in their twenties acting like stroppy teenagers in dealing with their parents are likely to make catastrophic decisions which will leave them alone and miserable later in life. That’s not really the point of this post, though.
Instead I’m going to talk about lazy plot devices. Early on in the film Adam’s character receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, who she’s not seen in decades, and reads it. The film then becomes a story within a story, and we see the tale in the manuscript being played out. The idea is that the author’s new novel is so brilliant that his ex-wife will see she made a mistake in dumping him all those years ago.
The problem is the novel doesn’t seem very good or original. It concerns a man who is run off the road by rednecks (of course) in Texas after which his wife and teenage daughter are raped and murdered. The man survives and seeks revenge. This story has been done a million times already, so I wasn’t persuaded it could induce a change of heart in his ex-wife. What they needed was a really clever story, not a by-the-numbers rape-revenge yarn, but I guess if they came up with one they’d probably just make a film of that rather than use it as a sub-plot in a film about a lonely, ageing woman.
But my main issue is with what this tweet complains about:
I’m not alone in finding rape increasingly being used as a plot device, and not liking it. I’ve complained before about bad guys in movies and TV series being made into cartoons, and the audience battered over the head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to ensure we’re left in no doubt who is good and who is bad. Making the bad guy a rapist appears to have become the default way of going about it, and I find it lazy. Rape may induce feelings of disgust and hatred, and make for intense scenes the audience won’t forget, but it’s akin to the shots of emaciated African kids with flies around their face you see in TV adverts begging for money – it’s cheap, emotional blackmail. Some years ago my sister noticed the frequency with which rape is used as a plot device when writing for the F-Word:
James Patterson’s 1996 bestseller Kiss the Girls features two male serial killers who keep beautiful, intelligent young women in a basement and sexually abuse, torture and kill them.
Before Patterson there was Dean Koontz, another immensely popular US thriller writer, whose 1986 book Night Chills features a string of graphic rape scenes alongside a female lead character who outsmarts a male military officer at every turn.
In short, male novelists have for decades been selling graphic capture-rape-torture-kill novels by chucking in ‘strong’ female characters for balance, and have even gained plaudits for highlighting violence against women in the process.
The Spectator’s Gary Dexter is in no doubt about the reason for Patterson’s appeal: “Patterson likes rape, torture, mutilation and death. So do his readers. Who doesn’t? It has been estimated that Patterson’s lifetime sales of thrillers have now topped 150 million, and that one in every 15 hardbacks bought in the world in 2007 was a Patterson novel, which means that we must all like rape, torture, mutilation and death, perhaps with extra rape on the side, and then some child rape, child torture, child mutilation and child death, then some more rape, more death and more rape, and finally some rape, death, rape and death.”
Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth was another bestseller which had the bad guy raping women with such frequency I’d roll my eyes wondering why the editor didn’t point out he’d used this scene already.
It may be necessary to include a rape scene in a film or novel – The Accused would hardly work without it, nor would I Spit on Your Grave – but in most cases it is necessary only because the writer lacks the skill or imagination to come up with anything else. You might forgive the writers of Game of Thrones frequently throwing in rape scenes because that particular series relies heavily on torture-porn, but others don’t have that excuse.
Prompted by a friend, I recently watched the pilot of the TV series The Americans. Sure enough, the female lead gets raped by her superior in a flashback, just to make sure the audience knows that this guy is evil and deserves everything that’s coming to him. The fact that his raping her is absolutely ludicrous both in terms of historical accuracy and the plot doesn’t seem to matter: the important thing is we get to see a woman being raped, thus ensuring we all talk about how serious, edgy, and thought-provoking the series is. For me, it simply showed the writers are so lacking imagination the script might as well have been created by a piece of software.
Nocturnal Animals wasn’t a bad film, and I liked the ending, but lazy writing using rape-revenge as a plot device let it down badly. I look forward to the day when authors and scriptwriters quit doing it. It’s probably one of the few subjects on which I agree with the feminists.