“We had faces then,” Norma Desmond said in “Sunset Boulevard,” but the fact is, we have faces now. Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank and Uma Thurman are a few modern classics, and so is Rosario Dawson, who could have provided a 100-minute closeup and revealed more about human nature and anguish than all of “Descent,” a rape-revenge fantasy that will have auds ankling after the first attack.
First attack? Oh, yes, and considering the one that follows, it seems the far milder of the two — although to pass that kind of judgment is to get into the sexual-political morass “Descent” wants us to wade through.
A symposium in the “men are pigs” school of gender relations, “Descent” is about one young grad student’s violation, metamorphosis and well-planned, gruesome revenge on her assailant — in a scene which, if said assailant were a woman, would relegate the “Descent” DVD to the little back room at the videostore.
There’s nothing pretty either, of course, about the initial attack on Maya (Dawson), a gifted scholar who’s just getting her life together when she meets Jared (Chad Faust), the most arrogant preppie ever to get lost en route to a Wes Anderson movie. When flowers and sweet talk don’t quite succeed, Jared resorts to handcuffs. What follows is horrible, despite the discreet camera angles and miserly lighting.
What happens next is anyone’s guess: Maya, moving through life like the walking wounded, is near-comatose. She alienates her co-workers, who mistake her remoteness for snobbery and interpret her part-time carpentry job as an indication of lesbianism (the girl-on-girl vibe is certainly here, although, like many aspects of “Descent,” it’s rendered annoyingly indistinct). Strangely, Maya isn’t damaged enough to stay out of the clubs, and one night on a dance floor, she meets Adrian (Marcus Patrick), a DJ who introduces her to an all-new world that transforms her, gives her confidence and sets her on a course of payback.
What takes place during this slower-than-snail-mail second act of “Descent”? Who knows? The entire resurrection sequence is so indulgently impressionistic and obscure as to be incoherent. Pic’s message is the one thing that’s made clear: A victim can sink lower than her predator. Whether receiving that message justifies the cost of watching “Descent’ is another question.
Production values are good, particularly the cinematography of Christopher LaVasseur and Jonathan Furmanski, despite their working with so little light, the viewer often can’t tell what’s going on.