On paper, the premise of writer-director Eamon O’Rourke’s feature debut seems irresistible: An all-girl gang of abuse survivors, seriously upskilled in the use of baseball bats, bombs and butterfly knives, roams heartland America exacting vengeance on Bad Men — which here means #AlmostAllMen. But in execution (and there are precious few of those), “Asking for It” is too much like its cardboard heroines: edgy on the outside, empty within. It’s the “Charlie’s Angels” freeze-pose of rape-revenge movies.
The opening — a montage culled from the lower reaches of the collective incel id — promises better. In a flurry of YouTube clips and TikTok testimonials, we’re introduced to the fully loathsome Mark Vanderhill (Ezra Miller), a pick-up artist turned Men’s Rights crusader whose mantra of male dominance, expressed through the subjugation of women and the undiscerning worship of the submachine gun, might seem exaggerated if you have been in a coma for the last couple of decades. Vanderhill, a kind of militarized, millennial riff on Tom Cruise’s “Magnolia” character, only less actually charismatic, has built up a loyal fanbase among the fratboy and disgruntled-deadbeat population of Oklahoma.
In obviously marked contrast to the accurately vicious misogyny of Vanderhill’s videos, we’re suddenly in the Oklahoman town of Guthrie. A sunnier, orchestral stretch of Lilah Larson’s score plays as Joey (Kiersey Clemons, who also produces along with Miller) cycles to her waitress job at the local diner, smiling and waving at passersby. At work, she connects briefly with a customer, Regina (Alexandra Shipp, a standout in a stacked cast) before being distracted by a reunion with ominously clean-cut former classmate, Mike (“Riverdale’s” Casey Cotts). She agrees to go a party with him later, where it’s all fun and games until he roofies her, takes her home and rapes her in her own bed.
O’Rourke’s treatment of this scene is tactful, and Joey’s disorientation and fragmented memories in the aftermath are cannily evoked by the stylized, pop-art quick cutting he favors (it’s no wonder there are three credited editors, the flashy, music-video-style cutting would threaten repetitive strain injury on just one). Joey withdraws from her loving grandparents, and no longer smiles at strangers on her way to work. Regina, apparently nursing a crush, notices the change. Hyper-intuitive as to what might be its cause, she invites Joey round to the all-female flophouse/base of operations/nightclub where she is staying with her gang, the Cherry Bombers. Inducted into the core group of Beatrice (a convincingly grunge-goth Vanessa Hudgens), mute, ASL-using engineering expert Lily (Leslie Stratton), pugnacious ex-foster kid Jett (“Pose”‘s Leyna Bloom) and Sarah-Connor-tough-mom figure Sal (Radha Mitchell), Joey enlists on their mission to bring down a nearby MFM rally by any means necessary.
But instead of staying with this cast of characters, in Jendra Jarnagin’s neon-slicked, Polaroid-Americana photography, O’Rourke introduces subplot after subplot, each undercutting the last. This is the fatal weakness of a screenplay that wants to represent a whole lot, but cannot imagine any one person representing more than one thing. So every scenario gets a new blizzard of (scrupulously diverse) faces, from the gang of homeless boys led by Cuzzo (Demetrius Shipp Jr) with whom the Cherry Bombers crash, to the local Sheriff (Luke Hemsworth), who has his own history with Sal, to the wise but also shotgun-toting Native American guru figure Fala (Casey Camp-Horinek), to the big baddie: venal police chief Morill (David Patrick Kelley), who is in league with Vanderhill while also running a human trafficking operation. Oh, and Gabourey Sidibe shows up for one scene, seated at a kitchen table, and still somehow acts everyone else into the middle of next week.
Sidibe’s cameo provides a desolate little glimpse into the kind of film this could have been if it had been interested in its characters, not just their traumas, which here, are things worn like trappings — like corn rows or lip rings — the better to distinguish otherwise interchangeably badass females. At one point, Vanderhill rails against a “culture in which every woman or minority is a superhero by default” which is a dangerous irony in a movie starring such a clear checklist of otherwise underdeveloped ethnic, sexual and gender identities, even before the ostensible burn-’em-all! attitude strays closer to you-go-girl! platitude. (What in the name of all the promising young women have we done to deserve rape-revenge scenarios in which all but the worst perpetrators get away with little more than a stern talking-to?)
If this was all just comic-book fiction, as its heightened aesthetics sometimes suggest, it might not matter so much. But the extremist misogyny it depicts does actually exist; the Cherry Bombers do not, which makes the well-meant, appealingly cast, fatally muddled “Asking for It,” at most, a fizzy, fantasy antidote to a very real toxin.