Having been in the spotlight the vast majority of her life, both onscreen as an actor and offscreen as a Hollywood cautionary tale, Evan Rachel Wood understands how media works. She sees the potential of its manipulation, and how the consequences can careen out of control. And so Wood made the conscious choice to take hold of her own narrative for “Phoenix Rising,” the new documentary about her life that acts as a sharp corrective to how she’s seen her life unfold in front of the world, and as a record of how she understands it now. Even before the documentary delves into Wood’s accounts of suffering horrifying abuse at the hands of Marilyn Manson, the provocative rock star whom she dated as a teenager, “Phoenix Rising” is a startlingly vulnerable account of Wood’s life as a child actor, a confused kid processing trauma, and a young woman forced to mature far before she was ready. And when they do commit to unpacking the Manson allegations, neither Wood nor “Phoenix Rising” holds back.
Directed by Amy Berg, “Phoenix Rising” will premiere later this year on HBO in two parts. The first, which debuted Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, begins with Wood and her family detailing her upbringing, her account of becoming Hollywood’s go-to “troubled teen” actor, and how she was primed to be swept up in the alluring web of someone like Manson. This episode then weaves between Wood’s recollections of her past with Manson as a frightened teen and her present as a woman sifting through her own experience, and the eerily similar experience of others, for clues. It also grapples with Manson’s purposefully hyperbolic persona, “ironic” interest in Nazi paraphernalia, and his own fraught childhood, though always from Wood’s perspective.
“Phoenix Rising” began filming in 2019 as Wood banded together with other survivors of domestic violence to push for changing the statute of limitations on cases like theirs in California and beyond. In interviews in 2020 with director Berg, a year before she would name Manson publicly as her alleged abuser, Wood exorcises horror stories with a palpable mixture of relief, fear, and determination. There are moments when she gets emotional, as when poring over diary entries and photos from the year in which she met Manson at 18, a fact that shocks her every time she’s faced with hard evidence of just how young she was. As if to underline that aspect (not to mention the “Alice in Wonderland” connection she eventually made with Manson), the documentary even includes surreal animated renditions of Wood as a child, which alternate between effective and distracting depending on the scene and purpose.
As a documentary subject and witness to her own life, Wood demonstrates an impressive commitment to and capacity for analyzing her experience as part of an insidious whole. She remembers her father explaining to her when she was very young that he and her mother “fight because we love each other — that’s what people in love do” with the grim gravitas of someone who then internalized the line in all the worst ways. She’s all too aware that her ascendance in Hollywood, spurred on by performances in movies like “Thirteen,” was tied to her skill at portraying a hardened Lolita type of character. These insights play out alongside selected clips from her filmography up to the point she met Manson, including her turns in “Thirteen,” “Running With Scissors,” and “Down in the Valley” as the kind of preternaturally mature girl that adult men might take advantage of. By the time the documentary addresses her filming Manson’s infamous “Heart-Shaped Glasses” music video at age 19, it’s already extensively documented the pervasive image of Wood as the type of precocious Madonna figure she goes on to play for him. In this context, it’s awful how easy it is to imagine the circumstances in which, as Wood alleges in “Phoenix Rising,” she was fed absinthe on the “Heart-Shaped Glasses” set to the point that she was barely conscious to object when Manson had sex with her on camera (which she has since come to understand was “essentially being raped on camera.”)
If this sounds like a whole lot to get through in just over an hour…well, it is. Some sections hold together better than others; amid everything else, the segments addressing Wood’s part in passing the Phoenix Act in California get shorter shrift than they might have if the documentary had more time to address everything it tackles in more depth. But the mission driving Wood, her family, and allies carries throughout. “This isn’t about destroying a man,” Wood insists at one point, already anticipating that probable reaction. That’s not to say, however, that she’s holding back because she believes he deserves any mercy. “He’s already destroyed,” she goes on to say. “That man isn’t a man anymore — he’s gone.”
The episode ends with Wood on the precipice of publicly naming Manson as her abuser for the first time, which she did along with several others in February 2021. Though Manson subsequently became the subject of investigations and was dropped by his agents and record label, he’s since resurfaced to hang out with the likes of Kanye West and Madonna as recently as last week. The story is very much ongoing, and perhaps, no matter how much the second half of “Phoenix Rising” eventually reveals, always will be. In the meantime, having women like Wood open themselves up for scrutiny and not just reclaim their voices, but grapple with how they lost them in the first place, remains a depressing, urgent necessity.