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Sexual assault is a blindingly destructive force in desperate need of a cinematic treatment that takes the time to explore dark psychological responses and abyssal emotional cracks. "Descent" is the head-slappingly awful picture that turns rape into a comedy.
Maya (Rosario Dawson) is a bright college student, shy about love, but seeking a connection to another human being. At a party she meets Jared (Chad Faust, in an extravagantly abysmal performance), a greasy jock who is relentless with his come-ons. Falling under his caveman charms, she takes a chance on the drooling brute, leading to a romantic evening that culminates with her rape. Destroyed, Maya withdraws from her world, spending time in a complete drug-fueled fog. Only when the opportunity for revenge presents itself a year later does she begin to show signs of renewed life.
I'm sure there was a pure intention behind "Descent," but the final product reeks of a bad idea that just lucked into production, where nobody dared raise their voice to stop it. The film takes a very troubling issue and instead of using the screen to chart a map of pain and anger, it bellyflops into stunningly preposterous domains of style and personal distance, doing a great disservice to the thematic reach of the material.
Director/co-writer Talia Lugacy isn't pursuing a grindhouse revenge saga with "Descent," yet perhaps that's where this story needed to travel. Lugacy imagines herself a Kubrickian filmmaker, covering the action in extended takes that are meant to soak the viewer in the juices of the atmosphere, baiting them for the picture's more jagged edges and uproariously one-dimensional characters. However, the movie mostly bores, taking years to realize dramatic corners that would only require seconds from a more competent filmmaker.
Maya's tale of violence is a touchy one to explore, but I fail to understand why Lugacy wanted to employ hollow acts of humiliation to best extract a response from her lead character. It's a familiar cycle of psychological shut-down, complete with drugs, distant looks, and social withdrawal. However, the director does nothing with the ingredients. She's lost trying to conjure a neon-smacked mood of a soul shattered, leaning on Dawson's icy detachment to best express Maya's torment, but there's nothing for this gifted actress to work with. She's dutifully playing an empty shell in a film that lacks any emotional significance.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio), "Descent" is a picture that plays with deep blacks and strong reds - two visual elements this DVD has trouble keeping up with. The picture is lacking a crisp confidence that reinforces the horror.
Not much heft to be found on the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Dialogue is crisp and clean, but rarely does the dynamic of the sound mix make a strong impression. It's a hushed film, with only deep-bass club scenes bringing the mix to attention.
A feature-length audio commentary with director Talia Lugacy, co-writer Brian Priest, and star Rosario Dawson is a difficult listen. For starters, the volume level is incredibly screwy, with the chat poorly mixed with the film's audio, leaving huge amounts of commentary information lost. It's a shoddy effort.
The talk that remains audible is a mishmash of pretentious psychological babble, appealing production horror stories, and talk of "Descent's" impact on screening audiences. Lugacy and Priest need a primer on speaking into microphones, so thankfully Dawson leads the discussion, articulating (for better or worse) the thematic sting of the film and her interpretation of certain scenes. She's a joy to listen to.
Two deleted scenes of considerable length (15 minutes) reveal the highs and lows of editing. The first scene is an intriguing cafeteria addition that allows Maya a social circle, thus providing depth to the character the finished film is lacking. The second is an amateurish moment of a collegiate diversity gathering gone horribly wrong. It's embarrassing to watch.
"Q&A with Talia Lugacy and Rosario Dawson" (40 minutes) is a simple home video from a stop on their promotional tour. No new information is passed along, but it is interesting to see Lugacy speak with more authority, and to witness moviegoers fawning over Dawson, who once again asserts herself wonderfully, speaking eloquently about the challenges making this film.
"Rosario Dawson Interview" (13 minutes) is a chat with the actress in a junket-style setting. Again, it's pretty much the same display of spitfire and intelligence as viewed in the previous supplements.
"Behind the Scenes with Director Talia Lugacy" (2 minutes) is a fascinating offering from the Tribeca Film Festival that provides a brief overview of how "Descent" came to be. Of interest is seeing how much Lugacy resembles Lindsay Weir from "Freaks and Geeks."
A theatrical trailer is not included.
By the time Maya is gifted her opportunity to settle the score, "Descent" has tuckered out completely, leaving only one surefire weapon left in Lugacy's arsenal: shock value. Oh, baby does "Descent" climax with a doozy of a punishment for Jared, but it's constructed in such a monumentally goofy way that the scene begs for laughs instead of horror, which feels disrespectful to Maya, but the "Chappelle's Show" style conclusion of the film can't help itself. Will Maya ever recover from her wounds? Does the cycle of pain end here? Will Jared ever be able to sit properly again? You know, who really cares when the filmmaking is this transparent and sloppy.