DARK SKY FILMS (2017)
Director: Natalia Leite
Starring: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Leah McKendrick, Peter Vack, David Huynh, Marlon Young, David Sullivan, Michael Welch, Mike Manning
Art can be a killer. Literally.
Natalie Leite’s (at times) powerful rape-revenge thriller, M.F.A., catches campus rape culture in its crosshairs and shoots to kill. Told using her own experiences with the evil as inspiration, there’s a gritty, low-fi feeling to the movie that at times successfully captures the nastiness required and at others lends a B-movie feeling to proceedings.
Still, I wouldn’t get on the wrong side of Francesca Eastwood.
Shy and introverted art student Noelle (Eastwood) finally catches a break she’s been after – her classroom crush, Luke (Vack), has invited her to a party as his date. Seemingly charming Luke turns out to be the total opposite as that night at the party, he lures Noelle into his bedroom before brutally (and nonchalantly) raping her. The savage effect Noelle feels is ignored by friends, campus doctors and the hipster-fuelled school rape committee – more interested in hashtags than helping. After a visit to Luke’s house ends with him accidentally falling over a balcony and plunging to his death, the empowerment Noelle feels begins to work its way into her once-maligned artwork whilst also implanting a desire for revenge on those who have committed sexual assault on campus.
One thing that cannot be levelled at M.F.A. is restraint. Leite pulls no punches in the depiction of sexual assault and the debilitating effects on the victims, plus the genuine belief that the perpetrators get an easy ride in the eyes of the law. The initial rape scene is viciously depicted, a static shot capturing the unflinching events powered by Sonya Belousova’s pulsing score. It’s an uneasy watch for its short duration. From then on, how the event and subsequent killing spree affected Noelle’s art was frustratingly not explored with any depth, just her sudden decision to paint naked was highlighted. Her switch from shy and reserved to killing machine is abrupt and, at times, the movie falls into formulaic thriller mode.
Her spree is framed well enough and the killing acts each carry their own heavy-hitting moments – including one particularly juddering ‘skull to the sink’ moment – and it’s hard to feel sympathy for any of the victims, to be honest. Eastwood has a sultry yet steely demeanour to her and sells the acts well.
Her lead performance packs a powerful punch. She puts her soul into the role and literally bares everything in a tough and towering act. The remainder of the cast is so-so, including Collins Jr.’s Detective Kennedy whose character is thinly fleshed out, only his beard seems to get any development. Peter Vack is horribly menacing in his short role and delivers a creepily good performance.
The writing in M.F.A. is scathing and sharp all at once, but at times underdeveloped. There are nods to the justice system (or lack of), victim blaming, suicide, male and female expectations, social media and creative inspiration that course through scenes, however at times the deep dive feels shallow when it comes to exposing such heavy issues. The movie has a solid enough pacing and adding additional runtime would essentially rob the movie of its urgent nature. Each subject is given some time and there are some intriguing points made and good moments - the art school scenes are interesting, highlighting the pressure cooker environment and allowing Noelle extra inspiration to further her art, it’s frustrating her inner workings weren’t shown in regards to how she approached her work in the aftermath of her rebirth. With so much going on, the movie does become convoluted as it weaves it’s way towards its conclusion and left me wondering - did the rape empower her to become stronger or did it simply give her a bloodlust?
A timely movie underlining the need for greater clarity and focus on a despicable subject, M.F.A. has a lot to say and for the most part is successful in delivering its message. Some slightly confusing ideas muddy the waters somewhat and the ending carries an ambiguity because of this. One thing for sure is that Eastwood’s performance elevates the movie and her star turn is by far the highlight.
Interesting, intriguing and frustrating. Still, pretty damned good.
November 23rd 2017