Sunday, January 23, 2011


No Strings Attached [**] and I Spit On Your Grave (2010) [***]

More often than not women dictate the terms of a relationship. Usually because they're sexier and we'll heed to their every beck and call, but also because we men are usually the dumber and more primitive half of the coupling. These films, No Strings Attached and I Spit on Your Grave [2010], are two instances where I think women lose complete control, but also monogamy rears its head and stakes a claim pretty loudly on the modern relationship type landscape.

First, we have director Ivan Reitman's No Strings Attached which allows Natalie Portman a rare opportunity to flex comic muscles and allows for the third film in a row in which Ashton Kutcher really owns as a leading man. He's likable without seeming bland or putzy and he has a couple of killer lines. My favorite line comes a few scenes after we discover that his perpetually stoned father is dating one of his former girlfriends: "I can't date you either. You're not my dad's type."

The plot such as it is involves summer camp acquaintances who reunite some twenty-odd years later to rekindle (or kindle, depending on your view of their first meeting as pre-teens and college students, respectively) a relationship. It starts out as blissful, consequenceless sex but soon feelings enter the mix and while Kutcher submits to the feelings immediately Portman does not and thus the typical complications of romantic comedy ensues.

Along the way there are a few laughs to be had, but not a great many. We often get to watch likable people being the best they can be in a movie that isn't terribly interested in letting people be the best versions of themselves that they can be.

I like that the movie plays up Kutcher's nice guy image but never makes him feel weak for wanting what he wants. The movie, in fact, respects the kind of guy he is so much that fate intervenes in any attempt to undermine his values. Kutcher isn't one hundred percent sold on the notion of monogamy at first, but from the beginning his attempt at casual sex ends in a drunken, crying sex-free stupor and his 'no strings attached' relationship with Portman is still defined by his exclusivity to her.

Portman's character is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a raging slut but she is unpleasant in the character's initial scenes and remains resistant to the pull of love in such a way that it becomes hard to root for them as a couple. There is a moment where Portman not only insists on abandoning their Valentine's Day date, but needs to be taken home by the very man she is dumping.

As I knew the film would ultimately end with their coupling and I couldn't get behind them as a couple, I had to remove myself emotionally from the rest of the proceedings. I don't like not being emotionally involved in romantic comedies, particularly the more vulgar ones, because they distill emotions more honestly and despite all the character woes they give an honest treatment to things like fear of commitment or what have you. "No Strings Attached" finds a way to make a selfless devotion to one person feel like a bad choice.

There is little doubt that writer Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) has had men wrapped around her finger before. That's not to say that Jennifer is a tease or deliberately manipulates men, but she's definitely so pretty that considering it a foregone conclusion is not so out of line. She's definitely sweet and cute and a welcome breath of sexiness for the backwater area she is calling home as she writes her next book. But the men in that area are just forward enough and unkempt enough that they can come across as unnerving; what causes panic in Jennifer is something the locals call an uppity city bitch-ness. A kind punishable by verbal abuse and, eventually, rape. It seems to be a pretty frank resentment of the way women consciously (or not) hold sway over men.

While the men in the film certainly seek to usurp her power (though it is not explicitly the power of a sexual being but rather the power of a "city bitch") and in so doing the film becomes a rallying cry against the unfair amount of power females yield in relationships both real and imagined, it's strongest argument actually becomes one in favor of monogamy.


One of Jennifer's assailants is the town sheriff, who happens to be married and skips out on church to attend to some business involving the debasement of a visiting local writer. As the film's only married and committed character he later receives a punishment (that a lesser director might have decided to heap on the female victim with as much detail) akin to the rape he committed earlier in the film. He's actually the only character to receive a rape in kind and while he wasn't the only character to rape her he is the one to get the most literal sin turned against the sinner type punishment. It's no accident that. If monogamy is against our basic biology then why are we capable of higher thought? If one doesn't endeavor to evolve what's the point of giving them capacity to make choices? It seems like an awful waste of a brain if you ask me. I guess the question goes both ways, if we're so evolved why do we do such animalistic things? If we are given the tools to reason then I suppose we have to decide these things for ourselves. But I think both movies suggest that we have evolved past animal urges or that maybe the animal urge is to restore monogamy. It's an interesting discussion point no matter how wrong I probably am.

That being said, the I Spit On Your Grave remake is worth discussing for other reasons.

I like that the film shows restraint in graphically depicting the abuses heaped on Jennifer Hills. A lot of times they degrade her with insults and treat her less than human, but they don't go for ripping the clothes off right away. When her attackers mock her writing it seems like a bigger, more devastating exposure than anything they can do to her body because what they choose to read aloud is like pulling a secret out of her. Butler, I think, plays these violations very well.

For something that falls in the torture porn vein the murders aren't terribly graphic in the way they would be if the film were from Alexander Aja or any of the Saw filmmakers, but they have a very precise way of getting to the point and being very literal. The filmmaker has his eyes pried open with fish hooks, the sheriff receives a rape in kind, the mentally handicapped guy is the recipient of failed strangulation, another is drowned, etc. I like to think that the on the nose quality of the murders comes from the fact that the heroine is a writer so she makes things literal, brings them full circle and even relies on various and sundry cliches like sneaking up on people and knocking them out with lug wrenches or baseball bats. I want to believe that her job allows her to tap into creative impulses and the familiar. It's easier believing these things come from a creative reservoir she has as a writer than being the terrible things that everyone has simmering just below their own surface. It probably isn't true, she's as guilty of having an animal just below her skin as the rest of us, but if we can believe for a second that she learned this because of her job and not because we all have an evil nature then we can believe we've evolved past an animal state, we can believe in monogamy and even that what we suffer doesn't truly destroy us. It pushes us through to hope.

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