While She Was Out

You don't have to hate men to watch this, but it helps
★
☆☆☆☆☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Susan Montford
Starring: 
Kim Basinger, Lukas Haas, Craig Sheffer, Jamie Starr
The Setup: 
Woman is targeted by a bunch of psychos, kills them one by one
Discussion: 

When one wants to make a film explicitly making a statement about power relations between men and women, one has to be pretty careful and construct one's argument carefully, or you risk undermining yourself with a film that undercuts or directly contradicts the big ideas you're trying to get across. Which is exactly what happens here. I became interested in this when I read about it being marketed as a direct-to-video fun exploitation revenge film, but it turns out to have much bigger ideas on its mind--only not the skill or intelligence to carry them out.

The credits inform us that this is based on a short story, and written and directed by a woman named Susan Montford. We view various children's drawings that dissolve into a view of a car driving through an upper middle class suburb. Craig Sheffer [the other brother from A River Runs Through It] is arguing on the phone with a co-worker, and ends the call by saying "Fuck you." This is Christmas eve, by the way. He comes in to find the house perfectly clean--but strewn throughout with kids' toys. Kim Basinger as Della comes out, and he asks her what she does all day that the house is strewn with toys. "We have kids," she weakly stammers. He asks her why she can't fix herself up a tiny bit for him, then punches a hole in the wall right next to her! Right in front of the kids! He's an out-of-control monster!

Which is exactly the problem. We are only ten minutes into the movie and already one is being distanced by serious argumentative issues. The house is SUCH a mess that you might be sitting there saying "Really, what DOES she do all day?" And even if she's busy, shouldn't these kids have a tiny shred of responsibility to pick up even a LITTLE bit? Then the husband is this off-the-chart monster who is punching holes in the wall of his own house over a few toys--wouldn't the house show a lot more damage if he's this hot-headed? And let's not forget that, based on the evidence we get in this film, he is the sole breadwinner here and HAS provided this massive McMansion and funds Della's staying home with the kids [a full-time job, I know, I know], and--none of that counts? He's a BAD person for working to keep his family in luxury? So from the start, the movie is trying to balance serious "feminist" argument atop an extremely weak men=bad, women=good foundation.

Okay, so it's Christmas eve, and Della needs to go to the mall to buy wrapping paper. So this woman we're supposed to endorse is too stupid to buy wrapping paper before the very last second. Then we see that Della is a SERIOUSLY distracted driver, having her eyes on the road only about 65% of the time, and fumbling around for her cell phone and stuff the rest. She almost gets in an accident. Then she gets to the mall and is shocked to discover that it's packed, and aghast that when the mall is packed, there's no parking. Let's also take time to note that if all she needs is wrapping paper, any Rite Aid will do--she doesn't need to go to the mall at all! So it's really hard for me to get behind how unfair this woman's struggle is when this woman is presented as FLAT-OUT DUMB!

She has to park in the lot across the street, and is appalled at this large car taking up two spaces. She leaves a note on the windshield saying "Hey Jerk, two parking spaces? How selfish can you be?" She goes in the mall and looks at a large display of Victoria's Secret-type lingerie that is displayed RIGHT outside in the public promenade [i.e. not within a store] and--does that happen? Do they display extremely intimate lingerie right across from Santa's workshop, where kids are milling? Just asking. We're supposed to tsk-tsk at the patriarchal culture that unfairly expects women to dress like sluts to please men. Della goes to the Starbucks-like cafe and is hurt that the woman behind the counter only writes one 'L' in her name on the cup when she specifically said TWO! Okay--are these REALLY the indignities you're saying poor, oppressed women have to endure? She then runs into an acquaintance who has bought lingerie and is going to get her hair done [after 9pm on Christmas Eve, I remind you] because she is fully participating in the system of patriarchal oppression!

Then Della goes into the store and buys her wrapping paper. In here she smiles at a father she sees, in a casual sweater [i.e. desexualized] who is buying a snow globe for his little son. See, there ARE decent men out there! There is ONE decent man out there! This movie is so fair and well-balanced. And he does the only thing Della seems to approve of, which is buy baubles for children. Maybe this is why her house is so filled with discarded children's toys and kids' bric-a-brac? Then the movie makes a particular point that Della's credit card charge--for $20--is declined. What's THAT about? Are we supposed to believe that her evil husband is limiting her funds? We aren't told, so the only thing we can assume, based on the evidence so far, is that Della is just too scattered to even pay her bill on time.

Okay, so once Della comes out of the wrapping store--FOOMP!--the mall is EMPTY. The parking lot is EMPTY. All those people just VANISHED in 2 minutes, which seems like the real story here. Were they abducted by aliens? So Della walks by the big car, still there, but notices that her note is now gone. She walks across the street, starts her car [without so much as a glance in the back seat], and then--SHAZAM!--the big car is RIGHT behind hers. So they can teleport? Is that it? Because it would have taken a lot more time for that car to start, exit the one parking lot and enter the other, and get right up behind her. Out comes poor, poor, poor Lukas Haas and his crew of teen cronies, who notably use a lot of misogynist language [Bitch, Cunt] in their conversation, and taunt Della with threats such as "We're gonna staple your pussy closed." They surround and taunt her until a security guard we saw earlier shows up. Haas, as Chuckie threatens him with a gun, and before you know it, has shot the guy right in the head! Over nothing, right in the middle of a parking lot! He then steps up and shoots another bullet into the guard's head. I watched a tiny bit of the "Making of" special, in which one of the producers says this is the big shocking moment when you know nothing can be the same, but for me it was the big moment where you go "WHAT am I supposed to think here?" The only thing that makes sense is that it was verging on an accident, but Chuckie shows no surprise or shock, and steps up cool as a cucumber to put another bullet in the guys' head. So it seems like he clearly meant to do it, aside from the fact that it is a quite extreme reaction over virtually no provocation, and they're right in the middle of a fairly public place, so... the only thing you can conclude is that these guys are on serious meth or something, but we have no other evidence of that, and they seem sober the rest of the time. So they're just SUPER crazy, which apparently Montford doesn't realize makes them very unbelievable, which in turn invalidates any seriousness with which we can take this movie! It seems she wants to make serious points about the real world, yet her story is so out in fantasy land there's no way to bring it back.

SPOILERS > > >
So Della gets in her car and escapes. She's driving--well, like you can expect someone like her character to drive--and ends up crashing headlong into a parked lumber truck in an empty subdivision construction site. She grabs her red toolbox, which seems to have very little in it but maybe one tool and two little kids' dolls, which makes it a bit surprising when she keeps pulling tools out of it as the story goes on. She runs into one of the houses under construction.

Now here is where we should be coming to the "thriller" part, but here is actually where things become rote and boring, since it's all just one big stalking sequence for the next forty minutes. First the Black bad guy [there's a white, Latino, Asian and Black--racially progressive bad guys!] dies under extremely unlikely circumstances. He had a collarbone tattoo that said "Fuck Everybody," by the way, showing what an amoral heathen he is. The survivors vow to take care of that Della but good, and she takes off into the woods.

Now we have this long, suspenseless, rhythmless chase through the woods--the incredibly well-lit woods. The Asian guy pours out a bit of his beer in a hip-hop tribute to his fallen friends. Soon she ends up menaced by the Latino, and bashes him repeatedly across the face with a cross-like tire iron [let's not get into how that could have fit into her small toolbox], finally, and again, highly improbably, driving it right into his head through his nose. You may have a moment of "Woah! Sudden extreme gore!" but I suspect that Montford thinks she's going to sneak feminist messages into the usually-male province of the exploitation film, and thinks that guys like gore, enough said. This is as insulting as putting a shoe-shopping sequence into a movie and expecting that women who go gaga over it, but it seems that to her all men [save the sexless sweater-wearing dad who buys baubles for his kids] are just mindless sex and violence machines.

In here Della pulls out her daughter's drawing she was given before she left. There it is to the right. Now, a common theme in movies of superficial "feminism" is the fantasy that the husband will either die, be exposed as a criminal / rapist / child molestor, and the wife will get the kids without that horrible, evil man in the picture, and live happily ever after and never, ever be asked to have sex again. Now look in the daughter's picture, how the two kids are clutching their mother, with daddy all alone off by himself separated from the group. "Mommy we love you " [i.e. not daddy] goes across the entire picture. Let's just keep all this in mind and see where it ends!

So Della has her "Where are you, God?" moment in the river, then drives a file or some such thing through the back of the Asian's neck and out his mouth. This leaves only Chuckie left to kill, and at this time I looked at the counter and saw, to my horror, that there was still about 30 minutes left! WHAT are they going to do for all that time? And I confess, here is where I started fast-forwarding.

It turned out to be a GREAT decision. Chuckie taunts her some more, she hides some more, but then he threatens her kids! Those precious kids! And she lets him know where she is. Then comes the part we all knew was coming, in which Della pretends to seduce Chuckie in order to gain the upper hand. And of course he falls for it, because to women such as Montford, men are just idiot slaves to their dicks, and will jump at any woman who offers herself to them--even if she's just finished killing three of his friends, and he knows wants to kill him, too. I suspect she is upset at sterotypical, one-dimensional portrayals of women, so I wonder what she thinks when she charaterizes a man like a sex-crazed moron in this way? Probably best not to ask. Anyway, soon enough Chuckie is dead, in a fairly quiet and low-gore manner, too, considering all the torment he caused her and the grue his other friends were killed off with.

Now, back when Della pulled out the kids' picture, I said to myself "I bet you ten dollars when this is over she goes home and has found the strengh in herself not to take it from her husband anymore." And how right I was! She goes home, checks to make sure her little cherubs are okay, then the last shot is of her ready to blow hubby's head off!

When I watched Enough I was kind of stunned that a movie would so openly advocate that it is not only perfectly okay--but ADMIRABLE--for a wife who has endured domestic abuse to murder her husband. But in that movie she endured much more than Della does here. We have no evidence that she is physically abused, although she does endure verbal torment. Her main problem seems to be that she's expected to pick up the kids' toys [since God knows the little monsters couldn't be asked to do that themselves], and maybe run a comb through her hair before her husband gets home. Maybe that's unfair... but is it cause for MURDER? You know, I think talk of divorce would be an extreme second step, if an honest heart-to-heart and maybe a suggestion of couples counseling didn't work. But murder? Seriously?
< < < SPOILERS END

So this joins the long list of movies that purport to support women while simultaneously undermining them. I love to get behind a good wronged female character, but look, Della here can barely drive a car! She hasn't bought her wrapping paper until Christmas eve, and then she goes to the mall when she could have stopped at any drug store! Add this to the many other characters and situations that don't add up--the undeveloped husband, the ludicrously over-the-top villains, the ridiculous, out-of-nowhere execution-style shooting of the security guard--and the whole thing is a gargantuan miss as a statement about sexual politics.

And part of what makes it such a miss as a STATEMENT is that it's trying so hard to be a statement. Foxy Brown says so much more about the place of women in society and the strength of one woman, but that movie puts its action and character first and lets the statement develop naturally. Ditto Julia, Thelma and Louise, any of the Resident Evil movies, Freeway, Buffy... In the "making of" feature on this disc--in which they somehow manage to talk about this movie for an incredible 25 minutes--Montford says she wanted to create a film in which, for once, the woman wasn't just the helpless victim. Um, well, Foxy Brown has been out for 40 years, no?

Okay, aside from all this, how is it as an exploitation movie? It sucks. It's difficult to vicariously get behind an oppressed character when she's such an idiot, and the action of the film doesn't so much show us her relying on her wits as getting in a few lucky shots, as well as trading on her sexuality. And since the situation that sets it all in motion is so ludicrous, it's difficult to become involved in the action of the whole thing. Not to mention that it's poorly-written and directed without any panache or gusto.

Yeah, just a bust in every conceivable way.

Should you watch it: 

No, unless you want to criticize it.

Comments

I really wanted to like this movie, but you pretty much nailed how utterly stupid it all is. One suspects that they cast Haas against type to make some form of comment like "waif dudes can kill, too," but he comes across as playing tough in an acting class for scene work.

I thought Kim Basinger did well here, although I might be reading something meta into her performance. Which is to say that I suspect that she was projecting her divorced relationship with Alec Baldwin into the role.