My notes on Take Back the Night (2021), which opens in the US March 4.
Co-written by director Gia Elliott and star Emma Fitzpatrick, Take Back the Night is about Jane (Fitzpatrick), a Los Angeles-based artist who goes by ‘Jane Doe Does’ and channels the rage she still has from a childhood at the mercy of an abusive mother.
As the film starts, she’s on the point of suicide after a detective (Jennifer Lafleur) has more or less told her that the report she gave of a violent assault is liable to earn her a criminal conviction for maliciously wasting police time. She’s about to step under a subway train when we’re whisked back to a flashback that shows how Jane got to this point. Celebrating the success of a gallery show, she spent an evening at a warehouse party getting drunk, high and having sex in the bathroom with another guest’s husband, then hooked up for further hallucinatory hijinx with an instant best friend who is so out of it she has to be helped into a cab. Then, locked out of the loft party in a grim alley, Jane is cut off from safety nets by lack of cell phone signal and a creepy guy (Richard McDowell) who refuses to unlock a gate for her (‘what’s in it for me?’) … and something that looks like a flyblown wraith relation of the gorilla-wolf-motherfuckers from Attack the Block crawls out of a dumpster and attacks her, slicing open her stomach and leaving a crescent scar on her wrists.
Conscious of her own state of mind even pre-attack and the way the authorities are going to react to her story, she doesn’t come right out and say she was sexually assaulted by a monster even as she submits to medical examination and evidence-gathering … though she will only refer to her attacker as ‘it’. Just when the detective might be about to believe her, Jane’s sister (Angela Gulner) shows up assuming she’s likely to be a suspect rather than a victim. Still, the sister – a conservative real estate agent, as uptight as Jane is out of control – is Jane’s only real support. The film has a well-worked-out mythology about its beast, but dripfeeds it it through things like glimpsed social media comments – only bringing in people who have had similar experiences after Jane has realised that now she’s marked the monster is going to keep coming back.
Elliott and Fitzpatrick are less concerned with the monster stuff than the basic situation – and there’s awkwardness in the third act as the film tries to resolve the boogeyman business (its kryptonite/stake-through-the-heart is a new-forged bronze dagger). In the end, Jane would be in just as much of a bind if her story were more believable – she makes a brave stand, only to be sabotaged by other women, including the wife (Natalie D’Amico) of the guy she boned at the party and the detective’s reporter girlfriend (Sibongile Mlambo) who digs up her past mental issues during an on-air interview. The whole film treats men the way Let Me In treats adults – or Tom and Jerry cartoons treat humans – by keeping them indistinct or faceless at the edge of the frame, with even the monster (or at least its pale arms) played by a woman (Corinna Kinnear). Fitzpatrick – who’s been in things like The Collector, In Time, Sleepwalker and Bloodsucking Bastards – is terrific as a lead character who knows she’s not always likeable or sensible or kind, but doesn’t deserve what happens to her. Gulner, a new face to me, does a lot with what could easily have been the nagging straight role, especially in the home stretch.
TBTN is the sort of ambitious, engaged horror picture that risks becoming cartoonish by engaging directly with social issues. It’s also scratchy, mercurial in its style (we get a lot of Jane livestreaming to her followers) and has an ending with a few too many bumps, but it’s still thoroughly engrossing, upsetting and angry in a useful, interesting way.
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