2017 | Unrated (R equivalent for language and a brief circumcision scene) | directed by Cassie Jaye | 1hr 57mins |
After screenings were boycotted in Australia and New York, major publications refused to review it and the few that did took the opportunity for political rants, Cassie Jaye’s documentary The Red Pill dumps onto streaming services with no distribution studio, promotion or official rating. The “Men’s Rights Documentary” has been accused of being morally bankrupt and Jaye of being a dishonor to her gender by the rants of (mostly male) movie critics, but is what could be the most controversial little unseen movie of the year any good? Actually, it is.
The Red Pill might frustrate some viewers before it gets to the actual frustration of it’s content. We’ve gotten very used to documentaries in the Michael Moore/Alex Gibney vein that shape a narrative case for an issue or expose an injustice. Even some of my favorite documentaries of recent year, like Laura Portias’ Citizenfour or Gibney’s Going Clear shaped clear arguments between good guys and bad guys and made calls for action. Red Pill doesn’t quite do that, if anything, it complicates the issue of gender equality in a wonderful way that more reflects the messy reality of life by dropping a bunch of other facts and anecdotes on us and letting the viewer sort through them. It’s thought-provoking and debate-encouraging in the best possible way, and it’s interesting because of how huge in scope it’s ideas potentially are.
A movie exploring the political gender war, feminism and the Men’s Rights Advocates (MRAs) would be one thing, but Red Pill’s greatest strength is that Jaye smartly makes the backbone of the narrative her own mental journey as a feminist through this world. While this stuff shouldn’t be controversial, Jaye’s uncertainty with the material and refusal to get up on a soap box and lecture the audience blunts its sting. She describes her allegiance to feminism forming as a teenager when she went to Hollywood and was cast as Blonde Who Gets Killed in B-movies and had her makeup and weight commented on by producers and studio types. She outlines stats about the vast underrepresentation of women in boardrooms and women in government and her previous documentaries for socially liberal causes like marriage equality. When she starts to research the world of college campus rape culture she comes into contact with the leaders of A Voice for Men and from there the movie tears through a series of interviews from men telling escalating horror stories about draining custody battles, domestic abuse and the history of worldwide male disposability.
Jaye gets the feminist perspective too, in a few interviews notably with Ms. Magazine, infamous youtube meme feminist poster-girl “Big Red” as well as the overlap between MRAs and feminism. But the Ms Magazine editor responds to men’s stories of being stabbed by their wife and going to prison for it and being tricked into having children and then losing custody of them with more platitudes and conspiracies about boardroom representation and The Patriarchy. The Patriarchy looms large through the movie and the MRAs argue against it’s existence, sometimes with eyes closed and hands shaking with hurt. Blogger Karen Straughan drops the best line in the movie when she smacks together the notion of the vast harm caused by the patriarchy with the claim that feminism isn’t anti-man. To paraphrase: “Ok, you aren’t anti-man, you just named everything bad after them.”
Visually, the film looks ok. It looks fine. It is a bit more visual than a series of talking heads, but it doesn’t go into full blown Moore animated musical numbers and Gibney visual charts. It has a handful of dramatic re-enactments that feels like a Dateline episode but compliment the stories. The biggest problem may be Jaye’s narration, which often sounds terribly flat and droll. It sounds like she’s reading from a script at times. It is compelling to watch her struggle with her ideology on personal video diaries but I also wonder if it would be too much to ask to hear a bit more about her, her family life, see more of her personality. When she makes a point that feminism speaks to her experiences and the MRA stories do not, I wanted to know about her personal life, her father, her relationships with men and how that shaped her. She largely stays out of it though, even letting her interview subjects talk away when it feels like she should be challenging them – and she later admits to wanting too.
The Red Pill is just as much a critique on the polarization of gender politics as it is an exploration of MRAs. A running theme is how Jaye struggles with viewing men and women through a finite prism. That we view oppression as a zero-sum game where your oppression takes away another’s possible oppression. The movie and the MRAs don’t say women aren’t unequally represented and don’t have their social and political struggles, but that those struggles are in the spotlight and outside that spotlight lie other struggles. The image of men lording over women in boardrooms is put next to the image of men driving cabs and picking up trash. Men going to war in Vietnam and letting women and children off first in the Miracle on the Hudson. The world going all in for the Boko Haram #bringbackourgirls campaign and ignoring that in similar attacks there are no boys to bring back because they don’t get kidnapped, they get burned alive. Death Gaps, Suicide Gaps, Disproportionate Criminal Sentencing, Child custody disputes where men are forced to pay paternity for children who aren’t theirs – and on and on. The movie builds into a comprehensive collection of these issues that have fallen through the cracks.
As a film it is unique, reasonably well constructed and moves at a clip where I didn’t feel it’s almost 2 hour length. Compare that to recent HBO documentaries like Tickled or Beware the Slenderman that feel stretched to fill 2 hours and climax about 30 minutes before they end. Full of fascinating hot-button ideas and blood-boiling stories, the film turns the gender power dynamic on it’s head. It is interesting that amid the Women’s Empowerment Narrative of Hollywood 2017, a movie made by a female director about how women might be more empowered then we usually hear is deemed too controversial for viewing. The Red Pill ultimately and thankfully doesn’t beat you over the head with a point, but asks for more open dialogue. So if you’re a film critic telling people not to see it, you’re the problem. It’s heady stuff if you’re willing to listen.
P.S. The phrase, The Red Pill, as you may know, comes from The Matrix and the 2000 USA Today electoral map that henceforth associated the Right with red and the Left with blue. Take the red pill and wake up, take the blue pill and stay in wonderland. Red Pilling someone would be waking them up to the values of the Right. I wondered if it were possible to do the opposite, if a conservatives get “woken up” to liberalism but googling “blue pill” just gave me results for Viagra.