(This review alludes to the climactic details of M.F.A., which may constitute SPOILERS.)
At the end of 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave, when Jennifer Hills (Camille Keaton) has dispatched the last member of the gang that brutally raped her, her stern expression gives way to a moment of catharsis in which her lips curl in smile that quickly fades. Despite its overt depiction of rape and bloody retribution, Meir Zarchi’s controversial cult classic contained the type of nuance reserved more for the art-house circuit than the grindhouse.
A similar smile graces the face of Noelle (Francesca Eastwood, daughter of Clint), the avenging angel of M.F.A. It comes after the climax, and after the filmmakers have made a definitive statement on where they stand regarding the cast-aside victims of campus rape.
Where M.F.A. syncs up with Grave is in a key homage: Jennifer, a New York City writer, returns to the tattered fragments of her work-in-progress, with the implication that her traumatic experience has become the inspiration. Noelle is an art student who begins the semester with a sick muse – after receiving a scathing class critique for her latest WIP (an abstract image of a woman huddled under a cocoon of blankets), she is encouraged to get out of her funk by attending a party with some classmates, including Luke (Peter Vack), who has shown signs of interest. In a brutal turn of events, Noelle finds herself raped and stumbling back home. Receiving no help from administrators or campus support groups, she decides to go on a violent crusade against rapist scum.
Like Jennifer, Noelle’s life and art see revival through acts of vengeance. M.F.A. presents Noelle as a corollary to Dexter Morgan, doling out severe punishment only to those who’ve wriggled from the grip of justice. But at what point does vengeance become its own bloodthirsty addiction?
The concept is strongest in the early going. Writer Leah McKendrick (who also plays Noelle’s housemate, Skye) and director Natalia Leite put a distinctly feminist spin on the tale, giving ample attention to the victim’s struggle. Noelle’s encounter with a middle-aged female administrator (Mary Price Moore) is a punishing sequence – literally and figuratively – that peeks behind the curtain of how colleges redirect blame in a cynical effort to save face. Similarly, when Noelle confronts Luke post-rape, the latter recollects the encounter as justified and consensual, and only when Noelle insists otherwise does he become defensive (as current events show, there is a sick truth in Luke’s slut-shaming delusion and dissociation).
These moments recall Grave, particularly when Jennifer forces gas-station attendant Johnny (Eron Tabor) to strip at gunpoint. She’s appalled that this husband and father could do what he did without conscience or remorse; his appalling response, in turn, is that men are basically slaves to their dicks. It’s the most explicit insight offered on the subject, leaving the viewer to do their own legwork as to whether the film positively or negatively affects the greater conversation on rape.
I also found myself thinking about Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, which – in addition to its gritty, shot-in-NYC aesthetic – had the angle of victim Thana (Zoe Lund) being mute. Removing the ability to verbally express what she’s suffered is ingenious in its cruelty, but also forces the filmmakers to approach the subgenre from an atypical perspective. Thana’s rampage – gunning down a veritable rogues’ gallery of scumbags wearing permanent hard-ons – is the externalization of everything she’s feeling inside. The masquerade climax, in which she dons a nun’s habit, is poetic in its paradox.
Not unlike Grave and Ms. 45, M.F.A. contains scattered kernels of revelation. It isn’t a bad film, but the impact of its early scenes is diminished by what comes after.
While the plot revolves around Noelle’s perception of a post-rape world (a repeated motif is the piercing subjectivity of her emerald-green eyes), the introduction of investigator Kennedy (Clifton Collins, Jr.) pulls the film in the direction of a police procedural. While the character’s function is obvious (to provide a sympathetic contrast to the amoral fratboy villains), he isn’t fleshed out with much necessity. Grave and Ms. 45 were intriguing in their treatment of the female as utterly alone in the world (an island unto themselves), left to take matters into their own hands. The police element of M.F.A. feels like script padding, and a moral fail-safe when the film lays its final thesis bare: that Noelle’s actions are justified, but “may the punishment fit the crime.” It’s a blend of murky and crowd-pleasing (which, granted, is the operative mode for most rape-revenge films), and the ending is less about sparking greater conversation than ensuring that the narrative is wrapped up nicely.
For what it’s worth, though, I like how Collins – who played a psychotic off-campus drug-dealer in The Rules of Attraction – is cast against type in this, giving a weathered and subdued performance.
While the plot has its fair share of contrivances (including a gymnasium-set execution that seems particularly ill-advised), the performances are compelling. Also, the depiction of rape is off-putting to the point of sickening (as it should be). While the script bends the credibility of Noelle’s character, Eastwood logs a fine performance that is a push-pull of emotion. Likewise, McKendrick is a complex character who reveals layers of damage when she learns of Noelle’s campaign. The dynamic between this duo is fascinating – unified by similarity and difference, their bond never feels less than genuine. Even when certain character beats seem rushed, they are the heart that keeps M.F.A. beating.
Jonny Numb’s Letterboxd Rating: 3 out of 5 stars