The debate over whether or not horror films are sexist - or even misogynist - continues to rage, even as an increasing number of both male and female filmmakers subvert well-known tropes like the Final Girl or the Scream Queen. But despite what deluded GamerGate defenders might have you believe, sexism and misogyny are real, even if the narrative worlds that populate horror films are not. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
At first sight, Ryan Gosling's directorial debut Lost River, might appear to be just another in the line of films focusing on a young, white, male protagonist. Iain De Caestecker, who portrays Bones in the film, is a dead ringer for a younger Gosling, especially in films like Half Nelson or Drive: short, dirty blond hair; white T-shirt and jeans "uniform;" and that intense but laconic stare.
As Lost River progresses, however it becomes apparent that the plight of the female characters is far more urgent and frightening. Bones's mother Billy, played by Christina Hendricks, takes a job as a cocktail waitress at a strip club in order to support her two kids and keep her grandmother's dilapidated roof over their heads. Neighbor Rat (Saoirse Ronan) is the caretaker for her own mute and damaged grandmother (played by horror legend Barbara Steele), a woman who is so unable to deal with her present precarious situation that she watches a videotape of her own wedding on 24/7 repeat.
Although Bully (played by an extraordinarily nasty Matt Smith) has an unexplained but explicit vendetta against Bones, the thrust of his hatred is wielded against Rat because he knows it will hurt Bones even more. Bully offers to give Rat a ride home from a local gas station convenience store, and even lets her sit in the makeshift throne on the back of his convertible, but it's a pretext for future malice. When he asks about her pet rat Nick, his voice and eyes are soft, but these are a mask for his real purpose: prying into her sex life in a way that belies his desire to exert control through violence. When he kills Nick, it's a symbolic rape.
Billy's plight is more obvious. In order to make payments on her home, she must submit to the whims of bank manger Dave (an intensely lecherous and repulsive Ben Mendelsohn), who swears profusely and comments that she's "a beautiful woman," neither of which are germane to her financial troubles. (It's also intriguing to examine how the recent arc of Hendricks' Mad Men character Joan feeds into this narrative.) Dave convinces Billy to accept a job at a bizarre burlesque theater he manages, one in which a live audience watches as women are butchered and brutalized on stage. It's all theater, with fake knives and fake blood, but their delight is obvious.
More disturbing are the underground rooms in which women are encased in translucent plastic, body-shaped chambers so that men can enact their fantasies upon them without actually touching them. Billy seems hesitant to embark on this employment path, even though Cat, the main performer, assures her that the money is good and that as long as the chambers are locked, the women inside are safe.
Later, Dave continues to exert his own control over Billy by warning her that she cannot bring Frankie to work with her because it's not "sexy" and then insisting on driving her home. He asks if she's going to invite him in and then says he has a "problem": he likes to fuck and bad bitches make him crazy.
At no point do Dave or Bully explicitly state that they want to rape either Billy or Rat. But the threat is palpable. Any woman who's been sexually assaulted knows this. Women who've narrowly escaped a sexual assault will also recognize the signposts. With no witnesses it's her word against his. Rapists know this and they manipulate and isolate their victims, choosing their words carefully in order to twist the situation to their own advantage.
While the dreamlike world of Lost River is a fiction, the hopeless situations that the women of the film are faced with are not. That's more frightening than any horror movie. Refreshingly, both women escape their fates through their own actions; they are not saved by the male characters. Despite its uncomfortably accurate portrayal of the ugly world we live in, Lost River suggests that all is not lost, after all.