“I now see how he used his relationship with me as a shield, both during and after our marriage, so no one would question his relationships with other women or scrutinize his writing as anything other than feminist.”
– Kai Cole, “Joss Whedon Is a ‘Hypocrite Preaching Feminist Ideals’”, The Wrap (August 2017)
Last month when I asked for films worth splurging on (I’m not joining another service, not even for the free trial), several recommended I see Promising Young Woman. They loved the film, but were divided on the ending, which they didn’t spoil. I actually had the chance to see an advanced screener of the film, but the instructional video I was shooting that day (all masks, open windows, two-person crew, socially distant) went long and I’d missed the online check-in by the time I got home.
Having now watched Gillian Horvat’s I Blame Society, I’m all the more eager to see how Promising Young Woman would work as a companion piece. Whereas the latter is getting all kindsa buzz, the former appears to building acclaim limited to the festival circuit – and it’s not hard to see why.
This is a film about taking a backhanded compliment (“You’d make a great killer”) and running with it, sometimes literally. It’s about a city and business that’s gone from completely disregarding women as human beings to paying them post-#MeToo lip service. By coincidence, I saw this film back-to-back with a similar-themed film by a Black woman film-maker, which made for an interesting day of festival screening.
LA-based writer-director Horvat stars as, well, LA-based writer-director Gillian Horvat, whose short films (which we don’t see) apparently generate enough feedback to land her an agent and a few meetings. Mind you, the agent soon drops her and the “Broducers” with whom she meets are condescending pricks who just want to boost their diversity numbers. As all this is going on, Horvat documents her attempts to put the aforementioned backhanded compliment into practice.
I say “document” because yes, the film is done as a faux documentary by Horvat. To her credit, she avoids the Office-esque pitfalls of the genre which always claims to be from the POV of a small crew, yet there are a billion cameras every possible place at every possible time. Horvat has a limited number of cameras (including her phone and a GoPro) that are all believable equipment for a low-budget film-maker to have and identified in the setting early in the scene. In fact, one of the film’s best running gags is Horvat’s overly dramatic use of a wheelchair assisted dolly to capture her sane-sounding madness.
And yeah, Horvat the character is, as Ned Flanders would put it, “insane in the ol’ membrane”. She’s clearly talented and indisputably on the receiving end of institutional misogyny (one key scene early on has her professional editor boyfriend rant about a female film-maker whilst proclaiming himself a feminist; he boasts about wanting to “splooge all over” the editing bay just to end the session), but that doesn’t justify how bad her actions are.
She begins by targeting the girlfriend of a close male friend of hers, with Horvat claiming the girlfriend – whom she calls “Stalin” – is emotionally abusive. She then puts herself into the criminal mindset through petty shoplifting that soon balloons into stalking a random Asian woman into whose house Horvat breaks. Eventually, this leads to outright poisoning and planting a suicide note. From there, she becomes a full-blown honey trap serial killer, filming her seduction of unsuspecting dudes whom she poisons and plants notes on.
The media, of course, are convinced the killer is a guy.
From that description, it may be hard to fathom that the film is meant to be a dark comedy. Indeed, most of the comedy comes from the mental gymnastics Horvat does to justify her killing spree. Yet, Horvat the writer-director is self-aware enough to not regard her lead as a hero. Her first killing involves withholding an EpiPen from someone in anaphylactic shock unless the person agrees to Horvat’s selfish request. Another victim a self-absorbed dude who constantly talked over his date at a coffee shop.
All of these murders are horrible crimes, but the advantage is that we have to ask “Can you blame her?”
The real downside to the film is that when it does become a full-blown killing spree, it gets too grim for its own good. It isn’t able to hold a consistent energy and, perhaps intentionally, becomes just an excuse to show off creative montages of the macabre. As someone not of fan that sort of thing in Eli Roth movies, I’m not a fan of it here either. Of course, Eli Roth is a complete hack, so I think Horvat has that much of an advantage.
One also feels a twinge of discomfort the way white woman Horvat targets and Asian woman as her first victim. It’s done as a non-issue, with the woman’s race never being brought up, but when you’re a PoC, you know that race is always an issue, no matter how much white people tell you otherwise.
The film tries to have it both ways and it doesn’t always work.
Still, I Blame Society is an interesting twist on the “women’s revenge” genre of exploitation film-making. It’s a relatable story of someone taking violent retaliation against a daily series of frustrations out of their control. Unlike Carrie, it isn’t done in one passionate outburst, but rather premeditated calculation for the sake of “art”. That’s a shallow excuse, but rooting for a villain with a righteous grudge is a sign of creative storytelling.
I Blame Society is scheduled to stream until the 21st of February as part of SF Indie Fest 2021.
The film runs 1 hour 25 minutes.
For information on how to view this and other films, please visit the festival’s official site here.