Editors Note: This article contains spoilers for Stay Close and The Invisible Man, as well as discussions of sexual assault narratives in films.
"Stay Close" has been trending on Netflix, but the series — based on Harlan Coben’s 2012 crime novel of the same name — fails to lift its original text out of the last decade. The whodunnit’s twist ending, although technically well-executed, is out of step with our evolving conversations about justice. It reflects a broader issue in film and television.
When men create female revenge narratives, they often miss the mark, focusing on retributive violence rather than more nuanced, complicated or unsettling perspectives. This is not just a dangerous depiction of what justice should look like, it’s also quite frankly just boring.
I am not the first to say this. After the release of Netflix’s #MeToo-era genre-bender "The Perfection" (2018), Vox writer Aja Romano wrote that it “exploit[s] the very survivors it’s trying to uplift.” In the film, directed by Richard Shepard and written by Shepard, Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo, two women who were systematically abused at their music conservatory return to enact violence upon their abusers. This choice has consequences — although their mission succeeds, each woman loses a limb in the process. What purpose then, does this revenge serve for these women?
Another culture writer, Cate Young, argues, “There is a wide gulf between justice and what 'The Perfection' imagines. Violence here exists not for catharsis, but for spectacle.”
"The Invisible Man" (2020) repeats this blunder. Despite a breathtaking performance by Elisabeth Moss and direction that elevated the jump scare from a cheap tactic to exceptional horror, the film fell flat thematically in its final moments. The main character is haunted throughout the film by her abusive ex-partner — an inventor who creates an invisibility suit and uses it to stalk her and question her reality.
The movie ends, not with some sort healing or restoration, but with her donning the suit herself to kill him. In taking revenge, the victim is made to take on some part of their victimizer.
This trope transcends genres. "Kill Bill: Volume 2" (2004) ends with Uma Thurman’s character killing her former boss and lover using the training he forced her to undergo. The titular investigator in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (2011) sodomizes her rapist. Jamie Lee Curtis’ character in "Halloween Kills" (2021) is obsessed with killing the murderous Michael Myers. In "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017), a grieving mother looking for justice for her murdered daughter decides to hunt down a man who — while certainly horrible and possibly a killer — never met her daughter.
These films — almost entirely written by men — present as feminist, but just exemplify masculine notions of power and carceral notions of justice. There is an unambiguously bad guy that must be punished. Now, instead of the victim’s father a la "Taken" (2008), the mother or victim herself will dole out the punishment. The need for prisons and retribution is rarely questioned. "Stay Close" is no exception.
The mini-series and, as we eventually see, murders at the heart of it are female-led. In the last episode, we learn that the real culprit behind most of the murders was a serial-killing woman, Lorraine, who targeted no-good men from sleazy womanizers to straight-up abusers.
Like many women in this trope, she was changed when she was assaulted within a controlling, abusive relationship. She first killed her abuser, and then she felt compelled to kill again once a year to punish other bad men. The kicker is that she is dying of cervical cancer. Even before she is found out, Coben has given her a death sentence.
These stories all begin with a man taking away a woman’s control over her own life, but they don’t end with her regaining control. "Stay Close" ends with Lorraine’s arrest. Her abuser controlled her in life and even in death, he has stolen her freedom and condemned her to die in prison.
Rather than through her healing or gaining control over her own life again, Lorraine’s character growth is advanced by her exerting control and power over other people. This pattern is repeated in films like Ari Aster’s "Midsommar" (2019) and Michael Mohan’s "The Voyeurs" (2021).
We are challenged to root for these women by the invisible men behind the camera, but while their cinematic visions are often enthralling, their insight is shockingly limited when it comes to questioning what justice is. This dearth is the result of a failure of imagination.
The Black Lives Matter movement and abolitionist calls to divest from police and prisons have already begun to shape the kinds of stories that are being told in the mainstream. But there is still so much room to expand how justice is explored and depicted in films.
Compared to the volume of media dedicated to violent retribution, there has been little film or TV exploring restorative or transformative justice. Unsurprisingly, much of the work that does explore complicated issues of accountability, mercy and justice are documentaries, such as Attiya Khan’s "A Better Man" (2017) or Chico Colvard’s "Family Affair" (2010). Or even movies based on true events — think "Spotlight" (2015), "Philomena" (2013), or "Bombshell" (2019). Real life has a way of imposing nuance on stories that we wish were neater.
In practice, vigilante faux-feminist antiheroes can point out the oppression that women face, but they rarely serve to uplift women. This is not to say that women or even feminists are monolithic in their approach to justice, but it is clear that women are usually the very filmmakers who have subverted this trope.
Ana Lily Amirpour’s "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" (2014) and Patty Jenkins’ "Monster" (2003) feature revenge killings that de-emphasize the violence itself in favor of the freedoms gained as a result of that violence. While Marvel’s "Jessica Jones", created by Melissa Rosenberg, replicates the simplistic justice typical of the superhero genre, the titular Jones’ character development is less about her super-strength and more about learning to live after being mind-controlled.
Sofia Coppola’s "The Virgin Suicides" (1999), Sara Colangelo’s "The Kindergarten Teacher" (2018) and Adrienne Shelly’s "Waitress" (2007) all directly subvert the expectation of violence as justice, featuring women who are stymied in their growth and freedom searching for ways to take back control.
We deserve more of these subversive, interesting and complicated takes. Film is an artistic medium that should expand our understanding of what it means to seek justice, heal from harm and the contradictions of being human. But when we are served the same tired formulas, even in compelling new packaging, our imagination will only be limited.
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