Does ‘Colossal’ deserve praise for its depiction of domestic violence?


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If I were to pinpoint the moment Colossal went from being a mildly diverting take on the kaiju genre to a white-knuckle hellride through my worst nightmares, it was probably when Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) started treating Gloria (Anne Hathaway) like a naughty child after she dared to stand up to his belittling her at their after work drinks.

Trailer: Colossal

A woman discovers that severe catastrophic events are somehow connected to the mental breakdown she’s suffering from.

The fact that Gloria was cosmically linked to a giant monster wreaking havoc halfway around the globe in Seoul was suddenly immaterial: I was reliving my own experiences of emotional and psychological abuse, minute by minute. It was as though I’d accidentally signed up for a virtual reality experience titled “Just When You Thought You’d Finally Forgotten That Time He Yelled At You Until You Cried On The Floor…” instead of sitting down to watch a diverting genre flick.

I left the movie theatre feeling completely rinsed, and it was a sense of unease that followed me throughout the week.

Hang on a minute, you’re probably thinking; you’ve seen the trailers: this is the fun-looking “Anne Hathaway is Godzilla” movie, as much word-of-mouth has put it, right? That’s the power of a canny (or misleading) marketing campaign, because director/writer Nacho Vigalondo has noted in a number of interviews leading up to the film’s release that he was consciously creating a domestic violence dynamic in the relationship between Oscar and Gloria.

Alas, rather than providing any insight (or even the potentially cathartic thrills of a “rape-revenge” film), Colossal seems content to merely use abuse as an unexpected plot twist. Reformed party girl Gloria is given the barest depth of character, and, though the grand finale is clearly positioned as “empowering”, we’re left curiously without any sense of catharsis at the film’s conclusion (there’s also a flippant final beat that is especially galling).

“It’s funny,” the filmmaker told LA Weekly. “Anne is clearly the point of view of the movie, but the man’s arc is bigger, which is strange for an antagonist. He has the level of transformation of a main character.

“It’s like we’re watching a superhero film, but we took a lot of extra care explaining the villain.”

This is a scenario we know all too well; the frequent attempts to humanise men who abuse or kill their partners or children as “a great guy” or “a committed family man” are a well-worn media trope. In the context of a film ostensibly about the female victim, though, this is galling – especially because Colossal has a very shaky idea of where normal interpersonal behaviour ends and abuse begins. Hint: it’s not the moment a man punches a woman.

When Oscar starts to use Gloria’s kaiju-connection as a standover tactic, orders her around at work, or belittles her in front of their friends, I didn’t see a classic cinematic showdown between a villain and a hero, I saw a man systematically isolating and controlling a woman.

For women who’ve endured emotional abuse, Oscar’s scolding tantrums would be chilling reminders of past experience. Watching him lavishing gifts of homewares and furniture on Gloria would recall the sweeping romantic gestures that quickly give way to controlling behaviours. I know because I’ve been there, and the memories that Colossal dredged up – from public dressing downs about grocery shopping to bitter silent rages that left me almost hysterical, driven mad by neglect – shook me to my core.

The salt rubbed in the wound of those upsetting memories, then, for me and I’m sure many other viewers, is the efforts of Colossal to explore Oscar’s point of view while offering scant character development for Gloria.

Anne is clearly the point of view of the movie, but the man’s arc is bigger, which is strange for an antagonist.

Nacho Vigalondo, Director

We don’t know much about her life other than some loosely sketched details about being fired from her job, and her resulting hard-partying lifestyle. We hear a lot, on the other hand, about Oscar’s disappointments in life, his failed relationship, his broken family. He even gets a big, sad speech in his big, sad house. By the time a flashback unfurls the mystery of Gloria and Oscar’s intertwined lives and makes it clear what she’s dealing with, it’s too little, too late.

This emphasis on the viewpoint of the villain/abuser is reflected in the media’s response to the film. Much of Hathaway and Sudeikis’ time on the press circuit for Colossal has been spent discussing GamerGate, men’s rights activists and “nice guys”, and what their motivation might be.

Sudeikis has talked about how Vigalondo workshopped these topics with him, but I wonder if Hathaway was given access to domestic violence experts or abuse survivors? Or do the filmmakers think that Oscar only becomes an abuser when things get physical?

(Vigalondo has said, of Gloria, “I wanted to tell the story without her being abused or forced,” which suggests an understanding of the nature of abuse that is, shall we say, a little undercooked.)

Of course, my reading of these scenes and themes is coloured by my own experience, and my experience of people’s misunderstanding of the dynamics of emotional abuse. Plenty of other people will see this film and think it’s a nuanced exploration of toxic relationships, or a kicky take on genre filmmaking, and that’s fine.

Shit happens, after all: movies are always going to explore themes and images that will be upsetting to certain groups of people. As more than one critic has noted, people who lived through 9/11 must’ve got real tired of all the “paper fluttering from crumpled skyscrapers” shots that started to pepper disaster and superhero movies in the mid-’00s.

That’s why content warnings and ratings advice exist (though the MPAA might do well to pay as much attention to scenes of domestic and emotional abuse themes as they do “scenes of tobacco use”).

In the end, Colossal leaves me conflicted. I’m glad that genres other than the “depressing kitchen sink drama” are beginning to explore abuse, but bitterly disappointed that this particular exploration turned out so poorly (see, all this aside, it’s also just a not-very-good movie).

The sad reality of surviving abuse is that you rarely get a blockbuster finale or the sort of resolution that Hollywood script structure offers. There are no big Oscar-clip speeches, uplifting “putting your life back together” montages, or upbeat end credits theme songs.

I would welcome the chance to experience a woman’s filmic victory over an abuser, especially one that exists within my beloved genre cinema. Unfortunately, Colossal just left me with the same cold and anxious rage I already know too well.

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