As Adrian answers the door to greet Maya, we see his defined, tattooed back before we see his face: the same image we encounter throughout the film’s final scene.
Adrian, who “helps the helpless,” smokes a cigarette as Maya asks, “Are you trying to save me?”
The film’s angles employ light, dark, and shadow to emphasize where and how the characters find themselves and one another.
A scene drenched in blue, Adrian establishes dominance over a white man as he forces that man to smoke a cigarette from between his toes, the same man we later see performing fellatio on Adrian from behind a gauzy curtain.
Maya observes that Adrian demands power, and he controls and manipulates others via his own sex appeal.
Maya confronts herself in the mirror after waking from a night of partying, telling herself, “Yeah, you are.”
Maya finds comfort in associating with the dark-skinned men who patronize the club.
Maya seems to enjoy inducing the same breed of humiliation she felt during her attack.
We see that Maya’s sexual partners now include women, who are not deemed a threat.
Maya robotically folds clothing, and she is momentarily hidden from us, hinting at the fact that she has become invisible, a stranger to herself.
This long take demonstrates Jared’s social and masculine identity as a popular and carefree college student rather than a bigoted predator who refuses to even recognize Maya’s assault.
This closeup of Maya’s startled face contrasts well with a distant, out of focus shot of Jared we receive.
The camera focuses so that we briefly see that Jared is positioned to the side as Maya introduces herself to the class, not looking at Maya or even noticing what is taking place around him in the classroom.
The locker room scene illustrates that Jared uses empty rhetoric to induce grandiose visions of his athletic skill in himself and others, and also that Jared resorts to physical violence when he feels backed into a corner by a larger, more dominant male presence.
Before Jared’s rape, we see him sitting alone throwing darts as he dials a number from a matchbook, and sweetly says, “Marci, happy anniversary. Exactly two days ago, we met.” This mellow, stationary image, which illustrates Jared’s keen aim, is followed by closeup shots of intense and violent football play.
When Maya confronts Jared about his cheating on a midterm exam, one-dimensional Jared assumes that she targets him because of romantic or sexual feelings she harbors for him.
As a black woman, Maya’s narrative is one of racial relations and tension. Released in 2007, Descent introduces viewers as well as film critics to the black female avenger within a rape-revenge narrative. As Read states,
In the scene where he rapes Maya, Jared mutters breathlessly, “You fucking maggot, you fucking nothing, nigger with attitude, little miss shit, you fucking baboon cunt, baboon bitch. You like that?” as Maya seethes helplessly beneath him. This degradation is depicted not only through his attack on Maya, but also the way he tries to make her feel worthless, a “fucking nothing…baboon bitch” because of her skin color.
Jared accepts the misogynistic worldview that women who “flaunt” their attractiveness or sexual appeal are begging for rape from onlooking men. Furthermore, Jared asks Maya, “You ever see how they look at you, the boys?” Maya’s skin also gives Jared the opportunity to exoticize her, marking her as “Other,” a hybridized and sexualized creature wading a sea of white. Jared’s discourse represents the sexist ideology that if females appear enticing enough, this dilemma for men warrants sexual domination. Maya has committed the crime of femaleness, which is interpreted as a threat by masculinity, and her punishment is rape.
With the exception of minimal shots depicting Jared on top of Maya, the camera focuses primarily on her frenzied, angry facial expressions during the rape sequence. She screams and growls, and even attempts to bite at Jared’s face as we hear the unzipping of his pants and the panicked, breathy movements of Maya’s struggle. Jared tears off Maya’s panties and stuffs them into her mouth, thus forcing her to consume and subdue her own femininity. This act effectively silences her as well, a form of rhetoric not unfamiliar to a woman of color. Afterward, surrounded by those who fail to understand her withdrawn nature, Maya is assumed to be a “nigger with attitude” among white students who are quick to dismiss her. As Projansky states, “Importantly, the friend-turned-enemy rapist is almost always white” (114). This general rule applies to Descent alongside the rape-revenge films of the 70s, yet Jared’s whiteness plays a much more significant role within Descent.
Maya is targeted because of her skin color, and Jared informs her of just how repulsive and insignificant she must truly be as a colored woman. Read tells us that
Maya’s struggle with her blackness and eventual embrace of it are what constitute this “feminine story.” After Maya’s rape, we note an increasing visual darkness within the film, which parallels Maya’s transition into a life of drugs and casual sex. As Veselka writes, “A violated woman is expected to fall apart, and not just privately, either; she must disintegrate publicly, in front of friends, in front of professionals, in front of Starbucks,” which points to Maya’s collapse or “disintegration” as she progressively withdraws from everything which used to satisfy her.
The film’s juxtaposition of slow-paced, plodding scenes of little to no action alongside scenes containing intense, often turbulent activity, such as both rape scenes, balances the film as one of quiet introspection as well as disturbing violence. Maya’s rape is immediately followed by a seemingly monotonous scene where a senior faculty member speaks dispassionately at a graduation ceremony. The scene “drags” as the woman speaks in a monotone to the graduating class, and much of what she says applies to Maya, particularly that Maya must not settle with being measured by others’ standards. The elderly academic says,
Her monologue lasts less than three minutes, yet the effect is one of tedious and even meaningless rhetoric—unless we listen carefully to her message and then spot Maya standing sullenly behind other students who are working the event.
Maya begins frequenting a local hip hop club where she dances provocatively with the glistening, gyrating bodies of dark-skinned men and women, a stark contrast to the image of her in the white college lecture hall. During a particularly intense sequence, the dance floor is completely hidden in shadows as the camera focuses on Maya and her multiple dance partners bathed in light, all of them dark-skinned. One man has extremely dark pigmentation, which renders his appearance difficult to perceive in the chaotic mix of light and shadow. This sexualized scene plays out in slow motion, allowing us to feel that we are dancing with Maya, aligning with her pain. We hear melancholy music, accompanied by deeply sorrowful vocals. The dichotomy Lugacy sets up here is effective in highlighting the contrast between Maya’s active behavior and her fixed inward torment. This scene also offers a moment when we identify with Maya.
After Maya takes a job at a local clothing store, we observe a particularly poignant scene as Maya assembles and dresses manikins. As she fits these plastic parts together to build a female for display, she is a woman falling to pieces. In another key scene within the store, Maya faces the camera as she folds clothing. She holds the article before her, and her stoic face is momentarily hidden behind the clothing. This brief scene reminds us that Maya hides her torment by taking refuge in work and school, afraid to acknowledge her suffering and to own her pain. When a friendly coworker asks Maya what she likes to do for fun, she coldly responds, “I fold.” Certainly, this is meant literally, but Maya also folds within her own life, bending, collapsing, rearranging her trauma so that it is more manageable to carry.
According to Tammy Oler in Bitch magazine, modern films that portray female rape victims who seek revenge on their attackers serve as a model for further self-victimization and, ultimately, self-destruction. We undoubtedly encounter a destruction of self in Descent’s final scene, yet Maya allows Jared’s rape to continue. Carol J. Clover, author of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, states,
This recognized pattern of gender roles within cinema is the reason viewers find the rape-revenge genre provocative: the feminine embrace of a darker, more violent realm of the feminist psyche, thus the exhibition of traditionally male behavior, such as aggression, violence, and murder.
A gender-centered patriarchy dictates that “feminine” behavior means she must sit quietly and resolve troubles by tearfully sharing feelings of bitterness, resentment or rage, but never act on these emotions through violence. More recently, according to Judith Franco in “Gender, Genre and Female Pleasure in the Contemporary Revenge Narrative: Baise moi and What It Feels Like For A Girl,”
Maya directly defies traditional feminine proprieties via her aggression and premeditated attack against Jared. As she is responsible for his rape, Maya has also de- and re-codified characteristics traditionally paired with masculinity, and Adrian acts as her surrogate phallus to complete Jared’s assault.
Maya suffers the betrayal of date rape (as opposed to “stranger rape) as she is unaware that she is a mere fly caught in Jared’s web. The scholarly Maya is initially encircled by Jared as he lights candles: a predatory act as Jared needs to see his prey in the darkness. This applies also to our image of Jared following behind Maya. Maya has no weapon to use against her attacker other than her objectified body; she kicks, hits, and even attempts to bite Jared’s face. However, her black body succumbs to Jared’s strength.
Read reports that
We sit beside Maya as she quietly, almost poetically collapses into a state of desolation and self-exile. In contrast we are also witness to Maya’s ostensibly nostalgic face as she tells her attacker that she wants to “see him” again. Clover cleverly points out that “what 1970s horror realized is that one’s own rape is the most avengeable deed of all” (137). Indeed, if a person is victimized in such a way and lives to ponder over the trauma, movie audiences are inherently curious to follow the predictably grim outcome.
In the final rape scene Jared, who matches this description of a “typical racist,” is blindfolded during part of his own rape at Adrian’s hands. Maya adversely takes on the masculine role of watcher, but she turns away when her voyeuristic gaze becomes unbearable, a move that reminds us that her moral compass is still somewhat intact. We likely find our own gazes averted to avoid this harrowing scene of fixed violence.
Earlier, in a scene setting up standards of masculinity, Jared brags in the locker room about his athletic prowess when a much larger player grabs his dogtags off his locker and aggressively asks, “Are these real?” Jared replies, “Hand ‘em over, asshole.” His much larger teammate laughs, drops the tags down his pants and dares Jared, “You man enough to take ‘em from me, pretty boy?” When Jared hesitates, then attacks the young man, Jared is quickly taken down. His teammate then tosses the tags to the downtrodden Jared and adds, “Lose the fuckin’ attitude.” Jared’s teammates’ quick and merciless laughter accompanied by the address of “pretty boy” relegate Jared to the position of “girl” as he futilely attempts to advertise his pseudo-machismo bluster.
Earlier scenes also set up character, such as a long take where Jared walks from his dorm room to a lecture hall, where Maya is a teaching assistant for his class. We watch as Jared changes locations several times yet remains a static character within the long take’s narrative; he is disingenuous, pompous, and manipulative (he appears to be popular on campus, most likely due to his habitual lying and exaggerating). As Jared transports himself as a fixed persona before he is assaulted, Maya is frozen in place yet constantly shifting and transforming in terms of animosity, bitterness, and an odd sort of spiritual awakening these intense feelings incite. This long take is around two minutes in length and begins in Jared’s dorm room, an arena much his own, complete with a nude girl sleeping in his bed as he exits, but he completes his journey in an environment where Maya is in control, where she excels, and where she is the master: the classroom. We are then not surprised to see that Jared cheats on his exam, and Maya confronts him about the indiscretion.
Both this scene of tense confrontation and Maya’s rape scene involve manipulative language and the displacement of privilege and detriment, signaling racial, gender, and class positioning as well as their appropriation within the film.
The jarring words uttered by Jared while he rapes Maya are suggestive of racial violence as well as Maya’s animality as a black woman. However, Maya is sure to strike Jared’s face several times before the dark-skinned Adrian assaults the blonde athlete. Jared does not consider murder an option after he rapes Maya because he genuinely believes that Maya desires the sexual encounter. This is evidenced earlier when Maya reprimands Jared for cheating on his midterm exam and he arrogantly asks, “Do you wanna see me again? It can be arranged.”
The recovery or discovery of self that Maya pursues implies that Jared does violence to her identity. However, Veselka counters,
Sexuality, after all, is more than genitals, so the unwelcome presence of another within the body indicates an invasion certainly, but not necessarily a destruction or ravaging. After she is gang raped, Nadine from Virginie Despenses’ French film Baise Moi (2000) (which translates as Fuck Me or Rape Me) vehemently tells her female friend Manu, “If you park in the projects, you empty your car ’cause someone’s gonna break in. I leave nothing precious in my cunt for those jerks.” While coinciding with Veselka’s progressive claim, Nadine’s philosophy on the female body is simply to refrain from regarding her body as a defining force behind her femininity or an obscure temple where woman safeguards her personhood. In short, the vagina is not defined by the penetration of man. As Nadine flippantly tells her friend, “It’s just a bit of cock.”
According to traditional cinematic gender roles, women occupy two primary roles, particularly within the horror genre. Sarah Eschholz and Jana Bufkin of Sociological Forum, tell us that classically, women in film
Maya, who is clearly a “good girl,” undoubtedly evolves (or devolves) into a “vamp” who orchestrates Jared’s collapse. Read explains that “the passage from rape to revenge, from victim to aggressor, usually also necessitates some kind of transformation of the female protagonist” (226). However, Maya must also tackle racial violence and ultimately racial hierarchy through rape. Eschholz and Bufkin state that the “[s]ex of movie characters is unrelated to offending” (668). In short, the violated become the violators, and gender is thus rendered meaningless.
At the conclusion of the film, Jared’s rape has two phases: his seduction and then his actual rape, the first taking place in Maya’s apartment living room and the second in her bedroom. Even the rising action that leads to Jared’s rape can be criticized as “slow” with an abundance of dialogue. In that way, we are informed of where both Maya and Jared are positioned within the narrative structure of the rape-revenge plot. This homosexual rape scene itself is controversial and was the subject of ridicule from critics due to its shocking nature and mimicry of torture porn. Not only is this scene incredibly graphic but it lasts an excruciating ten minutes, concluding with images of Jared’s limp body being thrust repeatedly against the bed by Adrian, his body exhausted, surrendering and accepting defeat, as Adrian tells him. As we find this scene of homosexual rape grotesque and detestable at best, pornographic at worst, we must wonder why and how we may fail to feel this during Maya’s rape.
When Jared ostentatiously relays his recent accomplishments on the football field, complete with wild gesticulating, Maya, unimpressed with this pretentious show of male bravado, confidently lets him know, “You don’t have to lie . . . You didn’t score a touchdown. You didn’t play.” At the end, once she orders Jared to strip, she circles him slowly several times and says, “What’s mine is yours,” indicating that she is prepared to hand Jared her pain, trauma, and the rage that seems to possess her. Jared appears nervous and unsure of his posture or where to place his arms and even covers his penis and testicles a few times as Maya stares at him. This full-frontal nudity indicates that Jared has both literally and figuratively been stripped down, intruded upon, and he is now the object of Maya’s harsh gaze. It is here that we see his penis limp and debilitated under Maya’s careful watch. However, the R-rated version does not allow us this prolonged view of Jared’s naked body. After revealing a blindfold, she tells the entranced Jared, “I was such a stuck up bitch before.” This time, Maya leads Jared to the bed, as he is the blind one.
Jared is aroused by the idea of being “tied up,” bound and helpless during an act of sex before Maya and Adrian jointly assault him. This concept of relinquishing male power in return for sexual gratification is significant. Adrian asserts his own power as a man of color as he demands this same submission to power when he mounts Jared. We see Adrian’s large stature towering over Jared, who lays flat on his back. In this posture, Adrian assumes black hegemonic power over his victim. As Clover writes,
In order to obtain their own visions of justice, cinematic victims of rape within this subgenre, rather than fighting “the system,” must subvert the phallocracy which governs them by adapting and exercising traditionally male behavior: violence.