Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Sexual Violence, Rape
There is no question that film is a powerful medium for allegory, metaphor, and thematic exploration. The ability to capture emotion and experience through visuals and sounds make it a special art form for encapsulating experiences of humanity that are otherwise difficult to portray. With that said, when film (like any art form) is approached through the lens of these tools before the art of the narrative is considered, the experience is often heavy handed and stiff.
This is the underlying problem with the new film written and directed by Graham and Parker Phillips, ‘The Bygone’.
The film opens with graphics that explicitly states the theme and message of the film. It states that sexual violence in North America arrived with the European colonists and that that the group of Native American women has been victims of sexual victimization more than any other racial or ethnic group. There is no question that this is an important theme and it deserves to be explored, discussed, and confronted. The problem with the movie, however, is that it not only approaches this theme with very little nuance or narrative, it does so through the prism of white masculinity and patriarchal societal mores. The characters are two-dimensional and mostly empty in the exploration of sexual violence, sexism, and racism.
The real problem, though, is that the Native American women (the group central to the theme of this film) are secondary characters and, worse, treated like props and objects that are there to either be exploited or protected. In this film they are not autonomous human beings, they are dancing around the periphery of the film as the white men fight about how the women should be appropriated, with kindness or with violence.
There is no doubt that this film broaches uncomfortable and important social topics, and that is to be commended, but to broach those topics without giving the women involved a voice seems a bit wrongheaded and ill-conceived. One can feel the good intentions here, but the trappings of normative patriarchal societal paradigms keeps the film from escaping the world that continues to perpetuate sexual violence. Without allowing the women to rise above objects to be protected, the film fails to really discuss the underlying issues of sexism and violence in the U.S.
Also, there is a metaphor in the film that is especially problematic. Our protagonist has an abused horse that once belonged to his dead mother. This horse is being sold and abused by white men. Again, you can feel the good intentions of the filmmakers but to parallel an abused horse with the sexual abuse of human females exemplifies the problematic portrayals in this film. Women are not horses, women are not beings to be protected and cared for. They are autonomous human beings that should be listened to. This film should be their story, not the story of white men arguing and battling over female well-being.
In short, this film falls into that, ‘white men solve sexism’ trope that is both troublesome and a symptom of the underling patriarchy that allows rape culture to perpetuate. So, while the film undoubtedly has noble thematic intentions, the lack of a believable, character based narrative and the reductive portrayal of women defy those intentions and result in a stiff, problematic, and ineffective movie.