The beginning of the #MeToo movement, as a cultural reckoning on endemic sexual misconduct and abuse, can be roughly dated by the click of a mouse. On 5 October 2017, the New York Times published an investigation into the film producer Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood titan with a decades-long history of systemic abuse, triggering an outpouring of recrimination and recognition on and offline. (The phrase #MeToo was coined over a decade earlier by activist Tarana Burke, as a way for Black women to share their stories of sexual violence.)
That first moment – reporters and editors hovering around a computer screen, cursor lingering on the “publish” button – is the narrative climax of She Said, a new film adaptation of reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book on the Weinstein investigation. Five years after the start of the movement, She Said is the most overt of so-called “#MeToo movies” – films which depict revelations of sexual abuse, process the upheaval of powerful perpetrators, grapple with the consequences, or envision a path forward. The film, directed by Unorthodox’s Maria Schrader, is literally the story behind the story that kicked everything off, the Hollywood version of the mission to uncover what had been an open secret in Hollywood for years.
But it is one of several this year clearly inflected by the movement. Todd Field’s cerebral, challenging Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a chillingly vaunted maestro, undoes its blinkered protagonist via the public exposure of her inappropriate relationships with female protégés. Women Talking, director Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, embeds in aftermath. Following a spate of vicious attacks by men armed with the livestock version of Rohypnol, women representing three prominent families in an insular Mennonite community in Bolivia congregate in a hayloft to discuss their options: do nothing, fight back, or leave. (The film and novel are based on a real spate of rapes by at least eight men, of at least 150 women and girls, from 2005 to 2009.)
Taken together, all three films (which either have or will be released this fall/winter) mark a watershed season for #MeToo — as an anniversary, as reflections with small yet still notable critical distance, and as representations for the range of cinematic responses to the movement. Notably, all three skirt around depictions of violence, relying on suggestion, visual cues, dialogue and assumed familiarity with media coverage to impart the details of trauma. (This is perhaps a response to the brutal depictions of violence that became de rigueur on prestige television in the 2010s, most controversially on Game of Thrones; the fifth season rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsey Bolton, used for shock and as motivation for witness Theon Greyjoy, was a series low point.)
Sexual assault, in all three films, is negative space. Each one effectively deploys, as Slate’s Dana Stevens argues, ellipsis and absence in its portrait of trauma and complicity – in Women Talking, the depictions of the attacks (we instead see the morning after: bruises, blood, confusion, screams) and, save one brief glimpse of a man running away, its perpetrators. In She Said, the crimes and the bearish presence of Weinstein. In Tár, the perspective of the victim, a former student whom we glimpse only in the brush of Lydia’s attention.
This is in line with how other films have handled #MeToo since the cascade of revelations in 2017. We do not see assault, or aftermath, or even the big bad boss in The Assistant, Kitty Green’s unsettling 2020 portrait of corrosive adjacency. Instead, during a day in the life of a low-level assistant at a Weinstein-esque production company, clues point to something sinister and vile festering at work. A syringe in the boss’s trash can, a meeting with a pretty young actor moved to a hotel room, a futile meeting with HR – we, the audience likely familiar with Weinstein coverage, can sense the fuller picture. Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman is completely opposite in tone – pastel-colored, darkly comic, a jawbreaker with a poisonous core – but similarly privileges the caustic effects of sexual assault on a witness over depicting the act itself.
The 2019 film Bombshell, Jay Roach’s star-studded account of the 2016 dethroning of Roger Ailes at Fox News by three anchors he abused/mentored (and which arguably laid the groundwork for the Weinstein investigation to not land on deaf ears), does include a gut-wrenching casting couch scene between Ailes and a fictional young anchor, played by Margot Robbie. But the film generally adheres to the expectation, since 2017, that #MeToo movies should act as a corrective by centering women’s perspectives. (Unfortunately for Bombshell, those women were Fox News anchors with contemptible politics for whom the film pulled its hardest punches.) HBO’s underrated 2018 film The Tale, which does include scenes of sexual grooming of a young girl, takes that perspective and spirals; it aims for and achieves the psychological realism of coming to terms with traumatic memory.
Television, as a medium with a quicker turnaround time and more flexible structure, has served more as a messy interlocutor, a loose reflection. See: The Morning Show’s fittingly indelicate first-season plot line modeled on the removal of Matt Lauer from the Today Show after an internal report of rape; I gave it points at the time for trying, even if the dialogue had the subtlety and nuance of a car crash. See also: the MeToo-themed Grey’s Anatomy episode, or the sprawling 2019 Showtime series The Loudest Voice, also about Ailes. As an expression of processing sexual assault while living a life, nothing holds a candle to I May Destroy You, Michaela’ Coel’s 2020 tour de force.
All of this is to say: She Said, Tár and Women Talking are in a vigorous conversation. Of the three, She Said is the most straightforward, a clearcut journalism drama. It’s better than it should be – it avoids the distraction of celebrity impersonation, and smartly cedes the floor to Weinstein’s non-famous victims, schooled in the art of piecing their lives back together. It’s resonant recent history, but likely still too soon; the film made just $2.25m on its opening weekend, one of the worst debuts for a major studio film opening in over 2,000 theaters.
Tár is the best film overall, a provocative and mesmeric arrangement of what should be third-rail topics – #MeToo in which the perpetrator is a self-described “uHaul lesbian”, the bugbear of “cancel culture,” digital realism with social media screenshots. Tár’s bucking of expectation – it embeds, relentlessly and transgressively, with the perpetrator, her narcissism guiding our sensory intake – is one of its greatest strengths. You do not need to know the details of Lydia Tár’s sins to understand their severity, their monstrosity. You do have to know she was staggeringly talented and that those things may be irreconcilable. Tár is, among many things, a successful portrait of the refrain “two things can be true at once,” a story that resists easy moralizing and clean lines without ever equivocating on her behavior; a reminder that none of this is easy.
But it is Women Talking that offers the most promising path forward, the only one that tries to answer the thorny questions raised by the movement. Women Talking is more effective conceptually than it is visually – the desaturated color palette corresponds to the leaching of faith in one’s community but ultimately makes it feel more distant than it already is. Some of the monologues feel more apt for a stage. But its premise – women talking as action unto itself – feels bracingly radical.
I wondered, during the 2021 awards buzz for Promising Young Woman, what a #MeToo film that burned past rage could look like, what a story that looked beyond trauma to healing, complication, growth, continuance could be. It would look like Polley’s film, in which almost entirely female characters (save a literate male schoolteacher and a trans man also targeted by the attackers) discuss their options and brainstorm justice. What comes after, in a world where this exists, among all the other things? What other worlds could we realize? What would healing look like? What would justice be? Those are questions I hope the next era of #MeToo films embrace.