What Sundance movies reveal about the angry “good guy.”
Cat Person — the movie adaptation of the New Yorker short story that took over your Twitter feed in December 2017 — starts with a now-familiar paraphrase of a Margaret Atwood quotation: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them,” says the on-screen text. “Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
The crowd laughed nervously when the words appeared at Cat Person’s Sundance premiere. It’s a solid précis for the film, which chronicles the doomed relationship of 20-year-old Margot (Emilia Jones) and a very tall guy named Robert (Nicholas Braun). They meet at the movie theater where she works behind the concession counter. They have a bracing and thrilling text message relationship, followed by a far less scintillating in-person one, and then it all goes south.
The movie is good, till it isn’t; director Susanna Fogel deftly pushes Margot’s interior narrative into a visual medium by adding secondary characters (like best friend Tamara, played by the always fantastic Geraldine Viswanathan), cleverly deploying dream sequences, and rendering Margot’s squirmy experience with visceral precision. But there’s a third act tacked on that destroys the ambiguity of the original story. In the short story, we’re left with lots of questions, the way you would at the end of such a relationship. But the film tries to tie the loose ends up, and the result is maddening.
Still, I mostly enjoyed it. And the Atwood paraphrase kept churning in the back of my mind, because I started ticking off the other films I’d just seen at Sundance that could have claimed it as well. There’s a particular type of “good guy” who breaks into an incandescent rage when his ego is bruised — when he suspects, in other words, that women are laughing at him — and rendering him recognizably on screen in a risk-averse, male-driven Hollywood hasn’t always seemed possible. This Sundance proves it is.
In Cat Person, for instance, Margot finds herself desperate not to assert her own aversion to having sex with Robert, and tells herself it’s just easier to go through with it. He’s bigger than her, and she’s worried throughout about putting herself in danger. But in his bedroom, she’s no longer afraid that Robert, who’s still mostly a stranger, is some kind of deranged serial killer luring her into a trap. She just worries how he might react if he feels slighted — and does something she really regrets because of it.
Margot’s sentiment feels well-paired with Fair Play, another of the festival’s buzziest films, a relationship drama inspired by, if not actually hewing to, the outlines of an old-school erotic thriller. (Netflix picked up the movie for a cool $20 million, so you’ll be able to see it soon.) This time the couple at its center, Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich), are rising high-finance stars who have to hide their relationship at work. But when she’s promoted over him, things turn sour.
Fair Play is caustic and enthralling, but mostly it’s the kind of movie that makes you wince with recognition — or, in any case, if you’ve ever made yourself small to avoid the rage of an insecure man. Luke seems like the best sort of supportive boyfriend until he senses that others are laughing at him, that the life he’s desperately convinced he deserves to lead is on the verge of toppling, and that Emily, who adores him, might look at him through a different lens.
What comes into sharp relief in Fair Play — and in Cat Person, for that matter — is that for these men, the kind who pride themselves on being “good guys,” the women they’re dating aren’t the problem. These women are accommodating and supportive far beyond their own comfort. It’s that these men believe that they deserve something (a woman, a job, a very particular type of respect) simply for existing; when they get even a whiff of the opposite, they snap into verbal and physical violence.
Maybe you’ve never run into this; maybe you’ve never experienced it firsthand. But I assure you someone you love has. I know I have. What both movies manage to do, and what’s hard to do in any other medium, is put the viewer in the mental space of the women who find themselves cowering or even just worrying that their very reasonable confidence and sense of self-worth will threaten a man, and that there will be consequences.
Crucially, both films are less about the individual characters than the world around them. It’s a world that cultivates men like Luke and Robert, makes them promises it can’t fulfill, and then gives them tacit license to strike out when they don’t get what they want. That’s why they feel of a piece with Justice, a documentary by Doug Liman about the allegations against now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and what the women who accused him endured as they took their story into the public eye.
Justice centers mostly on Deborah Ramirez, who alleges she was the subject of grotesque harassment by Kavanaugh while a student at Yale. Ramirez’s story has been told, but for the film she revisited the story and talks about the aftermath of making the accusations. Cut together with the congressional testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh’s own hearings prior to his confirmation, it’s a pretty brutal film to watch.
But what sticks out in concert with movies like Cat Person and Fair Play is the vehemence — which reads, on screen, as almost inexplicably explosive — with which Kavanaugh denied the allegations. His anger. His inability to exhibit the cool-headed humility you’d expect from someone on the nation’s highest court. The small lies he told for no reason, which the movie establishes with journalistic rigor. His blistering, red-faced rage.
It’s like you’re watching Luke or Robert explode at Emily or Margot, in a manner all out of proportion with whatever they’re exploding about, because there’s a lot more going on here than anger about perceived mistreatment. It’s the fury of someone who’s been crossed, the foolish spiraling panic of a child who’s had their toy snatched away. And on screen, you can watch it, and see how ugly and irrational it is. You can’t walk out of one of these films feeling comforted and comfortable. They are testimony to the broken world we’re living in, and how very, very far we have to go.
Fair Play, Cat Person, and Justice premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Cat Person will be distributed by Netflix; Fair Play and Justice are currently awaiting distribution.