Movies

This Year’s Best #MeToo Movie Isn’t the One About Harvey Weinstein

She Said, Women Talking, and Tár all find power in what they don’t show—to very different ends.

Carey Mulligan in She Said, Jessie Buckley in Women Talking, and Cate Blanchett in Tár
Carey Mulligan in She Said, Jessie Buckley in Women Talking, and Cate Blanchett in Tár. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Universal Pictures, United Artists, and Focus Features.

As of early this month, five years have passed since a New York Times story about producer Harvey Weinstein’s systematic sexual abuse of actresses and other young women looking for work in the film industry ignited the #MeToo movement (though the phrase itself, as a rallying cry for victims of workplace harassment, was originated more than 10 years earlier by the activist Tarana Burke). For the first few years that followed, revelations of sexual misconduct on the part of powerful men were so thick on the ground that it was hard to get enough distance to take in the broader picture. Actors, directors, politicians, musicians, TV talk show hosts, celebrity chefs: Men at the top of seemingly every field were dropping like flies—or being temporarily felled and reappearing, like maddeningly unkillable flies—every time you woke up and clicked on the news.

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All that time, while our cultural understanding of gender relations, systemic power structures, and the meaning of terms like consent and forgiveness was crumbling and being rebuilt on a daily basis, artists were taking in the same daily onslaught of upsetting information and processing it into new forms. The social change wrought by the ongoing #MeToo movement may not be as universal or far-reaching as those who support it might wish, but as attested by three new movies coming out this fall, it is profound. We now live in a world transformed by the simple act of women talking, which could be the title of any one of these thoughtful, artful, often wrenching films.

That is indeed the title of the fourth feature from the actor-turned-writer-director Sarah Polley, an adaptation of the 2018 novel by her fellow Canadian Miriam Toews. Polley’s directing career thus far has been thrillingly unpredictable. She established herself as a filmmaking prodigy of sorts by making perhaps her most perfect film to date, the Alzheimer’s-themed drama Away From Her, straight out the gate as a 27-year-old. Next came Take This Waltz, a low-key, impeccably acted romantic drama about lovelorn twentysomethings in Toronto. And soon after, in a move that was at once a swerve and a level-up, came Stories We Tell, an autobiographical documentary that’s as formally daring as it is emotionally intense. After 10 years out of the spotlight (spent in part raising her three children), Polley has returned with a movie from a whole new genre, or from a subgenre all its own: a prison-break thriller with almost no action, a courtroom procedural with no lawyers, judge, or defendant in sight. What if Twelve Angry Men, but it was eight angry women sitting on bales in a hayloft?

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In the Mennonite enclave where Women Talking is set, such a gathering of women without male company (with an exception we’ll get to in a moment) is in itself suspect. The eight women holed up in that loft, ranging in age from their midteens to their 70s, are able to meet only because the men of their community have traveled to the city. They intend to post bail for a group of young men accused of a horrific collective crime: the mass rape of women and children from the colony, going back several years, aided by the use of an animal tranquilizer as a kind of low-tech Rohypnol. These nightmarish acts actually did take place in an isolated religious community in Bolivia between 2005 and 2009. It was reading about that case and recalling her own Mennonite childhood that moved Toews to write the novel.

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In Polley’s cinematic retelling, the viewer’s knowledge of the rapes comes almost exclusively through the women’s later stories (though there are brief but grueling flashbacks to the aftermath: bruised thighs, bloodied nightgowns). But the reason these women have arranged to meet in the hayloft is not to revisit their trauma, something some of them in fact prefer to push away. It’s to decide what to do next. In an early scene, the colony’s women take a vote to determine which of three paths to take: doing nothing (an approach endorsed by the rigidly pious elder known as Scarface Janz, played by a cast-against-type Frances McDormand), fighting back (the preferred strategy of Claire Foy’s furious Salome, the mother of a violated 4-year-old girl), or fleeing the colony, children in tow, to create a safer and freer life elsewhere. The results of the vote are inconclusive, but the eight women least willing to accept a default “do nothing” response decide to meet to debate their options. There to record the minutes is the settlement’s schoolteacher August Epp (Ben Whishaw), who, since the education of girls is discouraged, is the only literate resident on the women’s side.

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Women Talking’s most unusual and artistically effective feature is its commitment to, and practical enactment of, the idea that no human community can function without a common understanding that the truth, first, exists, second, matters, and third, can be arrived at via an agreed-upon process of shared public testimony. It’s an inquiry into the proper political and personal response to a too-long-concealed moral and legal crisis, and into the crucial role democracy must play in envisioning any future better than the unacceptably cruel status quo. This movie is “an act of female imagination,” announces a title card at its beginning, a direct quote from the introduction to Toews’ novel. That declaration serves as both a disclaimer—based on real events or no, this is a story that will unfold in a deliberately artificial, allegorical space—and a promise. Women Talking sets itself up from the start as a sort of utopian manifesto in progress, however dystopian (and sadly nonfictional) the circumstances of its origin may be.

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This particular woman could go on talking for some time about Women Talking: its radiant cast, a true ensemble of actors who all understand and appreciate the unconventional nature of the movie they’re in, or the script’s bold use of not-quite-naturalistic dialogue, with flights of stylized speech that turn the women’s urgent yet unhurried colloquy into a parable for any number of modern debates about democracy, accountability, and faith. I even have a lot to say about the elements of the film I didn’t love, like the colors so desaturated that they seem strained through a milky Instagram filter, or the occasional Terrence Malick–esque tracking shots through rural landscapes under the sound of a child’s lyrical voice-over. The straightforward dialogue-driven scenes in the hayloft, paired with those economical but gut-wrenching flashbacks, have a brisk plainness that makes further aesthetic flourishes seem superfluous and somehow distracting.

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For now, though, I want to focus on Women Talking as a potential answer to the question of how to imagine a cinematic response to the hard questions posed in the past few years by #MeToo. As with the other two films under discussion here, Maria Schrader’s She Said and Todd Field’s Tár, Polley’s retelling of the women’s individual stories of assault proceeds by means of elision and indirectness. Not only is no act of violence ever directly witnessed by the camera, but, except for one man seen from behind as he flees the scene, we never even get a look at the perpetrators. The only male characters on screen are Whishaw’s shy schoolteacher, the very definition of an ally, and August Winter’s Melvin, a selectively mute trans teenager with his own history of abuse at the hands of the colony’s men. Women Talking takes pains not to reexploit its victimized characters by making them (and us) relive the worst moments of their lives. Polley’s choice to focus instead on the women as active agents in the construction of their own future is a gesture of respect toward both characters and audience.

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She Said, based on the nonfiction book of that title by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, the New York Times reporters who broke the Weinstein story in 2017, is equally if not more discreet when it comes to showing the trauma of the multiple Weinstein victims whom the two journalists patiently but doggedly pursued over the course of many months. All we see of the producer’s now-infamous history of manipulation, workplace harassment, and outright sexual assault are the now-empty spaces where these violent events took place—a swanky hotel hallway, a tangle of women’s clothes at the foot of a bed. Insofar as it steers clear of luridly reenacting the assaults, She Said’s restraint is admirable. But what drama we do see on screen—unlike the surprisingly suspenseful debates of the garrulous Mennonites in Women Talking—is a little too restrained.

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No journalism drama based on a true story is going to be as action-packed as a Jason Bourne thriller, and She Said’s script, written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is to be commended for its brisk pace and narrative clarity. With a minimum of exposition, she establishes the life circumstances of each reporter (Twohey is the first-time mother of a newborn, struggling to get back to work after a bout of postpartum depression, while Kantor is a worn-out mother of two girls, married to a fellow Times journalist) and lets us know a bit about each of the long-silenced victims they speak to. Some are A-list celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashley Judd (the only actress who consented to speak on the record for that first Weinstein story, and who appears here in a few brief but crucial scenes to play herself). Others are former would-be film professionals who, after humiliating experiences working with Weinstein, dropped out of the profession entirely (two such women are played, in too-small parts, by the fierce Samantha Morton and the luminous Jennifer Ehle).

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There is no shortage of emotional moments in She Said—in fact, it’s hard to get through several scenes without crying—but as a complete narrative, the movie lacks the forward momentum that made the book such a page-turner. We know, after all, that the intrepid reporters (under the guidance of Patricia Clarkson and Andre Braugher as editor Rebecca Corbett and executive editor Dean Baquet) will eventually land their prey by publishing a damning and irreproachably sourced exposé, and that, as of this writing, Harvey Weinstein is serving a 23-year prison sentence. Given the film’s choice never to show Weinstein directly—we only hear his voice on speakerphone and see him once from behind—the lead characters never get the chance to grapple openly with the societal evil they’re working so hard to expose. Absent the possibility of that confrontation, a lot of the action takes place over the phone or in close-ups of laptop screens. A great deal of screen time is spent watching the two reporters drive from one place to another. One of them will say something like “I’m gonna have to go to California to report that out,” which is followed by a cut to a car on a highway speeding past palm trees.

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In one late scene, a furious Weinstein storms unannounced into the newsroom with his legal team, demanding to talk to the reporters. Twohey dismisses Baquet’s offer to run interference for them with a taut “I’ve got this.” And in the conversation that follows, which we see only noiselessly, from afar, through the glass of a conference room, she does indeed seem to be coolly refuting the producer’s blustering complaints. But by tiptoeing around its depiction of the figure at its center, She Said deprives its heroines of the chance to demonstrate not only their sensitivity to the needs of victims, but their equally impressive sangfroid in the face of a formidable adversary.

Where the absence of the perpetrators in Women Talking opens up space for the women’s own dialogues and debates to take center stage, Weinstein’s absence from She Said is more ambivalent: Is the effect to decenter patriarchal privilege or to steer tastefully around it? On the page, She Said was a suspenseful journalism procedural in which the precise wording of an email could make the difference between persuading an understandably wary source to open up and scaring her away. On screen, despite strong performances across the board, the story lacks the gritty push-and-pull that gave investigative journalism movies like Spotlight or All the President’s Men their edge. In too many scenes, it’s a film about two nice women asking other nice women questions about a not-at-all-nice, but also conveniently distant, man.

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I’ve already discussed Tár at length in my (highly laudatory) review of it; I’ll limit myself here to examining the way that it, too, strategically deploys ellipsis and absence in its portrait of a powerful sexual predator. In Tár’s case, though, it’s the victim who is absent: Krista Taylor, the young woman who kills herself after what we’re led to believe was an inappropriate affair with world-famous composer and conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett). Krista’s face is glimpsed only in one dream sequence, a swirl of red hair obscuring her features. Otherwise, we have access to her only indirectly: for example, through the subject lines of the pleading emails she addresses to Tár and her assistant—a correspondence Tár attempts to delete upon learning of Krista’s death.

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The argument could be made that leaving Krista out of the movie as a speaking subject diminishes her power and augments that of her exploiter. But that very tactic—limiting the film’s perspective to what its narcissistic protagonist can allow herself to see—is a deliberate choice, and a big part of what gives the movie its wickedly seductive power. For all of the rumors that swirl around Tár, both online and in the plush confines of the classical music world, the viewer never directly witnesses her in the act of violating a less powerful colleague (with the exception of one physically violent moment that has nothing to do with sex). One effect of this omission is that it forces us to remain inside Tár’s point of view despite our desire to stand outside the movie judging her. It isn’t comfortable to occupy the position of an exploitive, self-serving monster, even if that monster is also a charismatic genius. We don’t see Tár’s victims face to face, as full human beings with a right to tell their stories, because Tár herself doesn’t—a fact that makes her ultimate fate, abandoned by the music establishment she once lorded over with a wave of her omnipotent baton, all the lonelier.

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For the totality of its artistry, Tár may be my personal favorite of this season’s three big #MeToo movies. But in giving over the stage, or the hayloft, to the testimony of those most damaged by male violence, Women Talking does something unique and indispensable. By giving its characters space not only to speak about what happened to them but to collectively imagine an alternative, less violent way of living, it performs before our eyes the kind of restorative community justice that a movie like She Said, for all its commendable intentions, only begins to set the scene for. It was the simple but radical act of listening to women that broke the Weinstein story, and that has made so many other painful but necessary conversations possible since. She Said and Tár, in very different ways, explore the origin and the aftermath of those tough conversations. Women Talking invites us to pull up a hay bale and join in.

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