Oct 20, 2014

Impressions: 'Big Driver' Explores The Monsters We Know All Too Well

In horror stories we're used to viewing the sharp, blood dripping fangs of a vampire or seeing a restless specter wreak havoc on unsuspecting non-believers, forcing them to believe that things do go bump in the night. That there are ghouls, goblins, and demons, and that their existence is without understanding --- just happenstance. Those monsters are easy to decode, easier to run in the opposite direction from. Yet, human beings translate different.

We toss around the word "normal" or "ordinary" whenever we describe people, especially in the aftermath of horrific acts because it just seems outlandish for anyone to be step outside of those things. Serial killers were "normal" acquaintances to their friends, lovers, and family. Their victims were just "ordinary" harmless people minding their own business till tragedy struck. Or so we're told. Lines are often blurred.

Humans, all of us so "ordinary" and "normal" may offer kindness and a smile, but we're just as easily capable of turning around and snarling, showing our fangs, and sending people running. Lifetime's Big Driver explores the horrors of humanized monsters, as we follow one woman's confrontation with not just the horror of her defilers, but her coming face-to-face with the monster that has been awoken within her.

Based off of Stephen King's short story of the same name, Big Driver follows a mystery novelist named Tess Thorne (played by Maria Bello) who is trying to make a name for herself with a series books she has penned about a knitting circle of grey-haired ladies who solve mysteries in their idyllic seaside town. When Tess is asked to speak at a book club that is an ample distance from her, she jumps at the chance. Upon arrival she is warmly welcomed by the head of the book club, who showers Tess with praise and who also helpfully provides her with a 'beautiful and scenic' short-cut after Tess complains of the grueling highway drive to the meeting.

After the meeting, Tess takes the shortcut, and unfortunately gets a flat tire in a desolate area. She is able to flag down a man in a truck, and though imposing in size, he's gracious and willing to help. Unfortunately, the rapport between them quickly takes a dark turn as the once kind 'Big Driver' brutally assaults Tess, and then leaves her for dead in a drain pipe. When Tess comes to later that evening, she wades in the water and comes in contact with the remains of Big Driver's other female victims, leading us to now know that Big Driver is a vicious killing shithead who has been getting away with his crimes for a long time. Shaken, Tess then groggily makes her way home, and after days of restlessness she slowly begins to plot her revenge on the Big Driver, all while attempting to reassemble the fragile bits of her mental state.

Yes, Big Driver is a "outlandish" Lifetime movie, as it falls right in line with the channel's infamous tradition of showing women enacting revenge on the person, or persons who have done them wrong. Lifetime gets a bad rap for showing awful situations look like SNL comedic sketches, but Big Driver actually side-steps the wild-eyed scorned Real Housewives territory as its mainly elevated by Bello's acting alone and taunt gritty thrill ride we're taken on. Bello plays Tess as a believable victim (or really survivor) of rape, and you're thoroughly rooting for her as she shuffles in the gelled state of her horror filled night and tussles with her shame and anger. Still it's really hard not to root for Bello's Tess as the film also possesses one of the most brutal rapes scenes I've ever seen on film since The Accused and 12 Years A Slave --- so consider yourself warned. When she survives, you want her get blood justice, and when the film unveils Big Driver's identity and his sordid past, the movie stops being a laughing matter.

Big Driver doesn't wimp out on the horrors of rape and its aftermath as we watch Tess unravel and attempt to sew herself up. We see along the way that the stitches are crooked, that she is altered, and you're rightly rocked, and rightly annoyed. I found myself screaming at her to "Call the cops! Tell someone!" when she stumbles into a convenience store after her attack and remains silent. I got mad when she waved off the advice of a taxi serviceman who would happily drive her to a hospital to be checked out. I sighed when she takes a shower, washing away the crucial evidence. I fumed that she didn't tell her friend what happened after she shows concerns over her bruises and cuts. I actually gritted my teeth as she began the infamous battered woman's quote: "Oh, these bruises? I just tripped down the stairs, you know how clumsy I am..." Grr.

It's horrifying and frustrating to watch this unfold. It's also horrifying and frustrating to realize that this is what exactly happens in a situation like sexual assault. How women lie to others and themselves. How women try to scrub and wash themselves raw to rid the touch of their body robbers. How women believe once they speak out they will be victim blamed and accused of provoking the crimes brought upon them. How women clam up and choose not to believe in the 'before' and the 'after'. How, when the tables are turned, we all find ourselves blaming the victim and screaming at the television that women who choose not to seek help after their attacks are just flat-out stupid.

I forgot myself. I forgot I didn't tell a soul when I was assaulted. I forgot that I was Tess once, that a lot of women are like Tess.

Forget about Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, the scariest story of all to tell when the light is on is how women become victims in the claustrophobic haunted house of that is rape culture.

Then there is the monster of self to contend with, the Frankenstein that's been assembled, limb by limb within. Instead of dwindling in silence, Tess decides to not be a victim, she decides to be the hunter towards the monster who dared crossed her path. She does it all by not reaching out to a salt-tongued coffee chugging detective --- she's not holding out for a male hero --- instead she goes out like Van Helsing as she uses her mystery writing experience to gather clues, assemble weapons, and piece together suspects, coming to an understanding on how her rape had been a grotesque planned action all along. She then morphs into a silent crusader ready to avenge as she attempts to quell the monster that she has become.

If there is any male writer working right now who I trust to tell of a rape revenge story, it's King. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors, not just because of classics like Salem's Lot and The Shining and his ability to mix the supernatural with modern social awareness, but because he's one of few male writers who can genuinely get into a woman's headspace without deviling into mocking archetypes. He feels for women, knows how they can be stamped upon, and knows how resourceful and capable they can be. I haven't read the short story that Big Driver is based off of (it comes from the 2010 short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars), but it has a feel like King's Dolores Claiborne, which dealt with domestic violence and murder, and how one woman got away with offing her abuser. Both Dolores Claiborne and Big Driver gravely test our morals on 'eye for an eye' revenge killings, and what that has to say about us as individuals.

As Tess tries to regain some sense of herself after her ordeal, wobbling from victim to revenge seeker, we see her having conversations with her GPS named "Tom", as well as one of the characters from her knitting novels named Doreen (played by Olympia Dukakis). These two figments play as her moral consciousness towards her actions and as her keen willpower to plot revenge, respectively, since Tess hasn't a grasp on neither consciousness or self-control at present. These additions are a little kooky, and seem a little too 'precious' for such a terrifying subject matter, but it's obvious that once you go through severe trauma like rape, you're doing any and everything to bring some sort of fantasy into the rawness of reality, as well as some sort of positive justification to why you are about to commit or have committed such abnormal counteractions.

Though its a passing observation, Big Driver follows in the direction of Quentin Tarantino's 'revenge fantasy' flicks like Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds, as it shows the raging attempt to regain dignity in times of brutal oppression. Instead of the reassembling of racial and religious dignity through revenge, Big Driver contends with the oppression of gender and the unquenchable rage that comes with it.

Like those films, it's implausible how Tess gets away with her crimes no matter the 'loose ends' she tries to tie up, and it all feels like a hallucination dream by the film's end. The 'did she really just do that?' of it all. Still, Big Driver dotes on transforming implausibility into some sense of possibility as it soundly notes the all-true ways in how genders fail each other. Still, if we can have revenge served bloody and cold in films like Tarantino's duo, cerebral character studies like Taxi Driver, and even in male-led action films like Taken where a man goes on a killing rampage to rescue his daughter from sex traffickers, why can't women carve out an 'eye for an eye' for their own solace? Why do women always have to be the cautious and docile ones when our peace of mind is constantly corrupted and brutally so? Why do women always have to wait for justice to serve us when it almost always never comes (note how 97% rapists never see the inside of a jail cell...) or, if so, is always met with patronize or raging hostility?

These were the questions (and many more) my mother and I had while we watched Big Driver and they are kind of left dangling over us still today. Good sign, I guess, because the movie did its job of making us question what would we do if this has happened to us? It's horrifying to think, and I don't condone killing people all willy-nilly, but lots of women (exactly 1 in 5) have to deal with some sort of sexual assault in their lifetime, and probably a lot of us have gone to a dark mindset at one time or another and think of doing what Tess does to Big Driver by film's end to our own boogeymen. It's wrong, and corrupt, yes, but to quote Chicago's Velma Kelly, some of them just have it comin'.

Still my mother and I both agreed that the greatest horror doesn't always lie in the supernatural or those blood curling cinematic monsters we love to watch --- that maybe one day the horror will crop up within us. That if we're prodded hard enough, we're all capable of going off the proposed script of what is "normal" and "ordinary" and turn into the beasts that we have been infected by.

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