In Sophia Takal’s Gripping And Disturbing ‘Always Shine,’ Patriarchy Kills
Sophia Takal conceived of Always Shine, her second feature-length film, long before this year’s caustic election campaign, but as one of the most openly misogynist public figures in recent history prepares to take office, its themes could not be more relevant. The psychological thriller, starring Mackenzie Davis (Black Mirror) and Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex), twists Takal’s own experiences of everyday sexism into a taut, shocking tale of jealousy, rivalry, and murder, where patriarchy kills—literally. It’s rare to see a director take on gender relations in such a radical way, and even rarer to see them played out in a genre picture. But for Takal, exciting and unashamedly feminist cinema is essential, now more than ever.
“Now it’s really important, as an artist or a filmmaker who is a woman, to be a good role model for younger women, to be an ally to other people who are marginalized, and make art that speaks to that,” she said, a few days after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory. “Talking about expanding the ideas of what it means to be a woman and how women are supposed to behave is very important.”
Conflicting views of how to be a woman, embodied in its two female protagonists, lie at the center of Always Shine. Beth (FitzGerald) is pliable and flirtatious, playing into patriarchal conceptions of the ideal woman to get ahead, while Anna (Davis) is prickly, uncompromising, and utterly contemptuous of prescribed female roles. Both women are Hollywood-based actresses, and their varying degrees of professional success reflect their willingness to perform for men: Beth has numerous parts in bigger budget films while Anna still struggles with getting out her showreel. A retreat to Big Sur should bring the two estranged friends together, but the sheer incompatibility of their attitudes have dramatic and violent consequences.
For Takal, the film’s narrative is simply an extreme example of how patriarchy pits women against each other. As an actress, she had found that her opinionated nature and loud personality led to censure by male directors, while her less outspoken counterparts saw more immediate success. “It made me feel a lot of shame, rage, and anger,” she said. “I would see women through a competitive lens rather than a comrade. It was kind of a scarcity mentality that there wasn’t enough to go around for all women. So the women who were going to succeed and get ahead were the ones who were going to play the game the best and appeal to men in the right way so they could be given things by men.”
Davis too felt consistently shut out due to her “difficult” personality and felt an immediate affinity both to the role of Anna and to Takal herself. “We both have had experiences of receiving feedback from the world that we were the wrong type of woman, not feminine enough, too loud, too this, not enough of that, which I think every [woman] has received,” she said. “We just have our own particular versions of it.”
Hearing both women describe their experiences, it’s hard not to see parallels with Hillary Clinton’s treatment on the campaign trail. Constantly vilified by Trump and his surrogates—who can forget the “nasty woman” moment?—Clinton received particularly vitriolic criticism for her refusal to sit down and shut up in the face of her opponent’s misogynist and xenophobic discourse.
But while Clinton (and indeed Davis and Takal) managed to stay upright in the face of these gendered double standards, the film’s most unsettling scenes are driven by Anna’s complete internal breakdown. For Takal, making Always Shine a horror film was essential in externalizing the inner trauma that she experienced at the hands of the patriarchal system. “I was experiencing all these feelings of not feeling like a woman and being so angry at everyone for making me feel like a failure,” she said. “The feelings got very intense, and I felt a lot of rage. It felt very scary, and I felt out of control. I felt violent. So that emotion kind of lent itself to the genre.” Davis agreed: “Always Shine is such a special movie because it kneads the most internal experience into a thriller and into this very active genre picture. I just thought that was so cool.”
The film also gave Takal an opportunity to subvert a genre often accused of perpetuating regressive gender roles in service of an unashamedly feminist agenda. “I also think there have been a lot of movies about women breaking down that have been directed by men,” she added. “I really thought it’d be cool to view the genre that can sometimes be misogynistic or exploitative to women to help feminists more, and be entertaining enough that a lot of people would enjoy it and have fun watching it but still have a deeper message about society and a message to women that they could take away from it.”
In the introduction to her seminal book Gender Trouble, the philosopher Judith Butler views "subverting and displacing those naturalized and reified notions of gender that support masculine hegemony and heterosexist power" as the cornerstone of feminist practice. In flipping horror film tropes and dramatizing experiences of sexism that Hollywood blockbusters largely avoid, Takal is arguably working in the spirit of Butler. Anna and Beth may not be especially nice or sympathetic characters, but by creating an artwork where other women can see a bit of themselves on-screen, Takal carves a space for people like herself, Davis, and even Clinton in a climate where being female and dominant is still a risk.