Kiss kiss, bang bang

Domestic violence at the movies

Since all fiction is based in conflict, it’s little wonder that filmmakers have, on many notable occasions, taken domestic violence as their subject, producing a range of powerful films on the issue.

Probably the most wrenching is the 1994 New Zealand film, Once Were Warriors, a movie that does little to shield the audience from the nightmare some women endure in the testosterone-worshipping Maori culture that views violence as an expression of masculinity.

But other films also depict the horrors with chilling scenes of great power. Those who saw Harvey Keitel terrorizing Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorcese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore back in 1974 aren’t likely to have forgotten it. And when Burstyn was later stalked and terrorized again, by a religiously deranged Sam Shepard in 1980’s Resurrection, audiences got an insight into how misguided faith can make violence against women seem justifiable to those bolstered by their sense of personal piety.

The recently deceased Farrah Fawcett turned in a stunning portrayal of a battered woman in the 1984 made-for-TV movie The Burning Bed, a painful and insightful look at the subject, with a terrifyingly convincing performance by Paul LeMat as the husband who brutalizes his wife.

Similarly, Lawrence Fishburne creates a celluloid monster in the role of Ike Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It? as he uses his fists to exert control over the his wife, Tina, played by Angela Bassett. Its a biopic with a message about how hard it is to get out of bad relationships even for high-profile big-money showbiz people.

Based on a story by the masterful Andre Dubus, the 2001 film In the Bedroom not only depicts a truly hateful batterer, but also shows how the emotional devastation of battering spreads out to claim a wider range of suffering beyond that experienced by the original victim.

Yet another portrait of a domestic monster was etched on the screen by Dwight Yoakam in Sling Blade, a film from 1996 written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton, easily the best work he’s done. Thornton also has the lead role, a stunning portrayal that is nearly matched by the malevolence Yoakam brings to his part.

Drawn from the memoir by Tobias Wolfe, the 1993 film This Boy’s Life features Robert De Niro as yet another domestic villain, a working-class schlub who takes out his frustrations on his cowering family. Leonardo Caprio plays De Niro’s stepson. The screenplay is nuanced and, though De Niro’s character is despicable, he is psychologically complex and multi-dimensional.

1991s Sleeping With the Enemy is yet another portrayal of a marriage dominated by a controlling husband who employs both emotional and physical abuse to maintain his household dominance. Julia Roberts plays the increasingly desperate housewife, and Patrick Bergin plays her increasingly menacing mate.

When it comes to emotional and psychological abuse, the 1944 film Gaslight has yet to be matched. So effective is it at creating a master manipulator that the gaslight has been transformed from a noun to a verb, and gaslighting now serves to define people who are controlling others through mind games. Charles Boyer turns Ingrid Bergman’s world upside down and inside out, and the audience vicariously shudders at her victimization.

These films, and others like them, are not intended as diversions for voyeurs of violence against women. Last week, actress Nicole Kidman appeared before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. She was there to talk about domestic-violence issues and to express the view that, though Hollywood had contributed to the problem of domestic violence by depicting women as sex objects, the film industry has also made films that attempt to create awareness of the problem. Films like the ones on this list are among those better-intentioned films, movies meant to shine a light into a dark place.