Sexual Violence as a Plot Device in “The Gentlemen”

Content warning – This article contains discussion of sexual violence as well as major spoilers for “The Gentlemen”

By Caz Armstrong

The second the opening titles start Guy Ritchie’s latest film “The Gentlemen” (2020) sets itself up as something sophisticated, colourful and bleeding with style. And it was. The story veers from one twist to another, punctuated by side quests and violence. The soundtrack was sharp as a knife, the characters were larger than life. Nothing about this is supposed to be serious, it’s a drug dealing gun toting romp.

Except for the attempted rape.

At this point the film went from a lot of fun to deeply disturbing in a split second. But even more galling was that it went straight back to being fun again. Is rape really that much of a throwaway plot point?

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Michelle Dockery and Matthew McConaughay in “TheGentlemen” (2020)

To set the scene, the leading character Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughay) and his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) are being targeted separately by rival Dry Eye (Henry Golding) who wants Mickey’s business.

The plan was to kill Mickey and kidnap Ros. But Mickey survives and races to Ros’s office to save her. Meanwhile Ros has already shot and killed two henchmen and is now grappling with Dry Eye. During the fight Dry Eye pins Ros and it’s clear he’s about to rape her. As the camera pulls in tight on her face Mickey bursts in and shoots Dry Eye four times, yelling for him to get off his wife. The camera settles on Ros’s face splattered in blood and wide eyed but not exactly terrified.

So, Ros’s attempted rape was designed only to anger her husband and spur him into action. It was entirely tone deaf, unnecessary and belittling to victims.

But for me this scene was terrifying. Not only that, it was used purely to further the male lead’s actions. We’re not encouraged to care about Ros, we are only asked to care that Mickey’s ‘property’ was about to be violated.

I say that because we don’t see her angry, processing what happened or having any lasting effects. She doesn’t get any revenge or resolution. All the anger comes from Mickey and the revenge is metered out solely by him.

So, Ros’s attempted rape was designed only to anger her husband and spur him into action. It was entirely tone deaf, unnecessary and belittling to victims. This is also against the background of being the only main female character in the film which had a sizeable cast.

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Michelle Dockery in “The Gentlemen” (2020)

Some would say it’s a violent film, why not include another kind of violence?

The way this scene is shot is in contrast to the rest of the violence in the film which is largely stylised and humorous. We’ve seen comically huge projectile vomiting, sheepish accounts of accidental murder, henchmen caught tiptoeing with a dead body and heavily choreographed fist fights. There were less comical acts of violence too but to even compare those with the attempted rape scene ignores the traumatic violation and intimacy of sexual violence as distinct from other acts of bodily violence.

Rape is not just about causing pain. It’s about humiliation, dominance and dehumanisation. It is not the same as a gunshot. Some films have treated this topic a lot better. “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Elle” spring to mind because they are about the victim’s experience not the perpetrator or someone else’s revenge on their behalf.

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Michelle Dockery and Matthew McConaughay in “TheGentlemen” (2020)

It has been widely reported that around a fifth of women will be raped at some point in their lives and 90% of rape victims are women. This is an incredibly serious and harrowing crime which should at the very least be treated with due care in film. The frequency with which it is used as a throaway plot device shows how out of touch many directors and screenwriters are and how much sexual violence is both accepted and belittled.

As another example, the upcoming medieval Ridley Scott film “The Last Duel” (release date TBC) is being awaited with horror by many. As the victim is disbelieved when she accuses a man of rape, her husband and the accused must duel to find the “truth”. With the added jeopardy that if the accused man wins the duel the woman must also be burned at the stake for “lying”.

It has been widely reported that around a fifth of women will be raped at some point in their lives and 90% of rape victims are women. This is an incredibly serious and harrowing crime which should at the very least be treated with due care in film.

The only progress it seems society has made since these medieval times is that most countries don’t burn women at the stake any more. They just vilify, ostracise and jail them, or make them marry their attackers.

With “The Gentlemen”, an otherwise fun, stylish and clever film was massively let down by reducing sexual violence to a plot device and entirely ignoring the trauma it causes. The victim had no personal resolution at all. To use sexual violence like this is hugely dangerous for audiences.

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