A journey into male supremacy: Robin Summons’ Victim

In a recent interview on the Decoding the Gurus podcast, extremism researcher Julia Ebner was asked by host Chris Kavanagh if the so-called ‘intellectual dark web’ funnels people towards radicalism. It’s possible, Ebner replied, that charismatic guru-like figures such as Jordan Peterson keep some men from falling further down the ‘involuntary celibate’ rabbit hole. On the other hand, she continued, ‘there is evidence that they have been a big factor in legitimising and normalising some of the ideas, and also providing a gateway into more extremist worlds.’

That is a viewpoint shared by Robin Summons’ short film Victim, which — after an award-winning festival run — is being released online this week. The film depicts the spiral of extremely online teenager Beau (Ned Stanford) into the misogynist incel sphere and towards a shocking (if only suggested) act of real-world violence.

Beau listens to a Petersonesque podcaster (a ‘men’s rights activist’ according to the film’s closing credits) who rails against the plight of men in the face of increasing gender equality. Much as the real Peterson does, the unnamed podcaster employs fallacious biological-determinist arguments to justify male rage towards women who are ‘increasingly entitled, unwilling to recognise chivalry.’ Why, he concludes, shouldn’t men be angry?

Victim makes explicit, and also complicates via its ambiguous title, the role of female rejection in Beau’s descent. In the film’s opening scene — a slow, unsettling zoom on a nondescript slice of urban sprawl — we hear Beau’s mother Chrissy (Kat Stewart) defending her son in a phone call with, we presume, another student’s parent. ‘She can apologise to him,’ Chrissy says. ‘He has not left his room since. The only person he is a threat to is himself.’

Beau’s bandaged hand testifies to previous acts of self-harm but it’s not until near the end of the film that the ball drops for Chrissy. Breaking into his room after discovering a missing kitchen knife, Chrissy finds an image on Beau’s computer of a smiling young woman, presumably the one who turned Beau down. Ominously, the words ‘bye lisa’ have been typed above the photo.

Beau reflects a familiar archetype in contemporary Australian filmmaking, sharing much, for example, with the alienated young men of Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown (2011) and Nitram (2021). Beau is sullen and inarticulate — he utters just one word in the entire film — and wears military-style clothing. But whereas Kurzel’s films located their protagonists’ disaffection in a real world of acute social and economic disadvantage, Summons places Beau’s firmly in a boundaryless virtual sphere in which bigotry is both legitimated and amplified.

We glimpse Beau’s posts to a Reddit-style forum called ‘Incels.is’, his profile picture reminiscent of the alt-right-linked Pepe the Frog meme. In another scene, Beau sets up a smartphone and ring light and stands in front of them. We don’t know what kind of content he is planning to record or stream, but we can guess.

Unlike Kurzel’s films, Victim is not based on actual events. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Summons — who wrote the film as well as directing — didn’t have the misogynistic killing sprees of Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian in mind during its creation.

In May 2014, after stabbing three men to death in his Isla Vista apartment, Rodger uploaded a video to YouTube titled ‘Elliot Rodger’s Retribution’ and then drove to a sorority house where he shot three women to death. Several more people were killed and injured as Rodger drove through Isla Vista, indiscriminately shooting and running down members of the public. He was later found dead inside his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

In addition to uploading the video, Rodger sent a lengthy ‘manifesto’ to friends, family and acquaintances. In it, he lamented his rejection by women and their preference for ‘obnoxious men’. By contrast, he wrote in a sign-off that would become a quasi-ironic alt-right meme, he was ‘the supreme gentleman’. In a Facebook post made shortly before his vehicle-ramming attack in Toronto, Canada, in April 2018, Minassian praised Rodger, writing ‘all hail the Supreme Gentleman!’

Victim doesn’t make explicit the link between these attacks — themselves connected in a causal chain of male supremacist influence — and Beau’s murderous, female-directed rage. Instead, it highlights the role played by pedigreed, authoritative-sounding commentators in fuelling anger at a perceived assault on ‘the masculine spirit’. This isn’t merely speculative. When asked by New York Times journalist Nellie Bowles about Minassian’s attack, Peterson replied that ‘he was angry at God because women were rejecting him’. The solution, he notoriously ventured, was ‘enforced monogamy’.

The idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies, and that violence is an inevitable and even understandable consequence if they are denied sexual relationships, undergirds incel ideology. It might be argued that there’s something suspect about a male director centring the story of a male perpetrator while affording his female victim no voice. But Summons makes it clear that Chrissy — who in many ways is the film’s main character, an impression strengthened by Stewart’s focussed performance — is a victim, too.

In one of the film’s key scenes, in which Beau and Chrissy celebrate her birthday over a takeaway lunch, Beau demonstrates that his sense of ownership over women’s bodies extends to his mother’s, reacting furiously to her mention of a date. When, in the film’s final scene, Chrissy embraces a weeping, guilt-wracked Beau, it’s Chrissy’s face that we linger on rather than her son’s. Her expression is wide-eyed, hesitant. Where to put her love now, after this?

For a film about the digital age, Victim has a markedly analogue look. It is gritty and washed out, the result perhaps of a 35mm film grain overlay. Handheld camerawork abounds and, while Summons mostly employs mid-shots and close-ups, the few wide shots there are feel voyeuristic rather than expansive. The drone and cello of Chiara Costanza’s score summon a mood of dread. The overall effect, like that of Kurzel’s oeuvre, is one of airlessness and barely concealed despair.

Victim abuts the limits of the short-film format, as well as those of social-realist filmmaking more broadly: namely, the genre’s sometimes paradoxically obscuring of verisimilitude. It is, nevertheless, a compellingly harrowing depiction of where online rabbit holes — baited with the poisonous discourse of the male supremacist right — can lead.

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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