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When the actor Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen, Mildred Pierce, Westworld) testified to Congress in 2018 about her own traumatic experience as part of her support for a bill aiding sexual assault survivors, she was careful not mention her alleged abuser’s name.
Nevertheless, the internet and by extension the world quickly worked out she was talking about rock star and aging enfant terrible Marilyn Manson. The two had a publicly tempestuous, on-again, off-again relationship for several years in the late aughts, starting when Wood was 18 years old and Manson, real name Brian Warner, was 37. Wood, as she explains in Phoenix Rising – Part One: Don’t Fall, was afraid that Warner or one of his fans might harm her child, her family or herself if she named him directly.
Indeed, as director Amy Berg’s documentary reminds us, his fans are not exactly known for being laid-back and sanguine in the face of criticism of their idol. Merely pointing out, however unfair it might be, that Manson/Warner was a favorite of the teens who committed the massacre at Columbine High School is enough to send them into a frothing rage.
Wood excoriates Warner directly here, recounting how physically, sexually and psychologically abusive he had been, cruelty which included drugging her and then raping her while they filmed the music video for his song “Heart-Shaped Glasses.” Only the first portion of this two-part HBO series was made available and shown via the Sundance Film Festival as this review went to press, but it’s pretty hard to see how Manson’s already shredded reputation will recover from it, no matter how much he denies, as reported here, that any of the allegations are true. Woods alludes to the fact that several other women, such as the actor Esme Bianco, have alleged that they suffered similar abuse from him and perhaps some of them will speak about it on camera in part two of Rising Phoenix.
Wood and Berg’s ultimate goal, however, seems to have less to do with exposing Warner for exposure’s sake than helping others recognize warning signs in their own troubled relationships — and influencing lawmakers. Berg has previous form here, having made scandal-exposing features such as An Open Secret, about the abuse of teens within the film industry, and Prophet’s Prey, which examined abuse within a fundamentalist sect of the Mormon church.
Wood, meanwhile, is seen here as an active and effective campaigner on behalf of the Phoenix Act (hence the film’s title), which extends the time domestic abuse survivors have to press charges against an abuser, a law that passed in the California state senate in 2020 after impassioned testimony from Wood and others.
Berg seamlessly weaves in footage of Wood speaking to the state senators and celebrating the passing of the legislation with fellow activists. These tearful, moving moments often involve artist Illma Gore, who is seen throughout the film helping Wood collate evidence of other survivors of Warner and supporting her as she looks back at her own diaries written when she first met Warner.
At least it’s a little reassuring to note that Wood has a support network of friends and family now. In fact, her mother Sara, father Ira and brother, also named Ira, are all interviewed here, even though she is not always flattering about her parents. Evan obliquely suggests that her parents’ own combative relationship when she was a child before they got divorced may have been related to the reasons why she fell into an abusive relationship years later. Elsewhere she mentions that she wasn’t happy with how her mother was managing the income Evan earned as a child actor. But that honesty about familial disharmony actually helps to make Evan a stronger witness for the prosecution here.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Special Screenings)
With: Evan Rachel Wood, Illma Gore, Ira David Wood III, Sara Wood, Ira David Wood IV
Production companies: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Amy Berg
Producers: Amy Berg, Grace Sin, Lesley Goldman, Katie Doering
Executive producers: Kirsten Sheridan, Regina Scully, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Director of photography: Jenna Rosher, Curren Sheldon
Editor: Miranda Yousef
Music: Aska Matsumiya
Music supervisor: Frally Hynes
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