'The Red Pill': Film Review

The Red Pill - Still - H - 2016
An admirable attempt at evenhandedness whose journalistic and aesthetic failings dilute its arguments.

Actress-turned-filmmaker Cassie Jaye tries to understand the men's rights movement.

Who owns the word "feminism"? Like "Christianity," "Islam," "democracy" and "socialism," the noun sounds concrete enough to many, but contains so many and such varied ideas that one feminist might wage war against another, or even abandon the label in horror of what others claim it implies.

One could hardly expect a documentary about the amorphous men's rights movement to answer such a question. But in dealing with subjects who use the word so frequently as an epithet, and who are demonized by those who use it as a banner, one should at least address its ambiguity. That's especially true of a film made by a woman, who set out intending to defend the cause of equal rights for women and who ends her movie with the disheartening declaration, "I no longer call myself a feminist." Cassie Jaye's The Red Pill is clumsy and frustrating in many ways. But it demonstrates enough sincerity and openness to challenging ideas — letting representatives of this problematic movement make their case clearly and convincingly — that one wishes it were able to look at multiple sides of this debate at the same time. Red Pill doesn't approach the level of polish required to enter the mainstream, and many who might benefit from seeing it will dismiss it out of hand; on video, though, it will be embraced by the community it depicts.

Jaye begins with an unpromising first-person introduction, establishing her background as an actor who, frustrated with blonde-victim roles, decided to take up the camera and explore social issues. Upset by a pair of high-profile rape cases, she did some Googling and soon found herself reading essays by men whose defensiveness on the subject of false rape accusations has led others to claim they promote the real thing. Let's not get bogged down considering that assertion, because the movie drops it immediately — proceeding to address the more easily understood concerns of the men's rights activists (MRAs) whose work she was reading.

In speaking to a variety of prominent figures in the movement — Paul Elam, Warren Farrell and Fred Hayward among them — Jaye finds herself swayed by statistics and laments. Why, they ask, in a society where we frequently point to disparities in male/female income or white/black incarceration as proof of the need for change, are so few people disturbed by claims that 93 percent of workplace fatalities are men, 80 percent of suicides are men or the fact that only men are required by law to register for a draft that could send them to die overseas?

Beyond public-health stats, these men make cases for more complicated ways in which law and culture favor women over men: Moving personal narratives recount acrimonious child-custody cases in which the law's "supposition that women are more fit" for parenting than men has kept devoted fathers from their kids. Other stories challenge the belief that domestic abuse is always a man-on-woman crime, claiming that millions of men a year are assaulted by their partners; meanwhile, Jaye reports that most domestic-abuse shelters deny assistance to male victims.

When it comes time to counter these arguments, Jaye makes a bizarre choice: Of the three authorities she interviews from the feminist world, two are men. The sole female in the bunch, Ms. magazine executive editor Katherine Spillar, comes across as unreasonably dismissive. Is she overstating her positions out of fear that her interviewer, who clearly isn't a seasoned journalist, would misuse her words to defend misogynists?

About that misogyny: Jaye never interrogates her subjects about the bile-filled language that so disturbs her in the doc's opening minutes. At the outset, she recalls reading online essays but "stopping around the halfway mark in every article, because I could only read so many 'bitch,' 'f—,' 'Feminazi' and 'rapetard' words per minute." When they're speaking to her, the men of this movement are calm and reasonable, rejecting outsiders' claims that they're hateful. Red Pill offers an explanation for a single outrageous essay (which is said to have been a satirical response to an allegedly anti-male article elsewhere), but ignores the rest. In doing so, the film all but guarantees that the movement's opponents will conclude Jaye isn't worth listening to.

Production company: Jaye Bird Productions
Director: Cassie Jaye
Producers: Cassie Jaye, Nena Jaye, Anna Laclergue
Executive producer: Evan Davies
Director of photography: Evan Davies
Composer: Douglas Edward

Not rated, 117 minutes