“Why didn’t she just leave?”
That question is asked nearly every time the subject of domestic violence is brought up. Whether the discussion is about an ongoing situation or coming in the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, someone will always bring it up. After all, it seems like such a simple problem. Your boyfriend/husband is abusing you? Well why are you staying with him?
Private Violence is a feature-length answer to this question. It addresses not just the hideously uninformed logic behind it, but also every single possible follow-up query that could come in response to the answers. It also explores the myriad ways that the legal and law enforcement systems are rigged against victims, making it ridiculously difficult to protect women or punish abusers. The film is quiet in presentation, but the emotions it provokes are potent.
The movie mainly focuses on the case of Deanna, who is seeking justice against her ex-husband, who kidnapped her and her daughter and horrifically beat and humiliated her during a days-long journey across several states. Working with Deanna is Kit Gruelle, a professional advocate for battered women. Kit is our guide through this ugly world, laying out the various ways that wrongheadedness has pervaded our institutional thinking. Her work takes her to other abuse survivors, each with a different story to tell. There’s an extra layer of poignancy because Kit is herself a survivor.
There are a lot of reasons a woman won’t leave a man who degrades her physically, mentally and emotionally. She might have no place to go where he can’t follow. She might not have the means to survive on her own. She might not be able to logistically coordinate the extrication of both herself and any children from the house. He might have her so thoroughly terrorized that the mere thought of escape seems impossible. More likely, it’s some combination of these factors, and many more I’ve left unmentioned.
This is a movie that taps into the viewer’s instinct for righteous anger in a way that would likely be derided were it to come from a fiction film. But these women are real, their stories are real and their pain is agonizing to behold. I knew I was in trouble when I was tearing up during the very first scene, when a woman wailed as she went over all the horrible things her husband had done to her. Others might not find themselves so moved.
Still, the film’s effectiveness is somewhat undercut by narrative confusion. Deanna’s story comes to us haphazardly — it isn’t until relatively late in the film that the full details of what happened to her are laid out on a single, easy-to-understand timeline. Vignettes in which Kit visits the other victims seem to be placed without total regard to rhyme or reason. Scenes that look like they’ll lead to their own story threads, including the opening, ultimately go nowhere. It feels like the movie could have gone through one more round of editing.
Much of Kit and Deanna’s interaction throughout Private Violence circles around Deanna’s ex-husband’s upcoming court case. Director Cynthia Hill and her crew were ultimately barred from filming the legal proceedings. The lack of transparency feels more appropriate than like a letdown, just one more example of the system impeding progress. We learn the important details through Deanna and her team’s recollections: how again and again, the question of why she didn’t just leave was asked. It’s probably too much to expect that this film will prevent that question from ever being asked again, but one can hope.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2014. It is being reposted now that the film is making its debut on HBO.