Hidden in the darker recesses of the internet are some sinister and threatening places which act as insidious catalysts for a variety of radicalising groups amongst them Incels (Involuntary celibates), whose alarming appeal to isolated men is starkly depicted in Robin Summons’ latest short Victim. The Australian filmmaker – who we last saw on DN’s pages with thought-provoking therapist drama Occupation – doesn’t however focus on the expected vantage point of his disturbing subject matter but instead examines the impact such radicalisation has on a mother and son’s relationship, and the terrifying conflict of emotions faced by any parent in such a situation. Shot entirely on 16mm, Victim focuses on the mundanity of this escalating suburban nightmare as it metastasizes behind the locked door of a teenage bedroom, stoking the parental terror of knowing that your increasingly distant child has not only the capacity but perhaps the intention do real irrevocable harm. Using carefully crafted storytelling which never reveals too much and a voiceover that acts as a harbinger of the mounting threat, Victim serves as a stark warning for actions we all too regularly see play out off screen. Ahead of today’s DN premiere, we caught up with Summons to learn about the harrowing research he put into the script, why he chose to not rehearse with his actors and his desire to highlight the very real life risk of radicalisation.

Where did the concept for the story of Victim come from?

A few years ago I was involved in some climate activist groups and it got me thinking about radicalisation. I wrote a feature film called Change about a young woman falling pregnant in a climate change cult that forbids birth. But it didn’t really scratch the kind of story itch I had in this area.

Victim’s genesis was me thinking about a teenager in a room alone, on his computer, being radicalised into something dark. It was a bit of a stereotype but felt potent in some way. The mundanity of it was what struck me. As the teenager in my head formed into the character of Beau (Ned Stanford), a kid interested in moving from gateway figures like Jordan Peterson towards the violent misogyny of Incels, I realised I didn’t want to put the audience in Beau’s shoes. It seemed a lot more interesting, and I guess human, to imagine the story from the point of view of his mother Chrissy (Kat Stewart). Once I’d noted that, the story came hard and fast, with very little editing from the first draft to shooting. It was only later that I made the connection that I’d witnessed the aftermath of an Incel attack in my street whilst studying at UCSB in 2014. I think that definitely subconsciously influenced this story.

It seemed a lot more interesting, and I guess human, to imagine the story from the point of view of his mother.

Incels and the route of radicalisation into these groups is truly terrifying. How much research did you go into for Victim in order to accurately portray that silent insidious progression which is terrifyingly more common than we would like to think?

I did some pretty heavy research before writing and directing the film. Reddit, podcasts and YouTube documentaries all feature the perspectives of Incels which was hard to handle but felt a necessary part of the research. For the MRA-like voiceover that features in the montages, I looked into more mainstream internet personality figures like Jordan Peterson. I believe Peterson’s more mainstream views around ‘a crisis of masculinity’ are a gateway drug into more radical views around women. The UK feminist Laura Bates (Men Who Hate Women) was also really instructive in my research, particularly the way she suggests Incel misogyny and violence against women isn’t labelled terrorism due to the fact that misogyny is so common in everyday society already. Bates also talks about visiting schools in the UK as part of her Everyday Sexism Project and finding young men from 13 years old onward harbouring views of sexism and misogyny harboured online.

In 2014 I studied film at UCSB in California. I went out one night to get some drinks and came across police tape and a sickening atmosphere. What I’d stumbled across was one of the most horrific Incel terrorist acts the US has had and after this, I saw the harrowing effect it had on the community. That experience undoubtedly influenced my decision to make this film.

One of the overarching themes which struck me was a mother’s love, regardless of her son’s abhorrent behaviour towards her and what she knows he is becoming. How did you work with Kat Stewart on her commendable performance in this role?

Love overcoming reason was something I definitely wanted to explore. Most of us are like this with our families and close ones, and parents with their children most of all. That seemed like a strong universal theme to interrogate. The way Brock Turner’s father defended him in his Stanford University rape case in 2016 was a shocking example of rape culture, but it’s not an anomaly, parents often end up defending their children’s harmful behaviour against all reason.

The scripts I write are often laden with raw emotion and I prefer to capture them for the first time on set so we didn’t rehearse.

In Victim, I feel the mother character Kat Stewart plays is doing her best to support her son. She’s in a really complicated position. When she learns the truth, I wanted to leave some ambiguity about how she might ultimately respond. Kat and I discussed the script and how to make her character make the most sense. It was a pretty simple and smooth process. The scripts I write are often laden with raw emotion and I prefer to capture them for the first time on set so we didn’t rehearse. Kat played the heavier scenes courageously, which I’m grateful for.

There is a juxtaposition throughout where the potential threat of Beau’s behaviour isn’t quite fully realised, even through the drawer being locked with a key held by a fluffy pink pom pom. How did you work on building that tension and not revealing everything to the audience?

In terms of the pom pom it felt to me that just because this son is being radicalised into a hyper-masculine culture, it doesn’t mean the mother should be. It’s a pretty dark world we created, and I felt some sparkle and juxtaposition would help build a certain friction. I find ellipsis or withholding exposition in film narratives to be rewarding. In this case, I definitely didn’t want to show any potential violence for ethical reasons and thought allowing the audience to do the story maths would make it all the more impactful. I hoped showing the aftermath of potential violence in the final scene at home could make it more relatable and mundane, and thus act as a warning sign for all parents. This isn’t just movie stuff, this can happen to real families in real life.

I find ellipsis or withholding exposition in film narratives to be rewarding.

Alongside the aesthetic beauty of shooting on film comes the logistical challenges of expense and therefore finite takes. How did you tackle that aspect of the shoot?

I’d always wanted to shoot 16mm someday. I just had to save the money to do so. I really love the texture and somehow it connects me with performances even more. Maybe it just connects me with a film more, nostalgia or not, it just does. Our DOP, Joey Knox, is terrific shooting on film so he was all for it and did a great job. I wanted the locations and design to have an unflashy look and to feel like a kind of everyday suburban nightmare, so I hoped the look of the film could kind of elevate the world a little bit to counteract this.

When shooting heavy scenes like those in Victim, I love the limited takes you have on film which really makes everyone bring their best.

We worked out a shooting ratio and stuck to it throughout shooting. When shooting heavy scenes like those in Victim, I love the limited takes you have on film which really makes everyone bring their best. I love the work of plenty of directors that shoot a million takes but it’s not really my style when shooting drama. That said, the small shooting ratio is a bit limiting, as is the cost, and I’m trying to convince myself the next film I direct will be shot digitally, I’m sure the producers will be happy to convince me.

Did anything substantially change in the edit considering the limited scope for rushes that came from using film?

Yes, we added the VO montages quite late in the process when we decided to make the film’s political context clearer. It felt important to me to contextualise Beau’s radicalisation. Chiara Costanza’s score really brought the VO to life. Initially I wanted something all electronic, to fit with the black hole of dangerous ideas that is the dark side of the internet but I’m glad Chiara convinced me to use some strings, in this case cello. I was trying to be a bit too intellectual but the strings hit at a gut level, at least for me.

With such variation in your films subject matter, what can we expect next from you?

I’m developing a feature drama called Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. The film follows a cowboy spirited long-haul truck driver returning home to her family for her estranged daughter’s wedding. It’s a multi-generational story of mothers and daughters doing their best not to implode as tensions rise between them with the wedding fast approaching. I’m hoping the feature film format will allow me to make a film that balances its heavier themes with some heart and humour. I appreciate films that aren’t totally stark and Victim got a little too close!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *