The new documentary illustrates the excruciating lengths domestic violence survivors go to in order to be heard and believed.
Warning: The references to sexual abuse detailed in this article could be triggering for people who have been victims of abuse.
Phoenix Rising begins quietly in Los Angeles in 2020, as Evan Rachel Wood and Ilma Gore rustle through papers and organize files on computers, with messy charts littering the walls around them. It’s a moment of art imitating life: The silence that punctuates this story is as loud as a scream, but much like the road to justice in situations of sexual violence, the storytelling itself is slow and painstaking as well.
On the surface, the documentary focuses on the abuse allegations against Marilyn Manson (whose real name is Brian Warner). But Phoenix Rising, like any story in the dishearteningly extensive #MeToo catalog, is about much more than that. The two-part HBO Max documentary doesn’t aim to scorch earth, even though its protagonists’ pain calls for it. Phoenix Rising instead does harder work: It uses exasperated detail to illustrate the excruciating lengths that survivors of domestic violence go to in order to be heard and believed.
Wood is the center of the documentary, as well as the central figure in the currently unfolding scandal that encompasses multiple lawsuits against Manson for abuses that include rape, sexual battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, human trafficking, and unlawful imprisonment. (Manson has maintained his innocence in the allegations, and has sued Wood for fraud.) While Wood’s case exceeds the statute of limitations and therefore cannot be prosecuted, she is the most famous of his accusers, and she is the most vocal in using her experience to fight for criminal justice reform. She spoke to Congress in 2018 to advocate for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, and also was pivotal in getting the Phoenix Act passed, which extended the statute of limitations for domestic abuse from 1-3 to 3-5 years in California.
Rumors of the shock rocker’s abusive tendencies, and of Wood as a longtime target of them during their high-profile relationship that began in 2007 when she was a teenager and he was 37, had circulated for years. But it wasn’t until February 1, 2021, when Wood made a trepidatious Instagram post — the moment when she does so is captured in the documentary — that finally named Manson as the abuser she’d spoken of for years, and detailed some of the abuse she claims to have endured, that Phoenix Rising had enough fuel to even get released. It’s a patriarchal Catch-22 — in order to get justice, someone has to come forward, but in order to come forward, they must be re-traumatized.
That’s Phoenix Rising‘s most powerful quality: It doesn’t shy away from the trauma of it all. Wood is candid and vulnerable throughout the footage to the point that as a viewer, it almost feels like you’re watching something you’re not supposed to. And yet Phoenix Rising doesn’t flinch in pressing on. Wood lets you see her confront her triggers at every turn. She cries at old journal entries and photos of before she’d met Manson, remembering her innocence. She recounts specifically what happened to her on the set of Manson’s music video for “Heart Shape Glasses,” during which she alleges to have been raped on camera. She goes on to detail one instance of alleged torture she endured after trying to leave Manson but having gone back to him, in which she was tied to a “kneeler” and shocked and whipped.
The subtext is that we, as a society, are conditioned to look the other way in instances of domestic abuse. The old-school, more boomer opinion is that it’s no one’s business but the people involved. The more current outlook is similarly grim, with insistence on the unreliability of “he said versus she said” accusations, and the requirement of innocent until proven guilty in situations that rarely have extensive physical evidence in the first place. So to combat that reality, Wood lays her soul bare, making Phoenix Rising a heartbreaking relic of the Me Too era and a powerful act of rebellion. To buttress the first-hand accounts, the documentary also defines terms like grooming, love bombing, gaslighting, and isolating, arming the viewer with a fuller lexicon to identify abuse to accompany the stereotype-shaking testimony.
One setback of Phoenix Rising is that it is slow, repetitive, and a bit myopic on Wood. It makes the runtime of more than two hours a bit tedious. But that’s also part of what makes it successful. Since Phoenix Rising takes its time to tell its story, we get a different kind of Me Too narrative than the splashy varieties of the recent past, like the societal soap opera played out in We Need To Talk About Cosby or the cliff-hanging, gumshoe take on Harvey Weinstein in Ronan Farrow’s The Catch and Kill. Phoenix Rising digs into the seemingly unremarkable backstories that lead women into the arms of predators. For example, the film details how Manson allegedly exploited Wood’s abandonment issues with her father to his advantage. It takes time to break down societal clichés like “daddy issues,” even if it means Wood has to sit there and mundanely detail her parents’ divorce.
In this way, Phoenix Rising takes the narratives of sexual abuse and domestic violence and gives agency back to the survivor. There’s an especially powerful scene where Wood meets with some of Manson’s other victims, as well as Dan Cleary, Manson’s former personal assistant and guitar tech who came out to support Manson’s accusers by vocalizing that he’d witnessed abuse first hand — one of few voices in Manson’s inner circle to break ranks in the situation. The scene is awkward and clunky, but it gives viewers a front-row seat to the devastating effects of abuse as the women confide in one another about their experiences: the theft of innocence, the psychological torture that often accompanied the physical abuse, and the decades of PTSD that caused some of them to distrust themselves or fear coming forward.
The documentary of course shows how we let powerful men get away with terrible things, and how not too long ago we let Perez Hilton write “Ho” on images of Wood without batting an eye — but that’s not the central focus. The focal point is on the lasting ramifications of Manson’s actions, like how Wood cries at most things and must eventually take her child and go into hiding just to be safe while coming forward. The documentary is the first example of a story like this being told almost in real-time with the case unfolding, and it’s also clearly a story about women made by women. Phoenix Rising is an essential narrative in understanding the insidiousness of domestic abuse, and even if it’s hard to watch, it’s a story we shouldn’t look away from.