In She Said, the Women of Hollywood Reclaim Their Story
On some level, it's genuinely shocking that She Said exists. A major Hollywood studio has released a movie about one of the darkest chapters in the industry's recent history: an unsparing look at not only the abuses perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein, but the system that concealed his crimes for decades, through the lens of the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan), Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan), and Rebecca Corbett (Patricia Clarkson). A fairly standard (if handsomely constructed) journalism procedural, She Said nevertheless possesses a unique metatextual power that makes it one of the most fascinating and emotionally moving films of the year.
She Said is far from perfect, and it often pales in comparison to other highlights of the genre like Spotlight or All the President's Men. Visually, it's fairly pedestrian, but the major faults of the film lie in Rebecca Lenkiewicz's screenplay, which is often stilted and overly expository—like, well, someone reading a newspaper article aloud. Kazan is saddled with the worst of these segments, and although she carries some of the heaviest emotional loads of the film with great skill (she has one of the great empathetic listening faces), she struggles at times to make her dialogue sound natural. Mulligan fares somewhat better in the film's division of labor and turns in a typically excellent performance as the more hard-nosed of the main pair (Universal's categorization of Mulligan as a "supporting" player for awards purposes is laughable. This is a two-hander if I've ever seen one).
But the real stars of She Said are the parade of one-or-two scene performances from performers both familiar (Samantha Morton, Jennifer Ehle, Zach Greiner) and fresh (Angela Yeoh, Katherine Kendall, John Mazurek). These one-on-one interviews with Weinstein's victims and enablers are the film's most compelling material, especially when it pauses to let the women who suffered at his hands speak for themselves. Veterans Morton and Ehle are particular standouts who absolutely crush their short scenes, working in tandem with Nicholas Britell's propulsive (but never overbearing) score.
And for every journalism movie cliché that She Said falls into, it makes another bold choice that I've never seen before. In particular, the emphasis on Kantor and Twohey's home lives in addition to their work is something I've never quite seen before, and that focus reminds the audience that they are not just any journalists, but women whose own experiences—particularly as working mothers raising young girls—inform how they approach their work. When the subject of their reporting is the systematic victimization of other women in the workplace, the weight of that work naturally bleeds over into their everyday lives.
Schrader's approach, which centers the women driving this story, is most evident in the framing of the overall narrative. At its core, She Said is a film about an investigation into an abuser—but critically, not the abuse itself, and Schrader never forgets that. You never see Weinstein, except briefly from behind or heard over the phone, but the specter of his influence is everywhere. As the women who endured his harassment deliver their firsthand accounts, we see not reenactments of Weinstein's behavior, but long slow takes of hotel hallways that feel almost like documentary B-roll. It's not the most visually compelling approach, but this approach forces the audience to focus on these women's words, giving them the spotlight and the opportunity to reclaim the stories that were forcibly taken from them through violence and NDAs. After all, the title is She Said. Giving these women their voices back is the whole point.
But perhaps the most daring element of the film is the decision to have actual participants in the real-world story play themselves. But unlike other films that mix narrative and non-fiction elements, here, the real people are also movie stars. When Ashley Judd reenacts her own role as victim, source, and catalyst for the events of the film, it draws from not only her personal lived experience but also our relationship to her as an actress, giving it a special power (the same goes for Gwyneth Paltrow, who appears in a smaller, voice-only role). This unusual blending of reality and fictionalized narrative gives She Said a unique power, and makes it all the more challenging to separate the emotional punch of its real-world story from its effectiveness as a filmed version of that tale.
But on balance, the novel elements and emotional commitment of the cast outweigh the film's clunkier elements. She Said could have been a run-of-the-mill journalism procedural (and in many ways, it still is), but powerful performances and unconventional narrative choices push the film beyond its sometimes lacking material. And as an attempt by Hollywood to reckon with its long history of mistreatment of women in the film industry, it's a crucial first step.
She Said is in theaters now.