On Swimming with Sharks and the enjoyment of misogynistic film

In today's review on Second Unit, I review (with more than a token assist from a feminist friend) Swimming with Sharks, a rare film where Kevin Spacey plays a terrible person and ends up with a gun to his head. Also, we would love to have you write for us! We love movies and TV and you should too. Shoot me some ideas at secondunit.kinja@gmail.com and I'll let you know how it's done!

Swimming with Sharks: Kevin Spacey Breaks the Rules

I have a friend that recently said to me, "If a white man is the narrator of a film, he's automatically the protagonist." It's true, of course, but as a white man myself, it's something that I can stand to have pointed out to me regularly. Such is the case with Swimming with Sharks.

I have a general rule of thumb that if a person refers to a film based on who stars in it, their taste in movies is generally not to be trusted. If someone refers to, as an example, Magic Mike as a "Channing Tatum movie" or a "Matthew McConaughey movie", I'll approach their opinions on film with a little more skepticism than someone who rightly notes that it's a Steven Soderbergh movie (and a fine one at that). In the hands of a skilled director, actors are versatile tools. Some are better than others, and some can do any job you need to do, but the director is still the one "making" the film.

In some instances, though, an otherwise mediocre โ€“ or worse โ€“ film is so anchored by a single performance that it truly becomes the property of that actor. George Huang, writer and director of Swimming with Sharks, has a single theatrical release to his name since, an awful bit of film called Trojan War, which stars the older brother from Boy Meets World and pulled in an impressive $309 at the box office (yes, three hundred nine American dollars). So I'm more than willing to give credit where it's due. Swimming with Sharks is a Kevin Spacey film, and he is tremendous.

The film itself is a misogynistic mess. There is a grand total of ONE credited woman in the film โ€“ Michelle Forbes does her best, but her character really exists as something for the men to possess. It got me thinking: can a film be misogynistic toward its characters without being a misogynistic film? Can a film be misogynistic as a response to and satire of misogyny? I think both are open questions, but this isn't the film to answer them. I don't think Swimming with Sharks is a deep-thinking movie, and the satire is far too subtle/misapplied to be meaningful or useful. I still enjoyed Kevin Spacey's performance very much, but the disdain with which Dawn's character is treated not only by the characters but by the film itself is completely lacking in self-awareness.

This is not a particularly unique phenomenon in film, but my obliviousness to this fact was palpable as I had the film live-texted to me by a feminist woman - the aforementioned friend - who watched it immediately after me. I think giving her the floor is appropriate here (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR A MOVIE FROM 1994):

"this movie just seems like a white guy takes a job from an asshat and gets mad when the asshat is an asshat"

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"poor middle class white kid has to kiss ass and then goes nuts is an alternate title"

"and he somehow gets laid by an older more attractive executive?"

"so far it just feels like wank of the poor privileged white guy in a powerful job. This could easily have been a great horror movie if they took a different direction"

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"oh. spacey called guy a white knight. Nice Guyโ„ข"

"yeah I think its still told with the intent of guy being someone we should empathize with"

"dawn has a meeting with stella about the movie, she is a fucking producer, she literally has no reason to be with or deal with guy. and stella would probably make her movie."

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"I don't see anyone's motivation"

(Me: I guess there's that Buddy is the big moneymaker for the studio and she wants an inside track to Buddy. But I think there are better ways to go about it than fucking the assistant.)

"especially since buddy doesnt give a shit about his assistant"

"itd be just as easy to get close to buddy"

"they make dawn someone who tells guy to stand up to buddy but she knows buddy better than guy does. shes seen how he treats his assistants."

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"she obviously had to work her ass off to be a respected producer, so she has had her fair share of bosses she had to kiss ass and ignore abuse"

(Me: And she's where she wants to be! That's when you don't have to sleep your way up anymore. And you don't sleep your way to the top by fucking people below you.)

"yeah I dont understand peoples motivation in this movie at all"

"guy is a baby"

"I'm just going to assume this is a parody of how shitty white dudes are"

"so he goes nuts because of dawn"

"so we give buddy a redeeming quality in a dead wife. but dawn is just a whore"

"guy just wanted to move to Wyoming! which is perfectly reasonable for a 25 year old just starting in the film industry"

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"This movie definitely doesn't pass the bechdel test"

(Me: Does it even have more than one female character?)

"No it doesn't. unless you count stella who we never see. Also its way easier to be a woman so you can sleep your way to the top rather than actually work like a white man has to."

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"if dawn had gotten the gun and shot guy I would have loved it"

โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”โ€”

SING IT, SISTER.

Rating this movie is difficult. I enjoyed it very much as I watched it and Kevin Spacey was fantastic, but with very problematic material. Even worse, upon reflection, it was really poor material. It's possible that I've become so numbed to women in movies being written to be eminently replaceable that I have a huge blind spot where a woman wouldn't.

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Still, I prefer to keep the numerical rating system strictly out of the realm of social commentary. One can admire the technical mastery and innovation displayed by D.W. Griffith in Birth of a Nation while deploring its virulent racism. One can love On the Waterfront while recognizing and speaking against Elia Kazan's participation in Hollywood blacklisting, or espouse the merits of Rosemary's Baby while castigating Roman Polanski as a child rapist. Film is not a medium experienced in absolutes; while a production is meant to be the vision of a director, there are far too many cooks in almost every film's kitchen (especially non-documentary films) to be viewed with so narrow a lens.

I have to rate this film honestly; to artificially deflate my rating to fit my political leanings is too greedy; using George Huang's work as a source of 93 minutes of enjoyment (186 if you count following along with someone else) only to slap it with a two-star rating lets me weasel out of my own participation in the misogyny. My reviews are for hashing out my dueling natures; ratings are nothing but honest reflections of my own experience.

Rating: 4/5

Joshua McCool can be found on Twitter @joshuaadavidd. His film ratings can be found at Letterboxd.