Discussion of Jeremy Lovering’s 2013 film In Fear and Caitlín R. Kiernan’s 2012 novel The Drowning Girl.

“I didn’t find the rest of the movie scary. It’s only about a very large shark, which we are shown again and again and again. We are shown the shark, and then nothing is left to the imagination. A shark an only kill a woman. And a shark can be understood and reckoned with. A shark is only a fish that can be tracked down and destroyed by three men in a leaky little boat. It’s nothing even as remotely unsettling as the opening scene’s villain.  I shouldn’t have written villain, so I’ve struck it out. After all, whatever mauled and pulled the unlucky girl down to her death, it was only being whatever it was. She was the interloper. She came to it, invaded its world, not the other way round.” (Kiernan 168)

In the above excerpt, Kiernan discusses Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws, specifically in relation to the disjunction between the opening of the film and the body of the film text or later narrative development. She explains the classification of space in terms of being intimately linked identity. The coast in Jaws, then, is not inert, neutral space, but is, instead, the shark’s territory. The unnamed young woman who dies at the beginning of the film is intruding on this territory without invitation or leave. For this reason, the shark’s actions become legible, understandable, perhaps even sympathetic. This is relatively straightforward when considered in terms of animals, we typically don’t ascribe blame to predators for being predatory. But for as much as Kiernan is talking specifically about the shark in Jaws in this passage, she’s also talking about colonial spaces, territory, and violence.

It is through this lens that I’d like to consider Jeremy Lovering’s 2013 film In Fear. The film has an incredibly small cast with only three named characters, Lucy (Alice Englert), Tom (Iain De Caestecker), and Max (Allen Leech). The film follows Lucy and Tom through the winding, labyrinthine corridors of backwoods roads in rural Ireland as they attempt to make their way to a local bed and breakfast. They aren’t particularly close when they start their journey, this trip is supposed to be their second date, and as they get more lost and begin to encounter unsettling and disorienting changes in their environment and become more lost their already-fragile relationship begins to disintegrate. Mid-way through the film, they come across Max, having apparently hit him at some indistinguishable point earlier in their attempted navigation of the maze-like paths. Max’s aggression towards them escalates quickly until he eventually goads Tom into a fist fight, threatens to kill Tom and Lucy (but mostly Lucy) multiple times, and eventually tricks Lucy into killing Tom inadvertently. The film ends with Max standing in the middle of the road out of the forest, bloody and mud-covered, shouting at Lucy to hit him as she accelerates towards him. The film cuts to black before we know how it ends, but the presumption is that Lucy kills Max.

Considering that there are so few characters in this film, and that the narrative is relatively static (almost the entire film takes place inside of Lucy and Tom’s car or immediately outside of it, all in the same few miles of forest), I think it’s possible to read each character as prototypical. Tom occupies the position of male colonizer, Lucy of female colonizer, and Max of radicalized (de)colonial subject. I would like to note that already we’re missing a representative of a very important position in intersectional decoloniality – the female (de)colonial subject. This, in some ways, may account for the way that Max operates. If we consider Lori Landay’s writing on female tricksters, women in revolutionary, liminal, or otherwise paradigm-changing positions occupy those positions with explicit attention paid not just to themselves/their own best interests, but to those of their communities. To be clear, this is not derived from the stereotypical conception of femininity as being somehow intrinsically linked with motherhood and nurturing, but rather with the persistence with which women are forced (via politics, economic conditions, and social contracts) to save their communities in order to eventually save themselves.

So, then, if we read Max as the embattled, disenfranchised, patriarchal colonial subject who is violently rebelling against anyone/thing that represents his oppressor, he begins to more fully occupy the position of the shark in Jaws that Keirnan describes in The Drowning Girl above. Max torments and aims to kill Tom and Lucy, as he has apparently done to countless travelers before them, not because he necessarily enjoys it. He is not constructed as a serial killer with personal motivations that outweigh nationality in the way that classic horror film serial killers like Norman Bates (Psycho 1960), Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs 1991), and Peter and Paul (Funny Games 1997), but rather as one with an explicitly nationalist motive for killing. Furthermore, the kind of torment that he inflicts on his victims centers on disorientation and a need to disrupt their understanding of themselves as people both individually and in the world. He moves signs and landmarks, corrects Tom on his account of events that Max presumably couldn’t know about, forces both Tom and Lucy to exhibit extreme violence and make impossible decisions that neither believes they are capable of beforehand. He unsettles their sense of self in order to unequivocally prove to them both, these two interlopers, that they are out of their depth in his space and that they fundamentally do not belong. Once again, this type of torture is not a-political (although, to be fair, what kind is?) but is directly informed by the history of colonialism and neocolonialism in Ireland.

I would like to note that, much like the problematic nature of the film’s gender politics, it is equally troubling to equate Max’s character, ostensibly a human being albeit fictional, with an animal. There is an implication in this reading that for all of Max’s exertion of personal will and his active pursuit of and violence against Tom and Lucy, he does not ultimately have control over these actions, but is instead operating from instinct. I might be inclined to concede that this problem only presents itself in my reading of the film, if it weren’t for the film’s ending, in which Lucy is similarly deprived of agency even while, or perhaps because, she commits extreme acts of violence against her oppressor(s).

Sources and References:

Kiernan, Caitlín R. The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. New York: Roc, 2012. Print.

Landay, Lori. Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1998. Print.

Image Credit: Anchor Bay Entertainment and Freestyle Releasing © 2013



Author: Geneveive Newman