Big Little Lies (2017) – A Surprising Honest Portrayal of Domestic Abuse

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Big Little Lies can easily be dismissed as a vehicle for former has been A-list movie stars who turned their attention to the small screen because they are past their sell-by date by Hollywood standards and are no longer profitable box office draws, but this turns out to be better than that. It is a HBO 7-episode miniseries about four wealthy women living in the seaside utopia of Marin County in Northern California. It is one of the richest counties in California and a favorite of tech millionaires. I was apprehensive about using rich women in extremely privileged backgrounds to depict the trauma of domestic abuse because with wealth and privilege, victims can be better sheltered by the aftermath.

It stars Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Mackenzie, who is basically a grown up version of Tracy Flick from her breakout role in Election. She is nosy, bossy, gossipy and shrill, an all around pint sized nightmare. Nicole Kidman as Celeste Wright, a former lawyer but is now a stay-at-home parent to her twin boys. Laura Dern as Renata Klein, a tech company executive, sits on the board of Google and a multimillionaire, the richest of the group – she is equally bossy and shrill, and then you have the odd girl out, Shailene Woodley as Jane Chapman, a single mother to a son Ziggy, and she’s not any single mother, she’s a single mother who doesn’t know the identity of Ziggy’s father. He was conceived during a night of fun flirtation which turned into violent rape and the man who raped her disappeared. She never got his real name or phone number. She wants to find him and confront him about what he did to her.

The series start with a murder, a man was murdered, he seems like an important person who everyone knows, we only see shadows and far away images of him; he’s white man, wearing a nice suit and fancy shoes. The story is told in flashback and as the series progresses, we are to find out who the victim is and what led up to his death. This is juxtaposed with first day of orientation at Otter Bay Elementary School, which all the children of the four main characters attend. It is a public school but because of the rich tax base of Marin County, it functions like a free private school for the residents of Marin County. By the end of orientation, Renata Klein’s (Laura Dern) daughter Annabella has been choked by a classmate and a mark was left on her neck. Renata Klein of course was appalled and proceeded to make a big deal out of it in front of all the students and demanded her daughter to point out to her who choked her. Annabella pointed to Ziggy Chapman, son of Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), the newest student (and resident) to the school as the boy who did this to her. Jane didn’t overreact but asked her son calmly if he did this, he said ‘no’, but he looked scared, and Jane told her son that she believes him and to not worry, but Annabella is insistent that Ziggy was the person who choked her despite his denials. The teacher decided to end the discussion there and take it private. But the damage was done. The new boy, Ziggy Chapman, whose mother isn’t rich like all the other parents, has been marked out as the class bully with no proof except the words of a scared little girl. It was downhill from there for him at the new school.

The battle lines are now drawn and sides are forced to be chosen by all the other moms. When Annabella’s birthday party came around (and these aren’t just any normal birthday parties, they are whole dog and pony shows with a circus act flown in and custom designed cakes), Renata Klein declined to invite Ziggy Chapman for bullying her daughter. When Madeline Mackenzie found out she was indignant, as she and along with many other parents even the teacher didn’t believe Ziggy choked Annabella, he was just being blamed and scapegoated because he’s the new boy and his mother has no wealth or status. Madeline rallied all the other moms to boycott Annabella’s birthday party. She not only told everyone to boycott the party, she arranged for all the kids to attend a Disney on Ice show via private chauffeur and complimentary champaign all paid for by her. Even though she’s just met Jane Chapman, she has decided to take her under her wing. It can be easily dismissed that Madeline has some type of a savior syndrome and wants to make herself out to be a good person, but the truth is, Madeline was that single mother once. She has an older daughter Abigail from a former marriage. She married very young and her husband walked out on her to pursue his dreams and hobbies which were not compatible with family life. She struggled on her own as a single mother in a very affluent town, until she got remarried to her very rich second husband, who also works in tech. This is Madeline’s strange way of showing solidarity with another single mother, not for once considering how little Annabella might feel when half of her friends are missing from her birthday party.

The lynchpin of the series is the story line of Celeste and Perry Wright (Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård). On the outside they are admired and envied. Perry is handsome, charming and a ‘perfect’ father and Celeste is the ‘barbie doll’ of the group, though she is an ‘older’ mother, she looks ever youthful with a handsome and rich younger husband. Even after 7 years of marriage, they still pack on the PDA like teenagers, much to the envy of those with established marriages. But in the middle of all this ‘perfection’, there is chatter of about how it looks ‘too perfect’ and fake and no one is that ‘perfect’. The PDA is just weird and too much (envy aside). And they are right. Perry Wright is a vicious abuser. He beats his wife mercilessly. In fact he is such an expert at beating her that he knows exactly where to inflict the bruises so that no matter what she’s wearing they won’t show (upper arms, shoulders, upper back and breasts). This is one of the few shows where it delves into the nitty gritty details of domestic abuse, what happens before, during and after. What the battered wife does when her husband isn’t around, the far off stares into space, the jumpiness when someone suddenly walks up behind her and maintaining a facade of perfection when it is a nightmare at home. This is one of Nicole Kidman’s best performances of her career. I’ve seen many of her films, including the The Hours where she won an Oscar for best actress portraying the writer Virginia Woolf, it doesn’t come close to the depth of this role. Nicole Kidman fully captures the mannerisms, psyche and actions of an abused woman. The fact that she’s rich, lives in a seaside mansion, has two adorable sons, having the looks of a movie star never compensates for or distracts from the fact that she is a domestic abuse victim first and everything else second.

After one really horrific beating where she was choked to the point of almost passing out, she told Perry that if he lays his hands on her one more time, “I will fucking leave you.” and she meant it, he knew that she meant it. They decided to seek couples therapy to fix their ‘toxic relationship’. The actress playing therapist Dr. Amanda Reisman is Robin Weigert, who puts in a subtle and brilliant performance as a family therapist. In their first meeting, as Perry and Celeste dance around their ‘toxic’ issues, it very quickly it became obvious to Dr. Reisman that this is a dangerous and abusive situation and Celeste’s safety is in peril. Her face went from neutral to barely disguised disgust (one of the finest pieces of acting). Perry Wright has the classic symptoms of an abuser, emotionally manipulative, controlling, needy, insecure, doesn’t like his wife to go out with her friends, cut her off from her inner circle of family and friends, doesn’t want her to go out without him, and he blames his violent actions on everything except himself. Dr. Reisman doesn’t even think of trying to reform or counsel him, her goal is to get Celeste out of that situation as soon as possible.

Celeste begins to see Dr. Reisman regularly on her own without her husband (he travels a lot for work), as she begins to divulge the details his abuse (aided by flashbacks of the actual abuse – and this is very triggering to watch), Celeste realizes that Perry wasn’t just toxic he is deadly. After each beating he cries to her and apologizes to which they have passionate (or violent) make up sex after, sometimes Celeste preempts all that by just taking off her clothes first so he’d skip the beating part. It is a deadly and twisted game of abuse and sex; some would argue that to be marital rape, for a wife to perform sex to avoid abuse. When Celeste is insistent that her boys do not know about this abuse, Dr. Reisman dropped the polite therapist act and told Celeste to get real and rent an apartment immediately, furnish it, get the children’s rooms ready, stock the fridge, set up a secret bank account so that she can leave him the minute she needs to. Celeste dismisses this as going overboard, she’s not ready to let go of the life she gave up everything for and hope that it would all work out in the end.

The therapist also allowed Celeste the space to say good things about her husband, to reminisce on their good times. For example, when he dropped everything to attend to their premature twin boys in the hospital, taking care of her along and their twin boys. When the boys had repeated trips to hospital from lingering premature birth issues, he was awake every night with them and reassured her that they would be fine. Their joint suffering and sadness at the many miscarriages before finally delivering twin boys. Domestic abuse is very complex, the emotions involved are very complicated. Most abusers aren’t abusive every minute of everyday, they have their good moments and most victims hang on to those good moments for as long as they can, until they run out of emotional reserves. But it’s made clear no amount of ‘good’ in the marriage could compensate for the abuse.

The most disturbing scenes are not always the violent sex scenes or when her husband empties a bucket of legos over her head and pins her down and pummels her but the before and after. It’s the fight before or non-incident which he blows up to be a major travesty against him and he’s escalating verbally and you know what comes next; the punch, the shove the grab, choking or the aftermath when she’s inspecting her bruises while alone in her bedroom or applying makeup to her bruises in the car before she gets out of the car to pick her kids up from school. Or her holding back tears when she’s sitting quietly alone at home or in a coffee shop thinking how did her life come to this? In spite of all this she is in deep denial, she believes that with the ‘right’ help, their toxic marriage could be transformed into a healthy one. Her therapist told her that she can do whatever she likes but in the mean time, as her therapist she’s already begun a log of incidences of abuse and detailing her injuries.

I mentioned earlier I am unsure if I like the depiction of domestic abuse from the point of view of white, rich, high status, powerful people, even though domestic abuse spares no one, no social class, race, ethnicity or gender. On the other hand, the most common depiction of domestic abuse is usually the working class alcoholic or drug abusing husband beating up his even lower status wife; it rarely goes into the details, you just have scenes of huge blow up fights followed by physical beatings and then a trip the the ER, followed by apologies and the cycle repeats itself. So perhaps a portrayal of domestic violence involving rich people so that it’s not burdened by the crude stereotypes of the working class drunk beating his wife would serve better to showcase the horror of living with domestic violence. The devil is in the details.

There is often a conspiracy of silence when it comes to domestic abuse. No one wants to talk about it, even when it’s happening right in front of you, people are too afraid, too ashamed and the favorite excuse they don’t want to meddle in the domestic affairs of another family, so the victim often suffers in silence for far too long. But sometimes the conspiracy of silence starts with the victim herself, the shame and embarrassment at being labeled a domestic violence victim; while they have no trouble leaping to the defense of another battered woman, to reveal their own situation of domestic abuse is not something they do willingly, as is the case with Celeste Wright. It is a vicious cycle of abuse, silence and denial.

Back to who choked little Annabella on orientation day and then later during the school year she came home with bruises on her back too and who the murder victim was, I won’t spoil it. It wasn’t Ziggy who assaulted her, but the one who did, the apple didn’t fall that far from the tree and puts to rest the idea that children don’t know what’s going on inside the home. Even though Ziggy’s mother believes him when he said he didn’t choke Annabella, she was worried that he might have unknowingly done so because his biological father is a violent rapist and that Ziggy might have inherited that ugly trait. She projected her own fears for her child onto him.

I was pleasantly surprised at the honest portrayal of domestic abuse victims and how far the violence and dysfunction of one family can spread. Some of the abuse scenes are very hard to watch, I would go so far to offer a trigger warning, especially for those who suffered abuse at the hands of ‘handsome charming’ men. Alexander Skarsgård does a brilliant job of playing a handsome, winsome but brutally abusive man, it’s so believable that when he comes on the screen you just seethe with rage. For Nicole Kidman, this is one of her best performances and it’s all in the details, during her unspoken moments does she convey the pain of a domestic abuse victim.

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