We Had It Coming is about women floating between abusive experiences at the hands of faceless men. Literally. No male faces are visible over the course of writer-director Paul Barbeau’s film. The conceptual approach is supposed to let the women own the movie, to depersonalize the violence inflicted upon them as a way of making it seem universal. “Any man could be doing this,” it hopes to imply. Men, Barbeau suggests, are all capable of great pain and terror.
Although it’s impossible to argue otherwise, and Barbeau’s heart is in the right place, We Had It Coming is a difficult watch — and not for the reasons it wants to be. Yes, there are brutal depictions of physical, mental and emotional violence. That alone requires a trigger warning. But the faceless approach, while interesting in theory, makes the story feel like successive acts of terror and violence … and not much else. It becomes exhausting. Each character’s story boils down to pain, endless pain, and the cycles of violence that emanate from abuse. Again, that is thematically sound, but it’s also the same theme expressed from the first moment of the movie, when a woman puts on high heels before hanging herself. The lack of nuance and character for the rest of the story makes the successive depictions of abuse somewhat grueling — the same point made over and over again.
That’s a shame because star Natalie Krill is great as Anna, a woman who has set out to avenge the death of her sister (the one who commits suicide in the first scene). Anna’s sister was a prostitute who died to escape the pimp who raped her. She’s so driven to find and kill him that she tosses aside all the good things in her life, including her girlfriend, Olivia (Alexia Fast). Meanwhile, a nameless recruiter (Erin Agostino) for the pimp is trapped with him and unable to escape his emotional, physical and mental torture. She’s supposed to be a Ghislaine Maxwell type at first, the woman who helps the pimp. Circumstances change and she tries to escape his grasp. Both women’s stories lack a certain level of narrative closure that might have made the ceaseless depictions of violence feel, as a viewer, worth it.
The ambiguities are part of Barbeau’s desire to tell a story without any easy answers, about a systemic problem so ingrained it seems insurmountable. Again, these are good intentions. But at a certain point, a story about abused women has to be more than just visual depictions of them suffering at the hands of faceless men. It starts to feel exploitative. Nothing about seeing them abused, or talking about being abused, feels like it is there to teach the audience anything beyond “This is what abuse looks like” again and again and again. Barbeau’s screenplay lacks the story and characterization to elevate it beyond that.
It’s frustrating to write a somewhat negative review of We Had It Coming because Barbeau has made a gorgeously shot movie in everything besides the abuse stuff, although even that is framed and choreographed for maximum terror. The politics are sound, and the film has noble aims. Barbeau’s cast is also rock-solid in their roles, giving them more life than the story can hold. Still: something is missing here, some sort of emotional hook beyond the sympathy felt watching someone get hurt over and over and over again. At the very least, this is a showcase for a talented cast and crew, and they should be proud of what they accomplished even if it doesn’t all come together.