Opening in select theaters and available on VOD Friday, Asking For It is a blunderbuss of intermittently good intentions and often bad filmmaking. For his surprisingly well-cast feature-film debut, writer-director Eamon O’Rourke has fashioned a tale of an all-female vigilante gang — which includes Kiersey Clemons, Alexandra Shipp, Vanessa Hudgens and Radha Mitchell — that clashes with an odious online men’s-rights huckster (Ezra Miller) and the execrable human traffickers with whom he has aligned.
That description alone ensures a more exploitative expression of similar vengeful notions in Promising Young Woman. Given that the aforementioned traffickers are led by a small-town, shit-kicking sheriff (played by dirtbag emeritus David Patrick Kelly), Asking For It is also more fundamentally honest, if exaggeratedly so, about the frequent uselessness of law enforcement to render justice for women who endure assault, sexual or otherwise, at a man’s hands.
Content warnings abound in a film that boasts a promising pulp premise and is almost certain to be review-bombed across the internet by male fools simply for the things it’s about rather than how it’s about those things. Even as its brashest provocations prove thin, the wages and fallouts of sexual assault are at least something O’Rourke is willing to discuss with sporadic gravitas. But boy, has it been quite some time since a film vacillated between exploitative punch and embarrassing presentation as wildly as Asking For It does, with saturated color timing, montage menageries and editorial rhythms (one scene literally cut to a pulsating strobe) that suggest this is out to get Euphoria impresario Sam Levinson on the line for season three rather than make any a powerful statement.
Joey (Clemons) is a small-town waitress who falls into a deep, dangerous depression after a former classmate rapes her. One of Joey’s regulars, Regina (Shipp), recognizes Joey’s spiral and spirits Joey away to a compound on Native American land — part halfway home for women in trouble, part cavernous nightclub where the Cherry Bombers plot their next moves.
Led by Sal (Mitchell) and Fala (Casey Camp-Horinek), the Cherry Bombers specialize in dispensing retribution on the area’s misogynist, violent douchebags. (“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making a man like that feel unsafe,” goes their credo.) But Sal and Fala are targeting some bigger, badder fish. Mark Vanderhill (Miller) is a vile, predatory pick-up artist turned founder of the Men’s First Movement, and Morrill (Kelly) is Vanderhill’s second-in-command, whose side hustle of horrible deeds also includes mass shootings and abortion-clinic bombings.
As noted by Vernon (Luke Hemsworth), one of the good cops circling the Cherry Bombers’ orbit, Morrill’s monolith of toxic masculinity left a trained undercover FBI agent decapitated. It’s a far cry from the frat full of privileged rapists whom the Cherry Bombers expose as a warm-up. And when Joey joins up for new missions, it inflames tension between Regina and fellow Cherry Bomber Beatrice (Hudgens) that could explode the group before it even gets near their main targets.
In 2018, filmmaker Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge flipped tired genre bullshit on its ear with visual acuity and aplomb. Fargeat’s film played like a calling card, too, but also a rallying cry, infusing potent wit and necromantic vision-quest life into the rape-revenge genre and tapping into the deep layers of the subconscious into which so many, too many women are made to bury so much. Asking For It yearns to scratch a similar itch, but it’s comparatively too self-conscious about slathering superficial lady-boss cool over everything rather than registering conversations with human conviction or even the stark snap of retributory violence.
Employing the Suicide Squad title-card approach to introduce its female characters is the first red flag that Asking For It won’t do much to make you remember these women for any other reason. At least two dozen scenes are interspersed with montages of casual photos like a steroidal Insta reel. And during one mission, Beatrice endangers Lily (Leslie Stratton), a disfigured pop singer who is now mute by choice, for no reason other than to facilitate a disingenuous moment where Lily decides to speak. O’Rourke depicts the Cherry Bombers as amateurish or self-immolating solely for the sake of sustaining a 100-minute story rather than investigating their individual misgivings or uncertainties about their actions.
There are certainly numerous opportunities to introduce the ways in which these women’s pasts remain troublesome for them in the present day, but it’s too busy trivially flattening out all of these characters into stereotypical superhero squadron roles. It’s also wildly inconsistent with how Joey factors into the group. She’s afraid of losing control after her assault but then throwing back drinks right away with strangers, or paralyzed with fear by the Cherry Bombers’ plans and moments later helping them lure in likely rapists with her body.
Asking For It also tries to cram a Jack Reacher novel worth of plot in a thin pulp package, adding a go-nowhere failed-romance subplot between Sal and Vernon atop everything else (and one that’s too chicken-shit to use the word “abortion” in its expository lard). Given the emphasis on how impossible the odds are, the human trafficking threat closes with anticlimactic ease. So, too, does the thread with Vanderhill fizzle out following the Cherry Bombers’ inventive idea to immobilize his followers. Miller makes for an appropriately punchable cross of Frank T.J. Mackey and Lex Luthor. But it’s hard to not think that — given Miller’s own recent incident of public violence against a woman — their involvement with the project (also a producer) feels like a deflective badge of honor they can flash should that incident arise during interviews. All told, Asking For It piles more plates onto an already heavy bar of topicality than it can safely lift.