“Phoenix Rising” should absolutely disturb you. Conversations about domestic violence are not easy, mostly because harming young women especially has warranted little alarm in our culture. That’s one of the illuminating truths of this first installment of the two-part documentary playing at Sundance before airing in full on HBO later. To relay this message, acclaimed “Westworld” actress Evan Rachel Wood lays bare her own life.
Wood kicks off the discussion with an intimate conversation: Looking through pictures alongside a friend in a work room, Wood alludes to the impact of the abuse she says she’s suffered by sharing how difficult it is to view images of herself from before. “This is the stuff that makes me cry,” she says before sharing a picture of her with her first boyfriend. “It’s always hard for me to look at photos of myself from before,” she says through tears.
As multiple images of her at various stages of life flash by, we arrive at her celebrity and then her relationship with Brian Warner, better known as Marilyn Manson. Subsequent soundbites quickly paint a picture of a turbulent relationship. And that sets the stage how she is now participating in this documentary.
As Wood delves into her story, she quickly establishes herself as both a survivor and an activist. She, along with artist Illma Gore, created a coalition of other survivors and activists to push the Phoenix Act, legislation extending the statute of limitations that allows survivors to press charges against their alleged abusers. (California passed it into law in 2020.) As she starts to dig deeper into her relationship with the notorious musician, their joint fame begins to fade into the bigger picture of the alleged abuse and how it evolved. Wood’s mother Sara helps to paint a picture of her daughter’s early life and how her own tumultuous relationship with Wood’s father impacted her daughter’s later romantic encounters. (Manson released a statement in Feb. 21 calling accusations against him “horrible distortions of reality,” and said his relationships have always been “consensual.”)
Director Amy Berg (“Janis: Little Girl Blue”) powerfully turns her lens onto popular culture to examine the way young girls are presented in the media. Wood recounts how, as a 14-year-old whose career was just starting, she was required to kiss an actor in his early 20s. Other roles where she was painted as a Lolita followed, and the press blurred her portrayals with her real life, characterizing her in that manner, with one magazine even labeling her “troubled” for a cover story. Only in hindsight did Wood recognize how disturbingly problematic our culture is in terms of young women’s sexuality.
That recognition now allows her to understand how inappropriate it was for Warner/Manson to engage her sexually when she was just 18 and he was 37. She even speaks of him being the first “man” who kissed her. The even greater problem is that we, as a society, aren’t clear on the inappropriateness of such behavior. Very few of us even question a grown man, especially a musician, dating a young girl. And this is where “Phoenix Rising” shines most. One hopes the film’s breakdown of how Wood says Warner/Manson groomed her will be revelatory for viewers.
“Phoenix Rising” makes a very powerful point about the critical role pop culture plays in coloring the way society views violence against women. Wood’s own activism and success in raising awareness around the Phoenix Act, due primarily to her celebrity, illustrates the efforts it takes to institute long-lasting change, and also just how laborious those efforts can be.
Perhaps one of the biggest takeaways from this installment of the documentary series is that Wood is no less injured than her fellow victims and survivors. Her fame has not shielded her from the aftershocks of that trauma nor has it made it any easier for her to find justice. And if a celebrity can’t get justice for herself, what are the chances that other women can?
“Phoenix Rising” isn’t just a personal crusade to hold Manson accountable for his behavior or simply an effort to deliver justice to Wood. It’s a wake-up call to us all that, when it comes to protecting women against domestic violence and sexual assault, we have consistently failed and must do better. The subsequent installment would do well to provide suggestions as to how we can help make that happen.
“Phoenix Rising” will premiere on HBO later in 2022.