Sundance 2022: PHOENIX RISING — Evan Rachel Wood through the looking glass

Evan Rachel Wood tells her story

A last minute addition to the Sundance lineup came in the form of the first episode of Phoenix Rising, an HBO documentary tackling Evan Rachel Wood’s accusations against Marilyn Manson. The series is named for the Phoenix Act where the actor and activist has been trying to change the statute of limitations on domestic violence, since in most states they are at most a few years. That being said, it can take up to a decade for a victim to heal and feel safe enough to press charges. Being a current fan of Rachel Wood, and a past fan of Manson, I’ve been following the rumblings of these accusations for some time now, and given some of the previous dispatches from Wood on her “abuser” I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy watch. Helmed by documentarian ​​Amy Berg, there are two planned episodes hitting HBO in March and the one we got to see via Sundance was said to be still a work in progress.

The doc, which was started in secret before Wood had publicly named Manson, tackles not only Wood’s rise in Hollywood and how she fell into Manson’s world, utilizing imagery from Alice in Wonderland to illustrate her tumble down the rabbit hole. But the film also strives to educate as a document for those possibly in abusive relationships to illuminate tactics and warning signs to be aware of. It’s this two pronged approach that gives the story the context we need as Rachel starts by letting the audience in about her tumultuous childhood, where her parents frequently fought, explaining to the young girl “that is what people in love do”. Rachel’s parents eventually split with her mother taking her and fleeing to Hollywood with a single suitcase, leaving her brother with her father behind. Rachel isn’t afraid to discuss how she was then groomed by the Hollywood machine, because that foundation was already there from her childhood, which landed her accolades in her turn as a troubled Lolita-esque teen in Thirteen.

When Manson approaches her at a party, being a fan of the film, she starts to recount how he groomed her by the textbook definition of the act. First she was supposed to be working with Manson on the script for Phantasmagoria, a film Mason hoped to make about the life of Lewis Carroll with Wood playing Alice. She recounts how she was starstruck by Manson who then was 37, to her 18 and used their friendship to manipulate her into leaving her then boyfriend and alienating her from her family. It’s after she is in a relationship with him that things start to get even darker. Interspersed with these confessional moments, we see Wood the now activist, attempting to bring a change and awareness to the laws around domestic violence and its not simply for her benefit, mind you. Wood is very clear from the onset of the doc that the statute has long expired on the acts she’s discussing, but she’s trying to change the system for future victims. It’s that thread of hope as she testifies before lawmakers, that makes the doc bearable.

The doc leaves us with a jarring account of a music video shoot for a song Manson had written about her, which Rachel starred in, for the song Heart Shaped Glasses. Rachel recounts agreeing to do the video against the better judgment of those around her and under the condition a sex scene was to simulated. Rachel then goes on record to say that was not the case, and that she was raped on camera at the shoot. She then details how she was instructed by Manson on what to say after the fact, when word began to spread to the press about the chaotic shoot. The first part comes to conclusion as we hear of others who have had similar stories to Rachel about the shock rocker, and how a formal investigation was starting to go forward about this serial behavior. For those who aren’t following in real time, Manson’s house was recently raided and hard drives were recovered, since blackmail is mentioned as one of Manson’s controls along with death threats; which explains why Wood waited to come forward.

Phoenix Rising is a rough, yet necessary. The film also serves as an educational tool, showing how even successful Hollywood actresses are susceptible to abuse and abusive tactics. Rachel appears vulnerable and very matter of fact in the interviews, holding nothing back as she recounts with regret how she was manipulated by a man almost double her age. It’s sickening and at times and hard to watch as they start to get into the gruesome details of how Manson would brand or use scarification to mark these women that he would abuse, as a sick form of ownership. There’s a line that still haunts me, where Rachel talks about how Manson left an M carved on her body, she offhandedly mentions this while compiling evidence, and how she wants the scar removed. It’s said with an almost clinical disconnect, as if her true self was now on the outside looking in through the looking glass.

Phoenix Rising was chilling to behold and drew out some gut-wrenching parallels between her real life and her work on WestWorld. It’s easy to see now how her take on the host Dolores is very much informed by some very real trauma, and how that role was possibly therapeutic and instrumental in Wood working through this in front of us all.

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