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Zoe Bell carries the film perfectly.

Raze is as muscular as its dead-eyed female leads. It has little story, almost no exposition, and a production aesthetic that could appropriately be called spartan (and no, that’s not a reference to the Ancient Greek imagery in the film). It’s also one of the rare modern grindhouse films meant explicitly to reach an audience and teach them a thing or two about what exploitation cinema is all about.

This is great, actually. Even as films like Catching Fire, Frozen and Gravity draw attention to the viability of films heavily featuring and (more importantly) built around women, something like Raze comes around like a beat up, punk rock older cousin to bring it all into focus. Raze has two male characters in a cast full of young women, many of whom have done small roles elsewhere (a few together in Deathproof…. watch for a brief cameo from Rosario Dawson even) but are more less little-known. All of them punctuate this film’s many vicious action sequences with small pieces of raw character. Overlooked by many critics, its the marriage of character and brutal fucking violence (I mean seriously, some of the craziest shit I’ve ever seen) that make this movie work so well.

Right up to the last few seconds, anyway.large_RAZE-Girls-Assembly

Each woman gets her own distinct characterization. In a film this lean, it’s very welcome.

Raze is the women. Victims of a socialite organization with possibly ancient roots, they are brought together 50 at a time in a heavily monitored and controlled arena where they are matched and forced to fight to the death. A more 80’s premise you couldn’t find, but the 80’s version would be about men. The leverage used to control them is a very real threat to their loved ones: mothers, husbands, and children. Lose or refuse, your loved ones will die.

Though the fights are incredibly brutal to watch, they are made this way for a reason. Not only more realistic than your average fights on film, the fight scenes are what make Raze a horror film. Most of these women feel devastated and horrified by what they are forced to do. None more so than Sabrina (Zoe Bell) who was a soldier, once upon a time, and is being controlled via her estranged daughter whom she gave up for adoption. Even though she doesn’t know her, and can only watch her through the Organization’s camera systems (a constant and ghastly reminder), she refuses to sacrifice her.

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In terms of physicality, it’s a tour-de-force performance.

What really works in this movie is the brutality of those fights coupled with the characterizations. It doesn’t really matter what the Organization is all about. Their backstory is just pulpy excuses to bank on the hook. This might make Raze sound like a shallow film, but it’s hard to maintain that criticism when so much of the emotionality of the regret, fear, hate, and anger that these characters feel (and display) is so palpable.

The only odd duck is Phoebe (Rebecca Chambers), a menacing and sociopathic fighter who likes what she is being asked to do. Recognizing her only equal in terms of skill, she pushes at Sabrina and goads her, bring around Sabrina’s reluctance to a place where she wants to release the anger and despair she feels at what’s being done to her and her fellows. Not to mention, she makes friends with two of the other women and Phoebe delights in murdering one of them.

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Chambers delivers the most surprising performance in the film.

The snake-like leader of the Organization is a man  (Doug Jones) who jokes about being thousands of years old and tells the girls that he wants to make them into Monaeds, disciples of Dionysus who were known for orgiastic violence and cannibalism. But there’s also the host of spectators who sip champagne and watch the fights. Is this just an underground fight club with delusions of grandeur, or is there something more metaphysical at work?

This is where the film stumbles. There are a lot of Greek names and Greek imagery and this whole Monaed thing, but none of it really sticks as the film refuses to tell that story. Fortunately, it does tell a story and it’s a great story until it ends. The ending is so frustratingly unsatisfying on its own that it almost sinks the film. Worse, it suggests something about the thematic undercurrent of the film that is a bit… unsavory.

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This movie is a lot of girls in white tank tops kicking the shit out of each other.

See, Raze can easily be read as a particularly strong metaphor for the exploitation of women in society. I actually think it might get at something really well observed about the way women are pitted against each other socially, as competitors and enemies. That said, it just as strongly suggest the possibility of friendship, compassion, and sacrifice to overcome those obstacles. When all else fails, it puts the means of revenge in the hands of the butt-kickingest one of them all and lets her totally unleash on the structure of oppression, including the oppressors. It’s telling that this is only possibly because of a desperate allegiance with a last-minute replacement fighter who, like the first woman we meet in the film, has no idea what it’s all about until Sabrina attacks her. This time, however, Sabrina doesn’t use the reveal as a way to win. She’s stopped playing that game. This sort of stuff means something.

But then, Sabrina escapes the place after murdering all the villains (except for the anonymous socialite crowd) and is shot by a sniper as she runs to her freedom. This is a cheap, cheap ending. The reason it’s unsatisfying is because it was probably meant as a last minute shock-shot of the kind that are so lazily employed in horror films. It’s not only unsatisfying in that sense, but it also undermines the themes I discussed in the paragraph above. It’s as if Raze decides to say, at the last minute, that there’s no real escape from exploitation and forced-conflict than death. Like there’s no way out for women but to get butchered by men.

And that fucking stings. It pretty much ruins the movie, thematically. If I were in the habit of giving this type of advice, I’d tell people to stop the film just before we see the sniper-guy raise his gun. Let Sabrina’s fate be ambiguous. She earned that much. Killing her cheapens the story, cheapens the message (even if it was an unintentional message), and cheapens the struggle we’ve gone through with her.  It’s one of the worst endings I’ve seen in a long time, topping even Mama‘s uninspired bullshit.

I still want people to see this, though. Just understand how the ending will leave you feeling.

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