(USA, 2 x 75-82 min.)
Dir. Amy Berg
“Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is hold somebody accountable,” observes an emotional Evan Rachel Wood in Phoenix Rising. This riveting two-part documentary follows Wood as she readies to name her abuser. It inevitably culminates with the events of February 1, 2021 in which she posted a statement on Instagram identifying him as Brian Warner, aka shock rocker Marilyn Manson, after references an abusive relationship in interviews. Phoenix Rising details the emotional, psychological, and mental tolls of confronting trauma. Wood takes the doc to disarmingly dark places as she details horrible physical and sexual violence at Warner’s hands during their turbulent relationship. The actress also speaks to the damaging emotional manipulation Warner inflicted upon her. She outlines how he groomed her during her years as a rising teen star, eventually becoming her captor while exploiting her for the world to see.
There is a palpable sense of weight lifting as Wood bares all to director Amy Berg (West of Memphis). Besides the compelling interviews, Phoenix Rising observes as Wood defies her victimization. She rallies with fellow survivors of Warner’s abuse in search of greater justice. While the statute of limitations expired for most of their cases, they seek to change the system so that women can find justice while having time to heal.
This is an emotionally and mentally exhausting documentary, but whatever hell it is to watch is nothing compared to what Wood endured or experienced while revisiting it. Phoenix Rising plays like an airtight procedural as Wood names her accuser and finds justice in documentary form where the courts failed her and many other women.
Details of Physical and Psychological Abuse
The first part of Phoenix Rising sees Wood revisit her quick rise to fame. After her breakthrough performance as a troubled teen in Catherine Hardwick’s Thirteen, Wood acknowledges that celebrity and infamy went hand in hand. Media outlets branded her a “bad girl” and she found herself in one highly sexualized role after another. Films frequently cast the teen star opposite older men. She recounts how his image made her ripe for Warner’s picking. Her testimony is emotional, but also even-handed, detailed, and frank. She outlines how Warner poisoned her relationship with actor Jamie Bell, and how she and the rocker announced their relationship to her parents’ dismay in 2007. Gruesome accounts of gaslighting and intimidation convey how Warner led Wood to distrust her family and find security in her abuser.
Most shocking among the revelations is Wood’s account of rape. She explains in skin-drawling detail the shoot for Marilyn Manson’s “Heart Shaped Glasses” music video. At the time of the video’s release, Wood and Manson made headlines for the graphic sex in the video. Observers noted the icky tone of the video and speculated that Manson’s behaviour bordered upon statuary rape with many people wondering if the couple actually had sex on camera. What people didn’t know, Wood alleges, was that Warner got her completely intoxicated for the shoot, skipped the agreed-upon simulated sex, and raped her on camera. Phoenix Rising features accounts from members of Manson’s entourage and production crew that echo Wood’s testimony. They describe an uncomfortable shoot that left everyone feeling uneasy and violated. However, nobody admits to coming to Wood’s aid.
In between the interviews with Wood, Phoenix Rising observes as the actress and her friend, Illma Gore, assemble their case. Perhaps more shocking than the allegations in Phoenix Rising is the sheer volume of evidence that supports them. There are diary entries, videos, and audio recordings of Warner threatening to hurt, maim, rape, and kill Wood. Testimony from fellow survivors of Warner’s abuse offer similar stories. Berg observes the patterns of a serial predator and Phoenix Rising underscores how the allure of celebrity enables and rewards abusive behaviour. Between Manson’s Satanic self-image and the cautiousness with which one approaches his toxic fandom, he could get away with anything by pretending it was all part of the act.
As Wood and Gore work with the survivors and assemble their case, the film observes as they anticipate Warner’s blowback. (He’s currently suing both of them.) Berg chronicles the severity of Wood’s case as she’s still on the run from a man she escaped a decade ago. The team changes locations, backs-up evidence, and alters routines to avoid potential tracking. Phoenix Rising provides an intimate account of the longevity of domestic violence. As Wood and her collaborators inspire change through the Phoenix Act, which extends the statute of limitations for cases of domestic violence, the film demonstrates the necessity of affording survivors the time to heal before moving forward.
The She Said of Documentaries
The documentary, moreover, benefits from the decision, whether by Berg or by HBO, to play in parts. One needs time to process this material and recovery from it emotionally. As the doc gives viewers time to breathe, one can’t help but applaud the sensitivity of the approach. Berg’s direction is responsive and empathetic. Moreover, the meticulousness crafting needs the scope of a two-parter. Berg encompasses the complexity of the case and the severity of Warner’s behaviour for full impact.
Phoenix Rising plays like a cinematic counterpart to Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s book She Said, which provided a riveting account the journalistic rigour that brought down Harvey Weinstein and helped ignite the #MeToo movement. Just as Kantor and Twohey’s book found compelling insight through the perspectives of women who came forward, but also truly juicy details about Weinstein’s aggressive behaviour that mounted as he realized his goose was cooked, Phoenix Rising similarly succeeds with its dramatic approach.
Just as the rigour of the journalism made Kantor and Twohey’s work so effective, both for inspiring change and for its thrilling readability, Wood and Berg handle their story with similar attention to detail and nuance. The even-handed storytelling by these women in it for the long haul, moreover, could serve as a valuable guide a guide for handling survivors’ stories responsibly.
Whether Phoenix Rising has an effect on Warner’s career remains to be seen, but one suspects that’s hardly the goal. Wood, Berg, and company provide a tough and personal work about a system that needs to change. Phoenix Rising is pure hell to watch, but it’s essential.
Phoenix Rising is now available on Crave and HBO.
Correction (21 March): This article previously mentioned Marilyn Manson’s given name as Brian Wilson. It has been updated to reflect the correct name, Brian Warner. POV apologizes for the error.