The Automatic Hate

There really is a lot of incest on the screen these days.

The Automatic Hate is a low-key, film festival-type movie centering on a taboo subject. It's not the best of films and it's not the worst of films, but it's way above your average fare and it is a significant movie in its own way, relying heavily on the masterful performance of Adelaide Clemens (Rectify, Parade's End) and to a lesser degree Joseph Cross. It's well acted throughout and if there is anything to complain about it might be the running time of the movie - I think that twenty more minutes would have been adequate to do it justice.

Cross plays the part of Davis, a head chef born from highbrow parents - his father is a university teacher and noted developmental psychologist - who lives in a strained relationship with his dancer girlfriend and one day gets a visit from Alexis, a girl who claims to be his cousin. As far as Davis knows his father had no siblings and he dismisses her, but further research shows that there is truth to Alexis' story.

"Why, that's Joshua." - "Who's Joshua?" - "We don't talk about Joshua."

When he confronts his dying grandfather with a painted picture of two boys by the lake, the old man has a seizure, and when he tries to talk to his father, he more or less confirms the story but tells him to "leave it alone." Not content with that, he seeks out Alexis to get to the bottom of things, setting off a chain reaction that changes their lives forever.

I will admit, this was a hard film for me to watch. I actually had to pause several times throughout the movie because the scenes were so very disconcerting - not in a physical, gore-like way, I suspect we've all had our fill of that, but on an emotional level. This was also why I felt I simply had to review it.

This review will discuss the entire film and its entire story. I'd highly recommend you watch it before you read.

Adelaide Clemens' Alexis can best be described as a slightly-deranged countryside slut, working in a second-hand store with her two sisters and living at a farm with her family. (Please note that for me, the term "slut" is value-neutral or perhaps even positive. I'm a slut myself. I like sluts.) It's a very different role from the usual "sweet, moral girl" she's practically been typecast as, and she really does the best of it in delivering a nuanced, believable and multifaceted performance.

In contrast, Davis is more of your "average Joe". He's a person who thinks with his guts but who's been brought up in a very intellectual environment. Despite coming from a high-academic background with a degree from Yale in psychology he gravitates towards the working class and "making an honest living", with the position as a chef at a fancy restaurant being somewhat of a compromise between these two extremes, albeit a "major disappointment for his parents."

What this movie focuses on is the immediate and inescapable physical and emotional attraction between Davis and Alexis. They spend a day and an evening together and instantly click, falling asleep on the couch together, and it's immediately clear what's "going on" here even if the actors don't telegraph it. The day after at the breakfast table, Alexis' father recognizes that her pretend "boyfriend" is in fact his nephew and calls him on it when they're taking a drive together. However, he still refuses to elaborate on the nature of the rift between him and his brother, instead basically telling him to get lost, and Davis decides to leave, much to Alexis' chagrin.

"Promise me something else... That if you do leave now, it's not because you're afraid of what's going on. Not with our dads, with us."

As she's driving him on the way back to his car, she takes a detour to a secret cabin of his uncle's where they find a film projector that seems to shed some light on what it's all about, and finally the walls come tumbling down and they sleep together.

It's possible to look at this movie as a normal love triangle between Alexis, Davis and his girlfriend, but that would be missing the point. The "girlfriend" is a distant character who mainly serves as a roadblock and a representation for Davis' intense fear of the implications of the entire situation. Joseph Cross sells this contradiction in a very admirable way.

Post delictum, Alexis grows increasingly needy and even menacing - "what are you going to do, tell on me?" - but she never truly slips into villain territory. She means Davis no harm and her antics are those of a confused, desperate girl who will go to any lengths to hold on to a boy she dearly loves - a boy who clearly loves her back. Neither of them are handling things very well.

The entire conflict comes to a cusp at a dinner after the funeral of the star-crossed lovers' grandfather, where Alexis has managed to get the entire family together and Davis serves the food. This is where it's all laid out in the open, and it's one of the most tense, uncomfortable and emotionally violent scenes I've ever watched. In the aftermath, John's uncle explains the reason for the family's estrangement, and this is the one part of the story I will not spoil. In perhaps the defining line of the movie, he tells him, plainly, "Your father would never forgive you. But I would."

"You know, you and I are more alike than you might think." - "How's that?" - ... - "If you'd thought about it, you would've never done it. But you did. There are lots of things that are out of our control, Davis. Almost everything is, actually."

As I said, there sure is a lot of incest on television and in the movies these days. Jaime and Cersei on Game of Thrones and the entire shipper cadre rooting for Jon and Daenerys or Jon and Sansa is one example, Cesare and Lucrezia on the late The Borgias is another. What sets this apart from these examples is that this isn't a historical costume drama or a fantasy show, but rather an intensely realistic present-day representation. This lets the film hit a lot, lot harder and closer to home.

One reason, I believe, that the incest subject has grown more prominent on-screen is that this is the last taboo sexuality which can legally be shown on-screen since the actors themselves are obviously not related. Homosexuality is increasingly normalized and paedophilia, bestiality and other fringe expressions of human sexuality are simply outlawed almost anywhere. In fact, the more the LGBT movement gains traction, the more stigmatized any other sexual behavior outside the norm.

Another reason is that I think most people have some sort of relationship with the phenomenon - be it the hot half-cousin you might have had some unchaste thoughts about at one time or the other, experiences of others in your circle, rumors or otherwise. It is however as of yet unclear to me if the recent prevalence of incestuous relationships on-screen is part of a tendency to humanize and normalize or to scapegoat it.

"What do we do about this?" - "Nothing."

At the end of the movie, Davis returns to "normalcy", making amends with his horrified girlfriend and moving back in. Yet, it's a haunting, open-ended finish. The final scene of the film shows Davis standing in the doorway, looking out into the night thinking he'd heard the sound of Alexis' truck, a mixture of relief, sadness and disappointment in his face as he realizes he was mistaken.

This, I believe, is the scariest part of a romantic or sexual connection to a relative. She'll always be there.

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