A Review of Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine

Wicked + Divine

A Review of Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine

By Tini Howard

The Wicked + The Divine, written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie, has a lofty title. Convinced the phrase originated from Dante or Milton or maybe even Shakespeare, I googled it. What came back instead were just two things: the comic itself and a highly metaphysical hip-hop group that seems like it’s been defunct since 2011. Which is actually pretty fitting.

The comics I enjoy writing about for At the Margins and elsewhere aren’t solely selected for being my favorites. I choose them because there’s something literary about them, something universal in appeal. In the same way that many of our favorite speculative novels cross the line between literature and spec fiction, the comics I recommend are every bit as honest and mind-blowing as the literature we can’t put down.

A current comic’s run is everything we love about reading and TV combined – both an intense story, with its effects unburdened by budget and heightened by professional art, and all of the breath-baiting wonder of waiting for next week’s episode. Like great TV, only better.

WicDiv, as fans are calling it, is produced by dreamteam Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Marvel’s Young Avengers). The concept itself is engaging, beautiful commentary – what if some of humanity’s gods incarnated every ninety years as pop culture stars, incandescent and inspiring and dressed to the sacred nines. (Ninety years prior, their past incarnation occured during the Jazz Age. Lurhmann’s Gatsby, anyone?)

With Kanye West declaring “I am a God” and Lady Gaga making appearances in a seashell bikini as Venus, it’s perfect speculative writing – the one more step feeling that takes a metaphor, makes it a literal reality, and forces everyone to handle the consequences. The book is beautiful, and prior to reading I was concerned the story would fall apart in lieu of high-concept visual references and music in-jokes. Totally eating that fear now.

At the center of the story we have Laura (whose name, word-of-God confirmed by open-book writer Gillen, is inspired by the Bat for Lashes song of the same name). Laura is a young girl from London who follows the fandom of the Gods, a collection of pop stars who each claim to be incarnations from various mythologies. The midpoint of the first issue is a scene that cleverly puts to bed any fears of the reader – the obvious callouts that these kids have just spent too much time taking Buzzfeed quizzes – isn’t playing dress up as a bunch of gods a bit problematic?

Everyone just wants to be special, Wicked + Divine asserts. And then maybe one day you find out you really are.

There is more to the story here, however. And not one that the gods control. Much like its suspected inspiration, Neil Gaiman’s classic graphic novel, Sandman, the narrative seems to be shaping up as one about the myriad ways being real can be ruined for otherwise immortal beings. With just two years of life for every ninety spent in waiting, it appears the Devil is being framed for one of the few crimes she didn’t commit. Now she faces spending it locked up, without so much as a place to press the creases back into her Thin White Duke suit.

Some of the most passionate and clever writers of our time are writing comic books, and The Wicked + The Divine is one I’d count among them. Gillen himself is a great writer for any process junkies to follow – he kindly recounts his inspirations for the curious in everything from writer’s notes on his Tumblr account to WicDiv-inspired playlists on Spotify.

While the book has a few flaws (Sakhmet is almost distractingly a Rihanna clone, for example, and Laura’s involvement seems a bit unclear as of yet), Issue One is nearly a perfect opener to a bright new world that Gillen and McKelvie have created. It seems God is a DJ after all.

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine, Issue One. Image Comics, 2014: Print: $3.50, digital, $2.99.


TINI HOWARD writes about comics when she’s not actually writing comics. A winner of the Top Cow Comics 2013 Talent Hunt, her work is forthcoming from Image/Top Cow this November. Talk comics with her all day on Twitter @tinihoward.

A Review of Eva Saulitis’s Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist

Leaving Resurrection cover image

A Review of Eva Saulitis’s Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist

By Randon Billings Noble

I read Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist in the cold and dark. I was not in Alaska, on various boats and beaches where the majority of these essays are set, but in a writing studio as small and snug as a ship’s cabin, during a power outage due to sub-zero temperatures. Never was I so grateful for a flashlight – and Eva Saulitis’s gorgeous, searching, and sustaining prose.

Her preface warns us that these “essays are set in the thin places … where the material and spirit worlds exist in close proximity,” and each contains elements of the concrete and the abstract. The first essay, “The Burden of the Beach,” describes the rough autopsy of a killer whale found dead on an isolated beach. Wearing thrift-store clothes (meant to be thrown away afterward) and heavy rain gear, Saulitis and her assistant take turns cutting into the carcass (“[s]plit open rinds of blubber fall away”) while the other sings to ward off bears. While they work to retrieve the whale’s stomach and determine the cause of death, Saulitis remembers stories about the island’s history, myths of women turning into bears, and rituals Alaskan Native peoples perform when they kill an animal. When Saulitis and her assistant leave the carcass of the whale behind, she imagines the animals of the island “biding time, waiting to reclaim what’s theirs, their eyes in the alders, watching.”

Saulitis is a scientist who can maintain a clinical distance from what she observes. But she is also a writer who can imagine an island watching her back, who conjures the past through photographs, and who isn’t afraid to ask questions that other scientists might acridly dismiss: “Is it ‘animapomorphic’ to ascribe animal traits to humans? If it’s wrong to suppose that animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves?”

It is this combination of fact and philosophy that makes Saulitis’s writing so powerful, whether she is describing fleeting encounters with wolves or remembering the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. “Ghosts of the Island” blends personal, geographic, and Chugachmiut history. “One-Hundred-Hour Maintenance” weaves together engine repair, tai chi, oboe playing, and the many forms of love. “Wondering Where the Whales Are,” perhaps my favorite essay, charts Saulitis’s fascination with both the biology of killer whales and their mythology, their rarely-heard voices and the language of science, as well as mysteries not easily explained: “Science. It seems solid, but it’s mostly space, like a gill net I drop over the world.” Saluitis gives us what she catches – as well as that which the net of science cannot hold.

A perfect essay collection, like a perfect album, is rare. There is nearly always a piece or a track that disappoints. Not so in Leaving Resurrection. Even the essay titled “And Suddenly, Nothing Happened” – which describes what happens (or doesn’t) in the absence of whales – becomes a thoughtful meditation on the ways we recover from loss, insist on change, pick through wreckage, and reshape our lives.

Resurrection Bay, the body of water referred to in the collection’s title, may be a place that needs leaving. But this collection is one that I will not easily leave behind. I will return to it again and again, like the transient whales Saulitis follows, always searching for something new and mysterious, even off familiar shores.


Eva Saulitis, Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist, Boreal Books, 2008: $18.95


Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books; PANK and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

A Review of Rachael Lyon’s The Normal Heart and How It Works

Lyon_The Normal Heart_Poetry

A Review of Rachael Lyon’s The Normal Heart and How It Works

By Kirsten Clodfelter

Beyond the page in human form, Rachael Lyon is petite and funny and kind. She speaks patiently and with near-constant laughter. She is bright, warm-spirited, the pet mother of a small, adorable pup named Thomas. She writes thoughtful letters—a better penpal than most of us. She is the sort of person who asks meaningful questions of both close friends and strangers, the sort of person who asks these questions and then really listens as she’s given the answers so that these answers can form the next questions.

Her generosity is so marked that she is the kind of person about whom we might apply the cliché but well-fitting platitude: A beautiful heart. And it is beautiful in the way Lyon’s warmth overflows from it, in the way being around her will put a person almost instantly at ease, but the truth is, since birth, Lyon’s beautiful heart was imperfect. “It’s not that it’s a bad heart,” she explains in “Transplant No. 2,” her tone edged with apology, her voice rushed to explain the defect as something that doesn’t have to define her, “The heart has a bad valve, not a bad valve but a small one. Too small.”

The same pragmatic earnestness that fills her letters and that make her a great conversationalist can be found in the poems of The Normal Heart and How It Works, her first chapbook. Her language, these fragmented moments she offers to the reader, are a type of gentle carrying: “It’s just that mothers sometimes think / of things the way they should be.” But there is a deep, unmistakable power in her writing too, an honesty that does not falter or even blink, and this we can credit to Lyon’s earnestness as well.

In “Moving,” Lyon recounts as she (or an imagined version of her) and her sister, as children, climb through the frame of an unfinished house that will soon be their new home, finally giving into temptation and breaking their “no-touch rule” to mark the territory as their own. And later, after the house in finished and the move is complete, Lyon admits as if in a conspiratorial whisper:

In the summer when I put my face

against the wall, next to the light

switch, I can smell bubbleyum

and sour jealously and something else:

a kind of craving for this place,

or for being pushed beyond it.

That is a craving nearly all of us know. Relating to Lyon comes quickly, easily, and this is true whether she’s discussing something as universal as moving or the complicated relationships between siblings or the specific, unique fears that belong to someone with a congenital heart defect. In deceptively light, conversational language, Lyon brings us right into her body to experience with her the physical and psychological effects of the too-small valve in her heart, the danger that has been hers to dismantle since birth, the “process of becoming a more perfect self,” as she writes in the collection’s introduction.

Five beautiful and haunting poems interspersed throughout this slim book, each titled “Transplant,” thread together her work as skillfully and carefully as the surgeon’s stitch. Just over a year ago, a cardiovascular team at Mayo Clinic fixed Lyon’s leaking tricuspid valve and nursed her back to health after open-heart surgery. Nine months later, she successfully ran her first 5K, with a heart that no longer “beats faster, beats faster longer than other hearts.” But even in light of this transformation, the writing in Lyon’s 2010 collection is no less urgent, no less terrifying. As we read, we are right there with her, nodding in agreement when she tells us in “The Trouble with Glass”:

My fears are numerous.

Rotund and pushing

from my chest:

ribs are cagey

sometimes they let the bad stuff through[.]

Because no matter how perfect or imperfect our hearts, we too have fears, and, like Lyon’s, they are numerous.

Rachael Lyon, The Normal Heart and How It Works, White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 2010: $5


Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa ReviewBrevityNarrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com@MommaofMimo

A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old


A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old

By Kirsten Clodfelter

John Rybicki opens each section of When All the World is Old, his third poetry collection, with excerpts from journal entries written by his late wife, the poet Julia Moulds. Her voice echoes in brief flickers so that as we move forward into Rybicki’s own language, we hear her still: “I worry again and again about him losing me.” The weight of that loss—of knowing what trauma is coming before it’s yet arrived, and then, when it finally has, of learning how to navigate a way through it—is explored with candor and power in his stunning writing. Rybicki honors Moulds by building this book not just to her or for her or about her but also, in using her voice in the pages, literally of her—ensuring that his devastation becomes ours as well, a burden that weighs us down as we read, but maybe, in the tiniest way, is also one that we can help shoulder.

My mother was 41 when she died, just a handful of years younger than Rybicki’s wife, but they prepared differently. For my sisters and I, there was no tender last love note, no post-bath, steam-written secret message, no treasure to decode across the mirror or window or anywhere, later, no matter how willing we would have been to “place our mouths close to the glass” and “fog it with our breath / after she is gone.”

Rybicki writes about the kind of day-to-day living shaped by the long-shadowed awareness that the minutes we have left are diminishing; he admits, “It has been too much for too long and we know it / is time to take hold of the lightening and let it kill her…” and it’s cruel, the way we are tasked with somehow being our best, or happiest, or most loving selves in that final interim before the goodbye—if we are lucky or unlucky enough to have that kind of warning—while at the same time facing down the very worst things we can imagine. Rybicki asks, “Why can’t I say yes to the laughter in my chest?” But of course we already know why. It’s because we understand, as Rybicki understands, that his “wife is the center of it all. Everything grows / from her.”

So Rybicki does not laugh, but he does put on his bravest face. At her request: “Keep me safe,” he “is on his watch,” is “trying to smuggle her / out of a burning city,” careful to offer his reminder gently, “…Whatever you do, / love, don’t look back,” the way we might pull a blanket over the folded body of a person in our care when we find that they’ve fallen asleep on the couch. But Rybicki cannot shelter us from the truth—even the most impressive love we are capable of giving is not always enough to keep someone from leaving, and in the pages of this book we are asked to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rybicki and look back with him as the city smolders, to bear witness to the depth of his adoration and anguish, watching for the moment when he finally feels ready to “stand in defiance / of our parting and go to war to make you live again.”

In the months after her diagnosis, I used to catch my mother sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom. Smoke would leak through the door when, after wandering through the entire house, I’d finally think to crack it open and look for her there, interrupting—in the sudden and unceremonious way that children are always doing—her meager attempt at disappearance. She would fan her hand in front of her face frantically—the worst fucking magician you’ve seen in your life—and after the pinched, “Shit, shit,” and the tell-tale flush, she’d study me slyly and say, “Don’t tell your father.” Maybe in those moments she was thinking of our history, of the innocuous secrets we already shared and also of all the ones we wouldn’t, the things that at some point she must have realized she’d now never get to know—the first time I kissed a boy, had my heart broken, screwed up a friendship, found my footing and felt sure of the way forward, fell in love. Her voice was always very serious when she’d say this, or maybe it only appeared that way because of how easy it was by then to see the bones of her face—but those words weren’t a warning, they were a plea.

At ten, I was too young to understand why I should have been outraged to find my mother layering this extra poison into her body—cigarettes on top of radiation on top of chemo on top of cancer on top of cigarettes, but then, by the time I was old enough to reason that this action was selfish or ignorant, I was too young to understand that sometimes these little rebellions are a small pleasure, an anchor. When you’re dying, there are still things that need doing. There’s milk that needs to be bought, litter in the cat box that needs changed, lunches to pack before school, math homework that needs checking. So from time to time she snuck a cigarette—one of only a few choices she could still control, a type of ownership of her body’s betrayal. Who cares?

It’s the smallest things that we gather into our pockets and carry with us as daily reminders. In “On a Piece of Paper You Were About to Burn,” Rybicki recounts his desperate missing in glimpses and asks us not to look away: “You rock on the kitchen floor hugging your own legs, / weeping and kissing a face so tiny / you could cover it with a penny.” He’s seeking an answer, “How do you hold the dead,” and we don’t know either, so we keep reading to figure it out with him.

My daughter, 20 months old, loves to stand beneath a certain picture collage in our living room and hold her hands above her head, calling, “Up, up,” so that she can be lifted to honk the nose of each subject in the photographs, proudly naming us as she points, “Momma, Dada, Bebe.” When I am the one doing the holding, she is the most interested in pictures of her father, and I offer tiny, sing-song consolations, “Daddy’s at work,” “… at the store,” “…will be home right after nap.” But I am capable of imagining, in a different circumstance, the exact way it would break me right open to hear the squeal of this question each morning as we looked at those photographs and not have a single way to explain that Dad won’t be home at 4:30 or with hugs or groceries or ever again, and to think of it always leaves me in tears, the pain of that loss—just the idea of it—fresh and immediate and real even when my partner is in the next room watching television or asleep beside me in our bed.

In a collection that easily calls to mind other aching and beautiful homages to the way we survive after loss, like Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and Donald Hall’s Without, John Rybicki’s poems in When the World is Old force us toward these moments of consideration with urgency—a reminder, perhaps, to keep our perspective or practice gratitude for the collection of small, warm moments we are gifted to share with others, because eventually the people we love are going to leave us—and no matter when that is, no matter how long we’ve had to prepare—it’s going to be too soon.

John Rybicki, When All the World is Old, Lookout Books, 2012: $13.50 (direct)/$16.95.


Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo

Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer

Review of Destroyer and Preserver by Matthew Rohrer

by Letitia Trent

I had a professor during my undergraduate years (one those old-fashioned liberal arts professors who believed that intimately knowing Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s Lear was a prerequisite for being a fully-functioning citizen of earth) that defined a great book as a book that shows you what it means to be human. He meant the great, big (and, unfortunately, primarily European or American) books, like War and Peace or Middlemarch, in which an enormous cast of characters weave in and out of each other’s lives, figuring out what it means to be a citizen, part of a family, a soldier, an artist, a lover, or a parent. I appreciate these kinds of books, too, books that are willing to explicitly wrestle with questions about how a person should be in the world and do not fear the explicitly political or philosophical. I don’t know how anyone writes books like this anymore. As Matthew Rohrer writes in the first poem from his book Destroyer and Preserver:

The oldest songs are
breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement

What kind of writer has the gall to tell people how to live now, when there are no fixed certainties and no unassailable truths? This is not an original question, but one that I find myself bumping into over and over again as I read contemporary literature and poetry that dares to directly touch on the political as Destroyer and Preserver does. While I’ve read many contemporary poetry books that comment on the paranoia and rise of some fervid, defensive American identity that happened post 9-11 (Christian Hawkey’s Citizen Of comes to mind in particular), I don’t see many poets writing in what comes close to straightforward confessional lyric touching the issue of politics aside from Rohrer. Sometimes, when writing about war from the distance of a relatively safe place, the lyric, personal “I” can seem limited, small, stupid, unable to fully grasp anything important from the perspective comfort. Perhaps this is why many poets who are fairly privileged (I know that I am one of them) and who have never seen battle try not to tackle something as large as “the war”.

Destroyer and Preserver tries to show us something about what it means to be a middle-class, materially comfortable human in this particular time in the United States, one in which foreign wars and news of slaughter in countries in which we are linked by politics and war filter in and out of our consciousness through reports from Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, seeming both incredibly important and completely divorced from our everyday lives. I specify that the book is about middle-class life because it differs from many other overtly political books from the standpoint it takes: the speaker is comfortable, white, male, and a father. This is not a book that howls from the edges or speaks as a witness to political and social turmoil. I don’t mention this to belittle the book, but to make it clear from what perspective the book addresses the political. In Carolyn Forche’s introduction to The Poetry of Witness, she writes about the privilege of being a North American in the 20th and 21st centuries: “Wars for us (provided we are not combatants) are fought elsewhere, in other countries. The cities bombed are other people’s cities. The houses destroyed are other people’s houses.” This space is where Destroyer and Preserver comes from.

Part of the book is about the dance between enjoying the privilege we have as North Americans to live our lives relatively unscathed by war and the responsibility to acknowledge that our privileged lives are partly built on the backs of the suffering of other people. Rohrer’s book differs from those big books about morality in that it’s a product of its time, and therefore the poems don’t tell us anything definitive about how to balance joy and responsibility: the subject is not knowing, of feeling guilty for running away to poetry or family life or dreams (the book is full of dreams), and of being politically engaged but not politically engaged enough to leave what is comfortable behind. The speaker in these poems spends his days taking care of small children, recovering from hangovers, and walking around a city as news of what’s happening in the Middle East filters in and out of the central consciousness of the poems. For example, in the poem “Casualties,” the poet’s small son asks “are soldiers good or bad?”, and the speaker meets his son’s confusion with his own:

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of the ship.
He looks just like me.

The poem leaves us with an image of the plane, having just dropped a bomb on the house and desert, gliding through the sky and being returned to the United States, “to be washed and put away”. Throughout the book, images of war are and desperation are washed and put away and then continually taken out again to be examined, as with the speaker of “Poets With History/Poems Without History”:

… and the melting icebergs crumple

like the prisoners shot in the side

I move through the days remarkably sinuously

and spinning inside

I washed the dishes two or three times a day

with hot water on and on

like a dream behind the yellow gloves

from which I too cannot awaken

though my son is done with school

and holds my hand on the walk home

the feeling of falling backwards

into the bed at night fills me

each time

with sweet content

all the people rounded up in camps

have a look in their eyes

that can’t reach us now

Rohrer is at his best when the speaker of the poems sees this point of tension between a comfortable life and the knowledge that so many other people are not able to have that comfort: the poems are electric when the speaker is both conflicted and ultimately a failure at keeping the high moral ground. They falter, though, when the speaker seems to imply a particular stance is the “good” one: in “For Which I Love You,” the speaker congratulates a lover for a fairly standard, simplistic affirmation against “hate” which reads a little bit like self-congratulation for having the “right” political point of view.

It would be unfair to say that this is only a political book: several short, lyric poems punctuate the book, ranging from records of sad, contradictory moments to poems that seem like sheer celebrations of everyday life, such as “The Smell of Frying Fish.” It’s the context of these poems that makes them political: images of war surface throughout the book in poems that at first seem to be about something completely outside of war, and so these moments of domestic bliss mean something more: is the speaker giving in to forgetfulness or resisting despair by living in the moment (as cliché as that can’t help but sound) by fully embracing the given world around him?

Rohrer’s poems are largely dreamy, personal lyrics that roll from matter-of-fact observation to gentle surrealism, creating poems that seem casually tossed-off yet completely controlled within one lyric event, world, or emotional/narrative moment. You could call it domestic surrealism, but Rohrer’s observations are more about finding the literal strange in the familiar than in creating strangeness. Still yet, reading the book felt too easy: the poems are easy to read and pleasing because Rohrer is good at this kind of poetry and knows what he is doing. I couldn’t help but feel that Rohrer was coasting and that these poems are a slightly toned-down, less boisterous versions of ground he’d already covered in his first book, A Hummock in the Malookas, and his subsequent books. Only in the long poems of the book (“Believe” and “The Terrorists”) does Rohrer seem to stretch beyond his familiar gently joking, gently serious tone.

I can’t say that Destroyer and Preserver left me with anything definitive about how to be a conscientious person in a complex world, but it left me with a useful confusion and the realization of how often I, too, retreat into what’s comfortable in order to forget my own great fortune. I’m not the soldier who crumples, the face behind the cage, or the person whose home has been bulldozed. I have the privilege of forgetfulness, and I exercise it far too often.


Letitia Trent‘s work has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, The Black Warrior Review, Fence, and Folio, among others. Her chapbooks are Splice (Blue Hour Press) and The Medical Diaries (Scantily Clad Press). Her first full-length poetry collection, One Perfect Bird, was published by Sundress Press in early 2012. She was the 2010 winner of the Alumni Flash Writing Award from the Ohio State University’s The Journal and has been awarded fellowships from The Vermont Studio Center and the MacDowell Colony.

Frozen on a Street Corner While the Unbludgeoned World Moves Forward

Michel Franco’s Daniel y Ana

In the last decade or so, Mexican film has been among the most consistently interesting in the world. It has a certain moral and social grittiness not seen in most American movies, but a tightly-edited watchability missing in European films. Some big-name, Hollywood-endorsed movies spring to mind – Amores Perros, Pan’s Labyrinth, Y Tu Mamá También – but there are also some worthy, less-heralded candidates. One of these is 2009’s Daniel y Ana.

Directed by Michel Franco and starring Gael García Bernal’s younger brother, Dario Yazbek Bernal, the film garnered critical attention at Cannes and other film festivals, but is still without its own wiki, and its IMDB page is incomplete and littered with negative reviews. I don’t want to psychoanalyze audience reaction too much, but part of this reception could be because the movie straddles an uncomfortable middle ground between shocking and subtle. It will turn off the easily offended, but with its nearly geologically paced shifts in character, it will also alienate thrill seekers. It is genuinely disturbing – a very different effect than simply being shocking.

Most synopses of the film have shied away from the trauma at its heart, perhaps reluctant to ruin the suddenness with which the trauma occurs. I, for one, had guessed at it simply by looking at the movie’s cover, but the movie remained vital and unruined for me. In fact, this knowledge, coupled with the slowness of the movie’s first act, created a nice simmering dread which I found just as effective as the hammer-to-the-head suddenness of real trauma.

Therefore: spoiler alert for that which there is no way, really, to spoil.

Daniel and Ana are brother and sister, young privileged Mexicans at pivotal points in their lives. Ana is on the verge of getting married. Daniel is a typical teenager, taciturn and self-involved, on the verge of losing his virginity to his girlfriend and resentful of not having been given a new car yet. One day the siblings go shopping and Daniel fails to make the appropriate turn on the way home. Two men jump into their car and hold a gun to Daniel’s head. They blindfold Daniel and Ana, throw them in the trunk, and take them to a big, starkly furnished house. And yes, if you haven’t guessed, they force them to have sex. On camera. Brother and sister.

The true horror of this scene is not just in its unflinchingness, but in the way it indicts the viewer. Daniel and Ana are beautiful, slim, and pale, like Greek statues. You cannot look away as Daniel fucks her from behind. Her face is buried in the mattress, and though we know she is weeping, it might be mistaken for orgasmic bliss. Daniel comes quickly and shamefully, as any teenager having sex for the first time might.

What follows is a study in post-traumatic stress. Both victims retreat from the world in their separate ways. Ana breaks things off with her fiance and retreats into her room.  Daniel stops going to school, spends time in movie theaters watching any old film. He also breaks things off with his girlfriend. Quite understandably, both do not talk to their parents about what happened.

In the end Ana proves to be the stronger about it, more equipped to deal with it because of her relative adulthood perhaps. She sees a therapist, weeps, and delicately broaches the subject with Daniel. Daniel meanwhile lies about going to the therapist and continues his self-destructive behavior. He googles their video, but gets no matches. There is another big twist at the heart of the film and perhaps you can figure it out. It didn’t surprise me, but I still don’t want to give everything away. Suffice to say it had the quality of being both unexpected and entirely appropriate that all the best storytelling should have.

As It Ought to Be cofounder, Okla Elliott, compares Franco’s subject matter to Neil Labute – that great American playwright, director, and darkly comic moralist responsible for Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men – and that’s as useful a touchstone as any. But he admits that the comparison is of limited use, and indeed, Labute has a venomous edge that Franco does not. Labute seems to see everyone as disgusting – either weak and sniveling or sociopathic – while Franco’s aim is to show us how fundamentally good people react to horrible events. Though Daniel, and to a lesser extent Ana, behave badly throughout the movie, we understand why. There is no comic distortion or exaggeration. This goes back to the difference I outlined earlier between shocking and disturbing: the shocking cries “Look at me!” while the disturbing goes about its quietly gruesome business, twisting the psychological knife deeper and deeper. It doesn’t need to beg for attention because it’s impossible for us to look away.

Further, Labute is a playwright and his characters vocalize their trauma in a way that seems psychologically untrue to me. One reason I think this movie was, relatively speaking, not well received by audiences is that there is so much silence at its heart – that the shifts in attitude of its two main characters are so gradual and happen over scenes that only seem repetitive. In pace, Daniel y Ana resembles a Euro-film (or the American idea of one), and yet there is no fashionable ennui here, or Bergman-like scenes of Freudian camerawork, just two characters coming to grips with their shattered relationship with each other, their family and lovers, and the world.

There is a beautiful and telling image some two-thirds of the way into the movie: Daniel is deep in his daily wanderings on a crowded street; the light changes and all the pedestrians move forward in a wave, crossing to the other side of the street, but Daniel just stands there. This strikes me as the perfect symbol for the way trauma affects us: it leaves us frozen on a street corner while the rest of the world moves—steadily, ignorantly, heartlessly—forward.