Director Tara Thorne would rather you feel strongly about something than nothing about anything

With her "me too" revenge drama, Compulsus, Thorne wanted to make an homage to her favourite film.

With her "me too" revenge drama, Compulsus, Thorne wanted to make an homage to her favourite film

Wally (Lesley Smith) trains for the revolution in Compulsus. (Jessie Redmond)

Cutaways is a personal essay series where filmmakers tell the story of how their film was made. This is one of 5 essays from directors featured at the 2022 Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival

One thing I always ask a new person I would like to know more about is "What's your favourite movie?" 

It doesn't even have to be good: every love interest I've ever had adores a total shrugger — two of them have been Love Actually! — and it did not affect my opinion of them as people at all. (In some cases, it should have.) 

Your favourite film says something about your character, what you value, the things that light you up. It doesn't matter if I empirically believe that it's a quality piece of art. I would rather you feel strongly about something than nothing about anything.

My favourite film has remained unchanged since I was 13 years old and saw it for the first time on VHS in my friend's living room, a year after its theatrical release. My parents had forbidden it and I was just barely aware of the media firestorm that surrounded it. 

Wally (Lesley Smith) and her first victim (James MacLean) in Compulsus. (Jessie Redmond)

Thelma & Louise stars Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as best friends trying to escape their humdrum lives for a weekend, only to end up on the run through the American South after Louise kills Thelma's rapist in a parking lot. 

My two favourite facts about the film are that its original attached stars were Michelle Pfeiffer and Jodie Foster, and that Callie Khouri wrote the script — for which she won the Academy Award in 1991 — in longhand. 

I used a computer to write my film, Compulsus, in 2019 and it received Telefilm Talent To Watch funding in 2020. It's about a lesbian vigilante named Wally who takes revenge on men by sneak-attacking them in the night. 

It was originally called Misandrist, which I thought was cheeky and subversive. In a fit of first-draft panic, I Google-searched a word I kept putting in Wally's mouth, "compelled," to make sure I was using it right. I was, but "compulsus" also popped up in that search — "striking together; hostile." Hostile certainly fit. The movie is also a love story, in which Wally's new girlfriend Lou eventually joins her on the assaults. Striking together — how romantic! I swooned, and I changed it.

Lou (Kathleen Dorian) and Wally (Lesley Smith) on their first date in Compulsus. (Jessie Redmond)

Blatant homage generally makes me uncomfortable but I did put Thelma's words in Wally's mouth, too. The morning after their first night together, Lou is gently interrogating Wally's reasoning for putting herself in this danger. She's not a survivor herself, these aren't men she knows. In fact, she doesn't even know the women they've assaulted. Wally has not yet found the reason — she does uncover it, that's the movie! — and offers a committed if vague response: "Something's crossed over in me…I'm compelled." Pushed further, she talks about how the justice system, the economy, and politics are rigged against women and she is powerless to fight any of it. "But one guy at a time? That, I can do."

In Thelma & Louise, when that line comes, the women have learned they could be charged with murder if they don't turn themselves in. Thelma concedes that Louise might want to take the deal, but she herself cannot. She adds: "I can't go back. I mean…I just couldn't live." She isn't talking about their particular criminal predicament, she's realizing how this experience has changed her — and we've just watched it — from a ditzy housewife with no autonomy into a self-assured fighter who can make her way in the world even when the world has taken all her options away.

In Compulsus, Wally is not driven by the fight to save her own life, nor the need to avenge a crime perpetrated against her. I've found this angle to be sticky for audiences, from script through to screen. Vigilantism, apparently, is a tough concept when it's not an action man avenging his dead wife or dog. 

As a journalist myself, I know I would ask me if I think it's okay for men to be attacked at random based on the slimmest dossier of information. (Yes, I do! Should you do it? No, you should not!) The idea that women must experience an indignity to their bodies to become justifiably angry enough to retaliate, and within reason — one of the powder kegs of Thelma & Louise is that when Louise kills the rapist, they've already walked away — is ridiculous and insulting. Those indignities are committed with no reason at all.

I know some people will love Compulsus for its violent, audacious ending. (No spoilers.) But some people won't, and I'll be just as happy to hear why. Because I would rather you feel strongly about something than nothing about anything.

Compulsus screens in Toronto at the Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival on Friday, June 3. It is available to stream across Ontario from May 26 to June 5.

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