Inspired by the true story of a US Marine who murdered his wife after retuning from the Gulf War, Nina Menkes’ The Bloody Child explores the pervasive violence smoldering just beneath the controlled façade of contemporary American society as well as the relationship of gender roles to that violence. And befitting a film based on such a harrowing event, Menkes employs a fragmented narrative, disparate points-of-view, and jumbled temporal shifts to effectively convey a sense of chaos.
The film begins with a scene depicting the grandeur of the deserts of the American West–not unlike the scenes in the awe-inspiring Westerns of John Ford which helped form the mythos of the American collective unconscious that rationalize violence. What follows are juxtaposed images of a naked woman in a forest, rowdy soldiers at a bar, the scene of the crime with the captured culprit and his victim, the night before the murder, and a young woman traveling alone through Northern Africa. Even amidst all of this confusion, there is one constant of the desert as the background. Menkes has also used the desert—a paradoxical landscape which is barren yet conducive to mystical epiphanies–in her other films like The Great Sadness of Zohara and Queen of the Diamonds.
Throughout the film, the disembodied and eerie voice of the murdered wife cites various lines from literary and religious texts. Most prominently, the lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth are repeatedly recited: “Fair is foul, foul is fair, hover through the fog and the filthy air.” This adds an otherworldly mystical quality to the film, taking a true event and transporting it into the realm of the surreal and transcendent.
This film addresses the American sense of masculinity—in this instance embodied in the macho military culture–that gives credence to violence against other cultures, and, by extension, to females of its own culture. The rowdy off-duty frat-boy behavior of the male soldiers is contrasted with their professional conduct towards the presiding female captain. But the objectifying attitude towards women and the violence towards women always brim at the surface.
“Fucking look at that pussy,” shouts a Marine to the killer as he shoves the killer’s face into the wife’s dead body. So even in death, the woman cannot escape sexual objectification and is pitied by the male soldier mainly as a sexual object.
In addition to the scathing portrayal of American machismo, Menkes comments on female gender roles as well, by juxtaposing the contrasting womanhoods employed by the female captain and the murdered wife. The female captain has achieved a certain level of power and status by acting hyper-masculine. But as seen in shots of her that convey intense alienation, this ostensible success in a predominantly male world has not spared her of existential angst. On the other hand, the murdered wife took on the role of a hyper-feminine woman-child–a fully grown Jon-Benet Ramsey—yet this did not serve her well either.
The film ends with the Biblical verse, “But Lot’s wife looked back, and was turned into a pillar of salt.” from Genesis, 19:26 If the very Judeo-Christian text held so sacred by American society depicts and endorses such violence against women, is there any hope that this society will rid itself of the ingrained misogyny? While mainstream Hollywood films give us clumsy didactic rants like Redacted or disingenuous pro-military agitprop like The Hurt Locker, Menkes’ film provides a complex look into our society’s heart of darkness that steadfastly celebrates male violence which results in devastating consequences both at home and abroad. With this film and others, Menkes has firmly entrenched herself as one of the few truly relevant American narrative filmmakers of the last twenty years.