In 2012, David Raboy wrote and directed “The Giant,” his thesis film while still a student at Tisch. “The Giant” is a form-forward short that portrays the last high school summer of a sad girl (Nicole Patrick) in a backwater Georgia town. The loose narrative snakes back and forth between intimations of a psychotic mother, the reappearance of a mysterious old flame, and lots of pretty young girls dying. But as I said, the narrative is loose, and the form is forward. What “The Giant” really relishes in is the tactile sensuality of film grain, how cool noirish voiceover sounds over images of pickup trucks and firecrackers, and how … I guess disorienting it is to force your audience to pick actors and objects out of frames so utterly submerged in the naturalistic darkness of nighttime that it looks like nothing’s on screen. “The Giant,” in other words, is more about movies than people.

This is fine. And it’s fine that Raboy has at last planted his feature-length flag in the terra incognita of 2020’s upended film market in much the same way. He’s back with an expanded version of that short, still called The Giant. The cast, length, and budget are different, but everything else is basically the same. With his bigger budget and an extra 80 minutes, however, Raboy has generously offered audiences a few more morsels of detail.

This Giant follows Charlotte (Odessa Young – who made a huge impression earlier this year in Shirley) through that same final summer of youth. There’s lots of cigarette smoking, drinking at the lake at night, and let’s take our shirts off in empty houses-type parties, you know, the usual teens behaving badly fare (or in post-Euphoria Gen Z terms, teens behaving sadly). For Charlotte, though, things are especially sad. That psychotic mother is Charlotte’s, and she hangs herself from a tree in the backyard of the old family house in the first scene. The film picks up a year later and Charlotte is haunted, frequently revisiting the now desolate house to peer through keyholes and take depression naps on tattered quilts. The mysterious old flame is Joe (Pride and The Riot Club‘s Ben Schnetzer), who picked up and left Charlotte shortly before her mother’s death and now just as mysteriously reappears, sexily, with his red pickup truck, whenever Charlotte’s friends aren’t around.

Last but certainly not least, in fact the single most clarified and centralised aspect of 2020’s The Giant that was left largely to the undefined realm of aesthetics in 2012’s “The Giant” is the dead girls. Boy, are the images of dead and damaged girls, and themes of feminine fatalism back with more rank pungence than was even imaginable in this one. But rather than hauling this fixation with an all too real problem, namely, a raging and eternal global pandemic of misogynistic violence, out of the inappropriate realm of aesthetics, Raboy reverse manoeuvres, heaving his whole film over the line into pure decoration. One drowns in movie, so to speak, feeling nothing for the girls slaughtered left and right so Raboy can layer his precious atmosphere with dread.

In an early scene, Charlotte and friends are down at the local lake at night, drinking and hanging out. Charlotte is aggressively flirted into the lake by a rowdy boy (Jack Kilmer), who she addresses as “fucking asshole, Will,” as she pulls herself back onto the dock. She’s greeted by a chorus of shushes. A beat later, a scream peals out from the other side of the lake. They try jokingly to downplay it as an animal, when another scream, clearly a woman’s, sounds again.

In the following scene at a diner, Charlotte runs into old friend Brady (Danny Ramirez), who’s with an upset looking blonde girl named Daphne (Taylor Hanks). While they catch up Charlotte notices blood smeared across Brady’s shirt and across the hood of his car, which is dented. “Clipped a deer on the way,” he explains, adding “Daphne nearly had a heart attack.” “She was pregnant,” Daphne mutters in a painful, hollow voice, never making eye contact with Charlotte. It is the last and only thing Daphne will say in the film before her murdered body is discovered the following day.

This becomes a pattern in The Giant. Charlotte sees a girl named Ada Monroe later in a car while driving around with Joe. Soon after, Ada vanishes and reappears mutilated and lifeless. It’s the same with a third girl, also blonde, all victims of a killer called the Giant. Death hangs around girls like Charlotte, the film implies. If you don’t catch that, Joe, Brady, and Charlotte’s distant, police officer father simply tell you. “I see Daphne in you,” a shaken Brady murmurs. More hauntingly, Joe asks Charlotte if she can “hear him coming” for her. The Giant never arrives at the important implications of its own implications that death is adjoined to young blondes like cancer. But with its swilling clouds of brake-light tinted cigarette smoke and profoundly vacuous voiceover monologuing, it sure makes the whole idea seem cool.

If you’ve ever looked into why there are so many movies and television shows like this, which fetishize and aestheticize the bodies of missing and murdered women without any interest in why young women go missing and get murdered, you’ve likely come upon this quote by Edgar Allen Poe: “The death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” This statement crystalised what had already been a universally accepted truth in art for millennia, and for the better part of the two centuries that have proceeded it, it has charged ahead unflagged as a truism, animating the spirit of as much great art as there has been bad art. And in fairness, as long as the aforementioned epidemic of misogynistic violence has continued to throw women’s lives into an uncomfortable proximity to death and destruction, a degree of interest in the relationship of women to fatalism has seemed natural, or at least inevitable.

Why shouldn’t we all be concerned that abduction, mutilation, rape, murder—all sorts of unimaginable crimes—are committed in disproportionate numbers by men against women, because they are women? Why shouldn’t we expect that concern to formalise into films and television shows which explore the dark inner workings of this unthinkable phenomenon? Artists are always after the unthinkable—if not to shore up answers, then at least to reflect the experience of those who suffer senseless cruelty back at an audience who may not yet understand or care.

The history of representing women’s suffering, or more specifically, telling stories of missing and murdered women, is as old as storytelling itself. Expert Alice Bolin wrote a book about it in 2018 called Dead Girls, which began its life as an essay in the LA Review of Books called “The Oldest Story.” Indeed, when stories that feature the dead girl trope get told so often, revivifying themselves in new forms and donning ever slicker disguises; the power that they exert, indeed, the monstrous black hole they rip open at the centre of their texts becomes increasingly difficult for the artist to escape. And here comes first time writer-director David Raboy to give it his college try.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

The Giant is not a bad movie. It’s trying, as so much media has before (think True Detective, My Favorite Murder, Gone Girl), to articulate something about this primal conjuncture of women and death. The Giant’s spectacular failure is not that Raboy was vain, ignorant, or misogynistic to try and speak to it.  Where he fails is in having nothing new to say. Unfortunately for Raboy, and especially for the eager young stars of his ambitious movie, The Giant falls prey to the most ignorant, cliched, and sadistic aspects of the dead girls trope. Ironically, like the force of dread tailing Charlotte throughout the film, inching ever closer and undoubtedly, eventually catching up and swallowing her whole, Raboy has taken on in the dead girl story an adversary so primordially powerful, and so much more carefully wrought than his emaciated vibe fest, that it was always going to outmatch him, and crush his film alive. Like a universe undergoing heat death, all the carefully laid out aspects of The Giant that have nothing to do with dead girls are sucked into the terribly revolving, white hot core of that powerful old story and they are abolished. David Raboy is credited at the end as this film’s maker, but he is not. The Giant belongs to history.

Making a movie about women in trouble that is not cliched or offensive is not impossible, but it is hard. And as more stories that focalize around missing or murdered young girls are told, it gets harder. Like many people, when I think of a dead girl story that worked, I think of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. To watch David Lynch take on the spectre of misogynistic, incestuous familial abuse, and that even more ancient hag that always rides its back, the story that we tell ourselves about this kind of abuse, it’s like watching Hercules slay the Hydra. It’s incredible that he prevails, but the fight itself is what’s most spectacular. It takes a colossal amount of independent thought and creative fortitude to bring honour and justice back to this most desiccated and disrespected creature of the canon—the injured girl. That David Raboy takes her on merely to aestheticise her injury, I can think of nothing more unjust, and nothing more dishonorable.

Rating: ★★

The Giant is available on VOD from November 13 2020.