[Editor’s Note: “The Phoenix Act” was reviewed for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it screened only one of its two parts. The second part was not provided for critics ahead of release.]
Evan Rachel Wood has talked about being a survivor of domestic violence for several years. Her story on its own is powerful. Documentarian Amy Berg’s two-part series, “Phoenix Rising,” places Wood in the driver’s seat of her own narrative, showcasing the actor’s rise as an activist as well as her struggles to cope with the abuse she alleges at the hands of Brian Warner, aka Marilyn Manson.
“It’s hard for me to even relate to her,” Wood says while looking at photos of her younger self in the first half of the documentary, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. “Phoenix Rising” attempts to tell two stories while maintaining respect for the seriousness of both. In the first episode, clocking in at over an hour, the audience hears Wood declare that shock-rocker Marilyn Manson is the man she claims abused her during their four-year relationship. (Wood first named Manson as her abuser on an Instagram post in February 2021.) She recounts their time together, starting when she was 18 and he was 37. The allegations are heartbreaking and come back with evidence, including Wood showing a carving of an “M” she inflicted on herself, near her vagina, as a means of illustrating her love for the rock star.
Wood reiterates time and again that grown adults were always around her, yet none ever stepped in to object. It’s a cycle she notices while discussing her own childhood. Wood is extremely frank while describing her abuse and Berg is respectful, letting the actor control how much she wants to disclose. (It is weird and painful to hear Wood talk about being “raped on camera” during the filming of Manson’s “Heart-Shaped Glasses” video and then be shown clips of the assault itself.) But there’s sensitivity shown to Wood’s time in Hollywood, which the actor will tell you laid the groundwork for a man like Manson to target her.
Wood and her family are interviewed heavily in the episode’s first half. Her brother, Ira, details how he got his SAG card at age nine or 10, while Wood was just 5 or 6 years old when she obtained hers. Wood says violence in her life started early, between her parents, with her dad telling her, “We fight because we love each other.” Wood’s father, David, is interviewed, but there’s no follow-up with him about Wood’s assertions. It’s one of several moments where claims are made, but the players involved are not asked for clarification. This happens later when Wood says Manson told her to check out her finances, as a means of isolating her from her mother. When she did check, Wood says she wasn’t happy, though it’s never explained whether someone was stealing from Wood or if her mother was implicated at all.
©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection
Wood also ties Manson’s predatory behavior into her Hollywood career. After her role in the controversial film “Thirteen,” Wood says she became branded as “the little Lolita.” Manson would then use the Lolita imagery with the actor in his “Heart-Shaped Glasses” music video. In “Phoenix Rising,” Wood admits that some of the sequences within “Thirteen” made her uncomfortable and she lacked an advocate at the time. Such openness and clarity is critical to protecting younger actors today, but Wood has appeared in docs about child stardom before, such as HBO’s 2017 feature “Showbiz Kids”; her comments here give “Phoenix Rising” the opportunity to further examine how celebrity aimed at teen girls perpetuates the cycle of abuse, yet the doc hasn’t gone there yet.
These elements feel like disparate parts of a whole story, and that fractious nature is intensified with the middle of Episode 1 detailing Wood’s activism and the passage of the Phoenix Act in California. Alongside collaborator Ilma Gore, Wood travels to Sacramento to compel the government leaders to pass the act, which would extend the statute of limitations on domestic violence from one-to-three years to 10. The passage of the act happens very quickly and doesn’t even end the way the pair wanted: The statute is rewritten on the floor from 10 years to just three-to-five. Considering there’s still over 40 minutes of the first episode left, the film may have been better served to save this section for the end, or at least the second entry. As it stands, the Phoenix Act scenes in “The Phoenix Act” feel like a brief, incongruous interruption from the established focus on Wood’s pain and trauma.
Really, it’s unclear where the second half of this documentary will go. Based on Gore’s moments looking out the blinds of her house and asking Wood to move hard drives of evidence, the doc could include more survivors, expanding Wood’s claims against Manson out to other women. Maybe the second episode will have the actor look at her time in the industry, especially as a young girl sexualized at a young age.
The first half of “Phoenix Rising” works in peaks and valleys. Wood’s courage shines through, and by focusing on Manson’s alleged abuse, there’s a compelling exploration taking place about power dynamics and relationships in Hollywood.
“Phoenix Rising” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The docuseries will premiere on HBO later this year.
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