Review (Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times)
The word that comes to mind most often while you’re watching Frederick Wiseman‘s unambiguous new documentary, Domestic Violence, is weariness. The fatigue starts with the police officers, who come off best with their measured responses in the tense aftermath of household warfare. You can only imagine how many of these incidents they’ve rolled into, and their ability to move through them and ask the relevant questions without being sickened by another depressing tableau is testament to their patience in their work.
Domestic Violence, which begins a two-week engagement today at Film Forum, is set in Tampa, Fla. This film, which lasts 3 hours 16 minutes, is structured like a parable: it begins with clean blue skies reflected in the glass panels of the city skyscrapers and ends at night with another story that will no doubt leave you clutching your stomach. There is probably no time more appropriate for the film, as reductions in social programs are likely to destroy extremely effective institutions like the Spring, the shelter and counseling center for victims of abuse that figures prominently in Domestic Violence. (It’s described as Florida’s largest such center.) Mr. Wiseman shifts from the broken homes, as he shows injured victims wheeled out on gurneys, to the Spring, where the women and their children take refuge and try to heal.
You’ll be astonished at the way the women can detail the violence, enumerating incidents with a precision that doesn’t diminish their damage. Mr. Wiseman’s most arresting power as a filmmaker has always been to make us feel as if we’re eavesdropping on conversations we’ve no business listening to, and to make us understand how our lives are affected by what we’re overhearing.
The Southern accents of the people captured by his cameras work in a less than subtle way. We think we know these families until one woman talks about her husband’s contempt for her education, which includes a doctorate. With that brief fact, dropped simply into the conversation as the woman describes her life to a crisis counselor, Domestic Violence immediately shocks us out of our complacency.
The world of reality television — Cops and the like — wouldn’t exist without Mr. Wiseman’s lingering examinations of fragments of society. And those who’ve grown up watching such programs should look at this film to see what it’s like to investigate a scene without being rushed. Mr. Wiseman’s relaxed detachment is integral to the way the stories unfold in Domestic Violence. The picture itself is about, yes, cycles, and as tiresome as that sounds, 10 minutes into the film you’ll be white-knuckled and unable to look away.
Like other Wiseman works, Domestic Violence examines American institutions: in this case, institutions that are built to assist sufferers. But he is unflinching about their frequent ineffectiveness, showing the repetitive nature of the relationships involved; the women are unable to withdraw for more than a short period.
In this respect, Domestic Violence brings to mind several of Mr. Wiseman’s numerous documentaries, among them Hospital (1970) and more specifically Welfare, his 1975 treatise on the indifference of the labyrinthine government assistance system. It is also an answer to the bleakness of Welfare, which was almost three hours of shrugs and hands’ being thrown up.
Domestic Violence can dawdle, but the way the Southerners talk figures into its length; they take their time. It is ultimately the most compassionate of all the Wiseman films. We come out of it feeling that change is possible, even as the film circles back to where it started.