Director: Sebastian Roberts
Writers: Sebastian Roberts, Alexander Roberts
Cast: Nadia Chloe Rose, James Bayes, Jack Bell, Marilyn Everett Jones
Running time: 16mins
Having seen my face had twisted and contorted behind my laptop screen as I struggled through all 16 minutes of Vows, understandably concerned onlookers were quick to ask what asked what I thought of it. “Oh, it’s about as bad as a film can be,” was about all I could muster in the moment.
It was one of the few times as a critic I have been rendered close to speechless by a film, as my mind struggled to process the carcinogenic mess that it had just ingested. While I have at least had the time to digest it a bit more thoroughly, I suspect there will be micro-plastics still churning about in my mental gut – little fragments of death which I fear I will never fully consign to my cognitive colon, and God only knows what damage that will do while they slosh about in there.
In the meantime, I can tell you a little bit more about what makes this thing so bad. And I know, film criticism is supposed to be subjective – one person’s trash another’s treasure and so-forth – so it’s not often I’ll deploy the ‘b’ word, but in this case, I feel justified in saying this film is not just poor but bad.
The lock-down initiated to slow the spread of the coronavirus across the world has created a host of new conditions for domestic abusers to exploit, in order to terrorise their partners and children. Charges and cautions for domestic violence boomed by 24% in London by the end of April 2020, while from February to March, traffic to the website for the National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 156%, according to a study by online research company SEMrush. In the UK and beyond, governments failed to anticipate how the lock-down would impact people in abusive relationships, and the need for action to address this is so severe that United Nations’ Secretary General António Guterres even took to Twitter to plead, “I urge all governments to put women’s safety first as they respond to the pandemic.”
In that context, I don’t find it at all problematic to say that a film which exploits themes of domestic abuse for dramatic purposes – while utterly neglecting to include any kind of attempt to support the real-life victims of abuse – is objectively bad. Vows is just such a film – and while it may not have been made during this current crisis (its YouTube trailer says it was completed in 2017, while its Indy Film Library submission cites 2020) it was conceived of in an environment where domestic violence was still a horrific reality for millions of real people around the world – people in need of love and support that this cynical short makes no effort to provide.
Based on an ‘original’ ‘story’ by Sebastian Roberts, Alexander Robert’s script adaptation is shallow beyond belief, with Michelle (Nadia Chloe Rose) spending the duration of the film wrestling with her conscience as to whether she should leave her abusive husband Drake (James Bayes). Drake is frustrated that Michelle’s elderly mother Lorraine (Marilyn Everett) keeps meddling in his affairs, something he laments to his apparent best friend Danny (Jack Bell) during a grating expository scene at the beginning of the film.
As soon as the relationship is exposed as controlling and abusive, Danny begins to make his intensions known – unsubtly flirting with Michelle. Hours later, in the dead of night, he turns up at her back door, and persuades her into the back seat of his car, on the premise that she “deserves time away from Drake.” There, Michelle finally admits to being abused, which prompts a rather robotic speech from Danny about “thinking about yourself for a change.” It is then that the pair initiate an affair – one which is heavily touted as Michelle’s only opportunity to escape.
That’s right, the film’s message appears to be that the only way to escape a violent relationship is to begin another one! Danny behaves like nothing short of a manipulative stalker – creeping about in the dark, using the idea of “escaping Drake” to get Michelle where he wants her, and never, at any point, suggesting that she should seek help from a domestic violence support group, or the police.
This was almost certainly not what the filmmakers intended – it is quite apparent Danny is supposed to fulfil the standard love interest trope, an erratic and passionate man who makes grand, dramatic gestures like showing up unannounced in someone’s back-yard after dark to display his love. That’s an extremely problematic trope in its own right, but to have brought such a toxic myth into a film addressing issues like domestic abuse is utterly condemnable.
It speaks of the shocking lack of care, effort or research that Roberts and co. must have put in to crafting the rest of this story – including its shambolic climax. After Michelle decides to end her abusive marriage, she calls her mother asking for financial help, in a conversation which hinges on the following exchange:
“Drake keeps all the money for himself.”
“Well, uh, he probably has a good reason. Probably wants to make sure you don’t overspend.”
Now, obviously there are some horrible ‘traditionalists’ out there who really would rather see their daughter beaten bloody than get a divorce – and one of the film’s only plus-points is Marilyn Everett’s unwavering representation of such horrendous people – but the problem is where that leaves us. Michelle does not think “maybe I can look for help elsewhere,” and it is never highlighted as an option. Instead, she returns home to try and find her debit cards which Drake has hidden. After all, she reasons, without those she could not afford to leave!
Unbeknownst to Michelle, her mother has ratted her out to Drake. In another unforgivably botched segment, Lorraine manages to come across as arguably the most rancid and spiteful character in the whole film, routinely speaking ill of her “attention seeking” daughter’s apparently false claims of abuse. The biggest problem is that this scene is allowed to escalate for long enough that when Drake suddenly snaps and beats the living snot out of her, I would wager that not only does it seem like he had been driven to do it, some viewers might actually side with him – the abuser – against that ‘nagging old bag’!
With the film fast running out of track, the players all then converge on the final scene. Seeing that Drake’s car has arrived, Danny for some reason gets out of his own to confront him – only to be mowed down with almost comic effect, before Drake strangles his wife. The final, most distasteful shot shows the two bodies lying next to each other, like star crossed lovers at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy. Cut to black. Roll credits. Offer no information on how you might avoid this fate. What a depressingly vapid, selfish and conceited way to try and leverage such a serious topic to ‘elevate’ a film.
On a technical and logical basis, Vows is botched on almost every front – but what really pushes this over the edge is how contemptibly cynical it is. The film centres on domestic abuse because its creators seem to believe that will put bums in seats – while they shirk every possible responsibility for research, or the need for constructive commentary that comes with that topic.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can reach out to the freephone, 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline run by Refuge at 0808 2000 247, or visit their website for further information.