It will not surprise everyone who is the center of Cat person — an adaptation of the virus New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian, the literary fuse lit that launched a million response articles and the solar surface – hot ticket at Sundance – is a sex scene. It’s as inevitable as the fact that it will be a “bad sex scene” regardless of whether it’s a poorly made sex scene or not. The only question is how much horror you’ll see when the two people at the center of this whirling vortex meet, and whether it will render its counterpart on the page relatively tame. (The other, more pressing question is: how the hell do you adapt Cat person In a movie at all? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)
At this point we have the evolution of the relationship between Margot (CODAEmilia Jones), a 20-year-old sophomore, and Robert (SuccessionNicholas Braun), a 33-year-old man. We’ve seen them meet at her work, at a concession stand at the local arthouse theater. You know, the kind with a lot of revival shows and trailers about vintage monster movies with “a young woman, in danger!!!” Awkward flirting has led to daily text exchanges and inside jokes, as well as a late-night mission to provide Margot with a livelihood in the form of Fruity Pebbles, the kind of gesture that’s somewhere between suspicious and sweet. They finally go on a proper date, which means they see The Empire strikes back – one of his all-time favourites; doesn’t matter what she thinks Star Wars movies boring – in the same theater where she works. A few beers and an extremely horrible first kiss later, they’re back at Robert’s house.
He pours Margot some whiskey, but doesn’t give her a chance to drink it. When they get to his bedroom, he puts on “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode. (“Don’t you understand? / Oh, my little girl.”) Robert alternates between aggressively undressing Margot and clumsily removing his clothes. In the story, she imagines looking back at this moment of the worst date ever with a future boyfriend and they laugh about it; this time, thanks to one of the more brilliant additions that screenwriter Michelle Ashford and director Susanna Fogel bring to the table, Margot has an ongoing conversation with herself as it happens. Abort mission, says the Margot coolly leaning against the wall. I can’t, it’s too late, replies the Margot caught between the man who is grinding on top of her. I could hurt his feelings. Well, let’s just get this over with, they both reluctantly agree.
What follows is a scene of such intense awkwardness and nuclear-critical dignity that you may never want to try coitus again. Set in real time, it’s a symphony of sexual faux pas, male ignorance, conflicting statements and attitudes about consent (apparently “let’s take it easy” translates to manually stimulating yourself with someone else’s hand without consent to ask) and barked porn screenplay recreations. It ends with Margot having an out-of-body experience looking down on herself as Robert, in full oil derrick mode, treats her like a prop. When he’s done, he whispers “Good girl.” It is the reverse of physical intimacy. More like pure nightmare fodder for bad sex.
This screen version of Cat personThe second most toxic moment on the page feels designed to make you sick, but also to elicit at least a little bit of reflection in viewers: does each are you familiar with this? Has a repetition of this ever happened to you? The idea is that many female viewers and probably a handful of self-conscious male viewers will flinch at recognition. And just like in Roupenian’s story, this encounter will lead to Robert sending sensitive dolphin emojis, Margot’s bestie Tamara (Geraldine Viswanathan) writing a blunt kiss on her boyfriend’s phone, and that series of texts gradually sliding into misogyny, dude fuss and a one-word dismissal that speaks Freudian volumes: “Whore.”
Fogel stages this in the now-strict way to make texts appear on screen as they pop up, with every incoming thing doubling as a warning horn. It doesn’t make the escalating sense of fear any less powerful. The camera moves slowly toward the two young women as Robert’s spiraling messages pile up, one after the other. Tamar’s reactions grow more OMG. Margot’s face remains a mask of emotional numbness.
This is where the New Yorker version ends, and like many great short stories — “A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud,” “The Battler,” “The Lottery” — it’s the compactness and connect-the-dots aspects that make Roupenian’s Cat person such depth charge power. That last set of strokes appears a little after the halfway point Cat person however, the film addresses the larger problem plaguing this whole endeavour: how to flesh this out into a three-act story that works like a two-hour feature film. Like Fogel and Ashford the Hollywood reporter a few days before their glitzy Saturday night Sundance premiere, they decided to make a Get outstyle, horror film with social commentary. It’s kind of Eureka! choice that feels sensible until you see the end result, at which point you might think, Um, really?
It’s not that Cat person can’t be a horror story – it begins with Margaret Atwood’s quote about men who fear humiliation and women who fear being killed by men, and the film plays on the inherent fear one would feel in a potentially dangerous situation . Like, say, dealing with an unstable dude. (Braun’s height and Cousin Greg’s discomfort in his own skin are weaponized here.) The addition of creepy music played over innocent scenes of a date already feeling dodgy-as-fuck fits. Ditto something as simple as Jones walking down a dark street late at night; any number of women will tell you this is an IRL source of anxiety worthy of a John Carpenter score.
But once the movie sticks to that idea, Cat person begins to bump into the conventions and limitations of its genre in the worst possible way. A lot of filler has already been put in to make this into feature length: Isabella Rosselini gives a lecture on ant queens, Hope Davis turns Margot’s mother into a needy narcissist, some extra stuff about campus politics, and a production of Sondheim’s In the woods (in which Prince Charming is problematic), imagined therapy sessions, Viswanathan’s character argues with someone on her Reddit known as “The Vagenda.” Not to mention incidents that get passing mention in the story being dramatized into full sequences.
However, by also trying to mold this material into a prefab horror template Cat personthe cup is really overflowing. Therefore, we get a climactic scene with a fight, a fire, and Margot going from “Concession-Stand Girl” (Robert’s demeaning nickname for her) to the last girl who can’t feel coerced anymore. Even worse, it seems to lean on the idea that much of the final act buzz and feelings of compromised security are actually hair wrong – a move that seems WTF at best. These elements should add context to the culture that spawned these issues. Instead, it reduces everything to weak satirical tea and beats from scary movies. Toxic masculinity may be the beast within the modern man, yet the attempt to shape it in cinematic terms falls painfully flat.
What the movie does point out, though, is movies themselves. Robert’s favorite actor is Harrison Ford, and he interprets the dialogue from the Empire scene where Han Solo jokes with Leia before brusquely kissing her. When he sends Margot a post-coital montage of Ford’s greatest hits the next day, Tamara explains how scenes from Indiana Jones movies and Blade Runner sell the idea that women are courted not so much as by sheer will. The sounds of a 1950s trailer playing in Margot’s theater, about the evil unleashed on damsels in distress, are no coincidence. Nor, we’re guessing, is the snippet of American graffiti we see it normalizing for a 12 year old to hang out with an older man. Don’t get us started on the song-and-dance routine Margot performs with her mother, for her stepfather: Marilyn Monroe’s carnal cooing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” [shudder] from the 60s Let’s make love. You can’t say that Cat person is shy about holding the medium to account for selling a romantic ideal more than a little curdled. If only it were as rigorous and thorough about the source material itself.