Reading the synopsis of writer/director Takashi Doscher’s feature film debut, Only, my thoughts went to Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s comic, Y: The Last Man. Doscher’s science-fiction drama is set in a world on the brink of human extinction as cisgender women around the globe are falling prey to a deadly plague. Centering on the last known cis woman standing, Only seems like a gender-bent version of the popular comic book series. But while Y: The Last Man imagines what might happen if the world were run by women (and women only), Only explores how the unchallenged power of cis-men could turn the world into a misogynistic hellscape, where women are treated not as people to be protected, but as property to be preserved.
Can you imagine a world where husbands believe they own their wives? Where men feel entitled to the bodies of women be that as sex objects or walking wombs? Yeah. It’s easy if you try. Or if follow news coverage about domestic violence, mass shooters, Me Too, or the abortion debate. Only takes these issues to the extreme to criticize toxic masculinity, but its presentation is profoundly flawed.
When Will (Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) realizes that a female-focused outbreak has begun, he immediately grabs his girlfriend Eva (Freida Pinto) and cloisters her into a DIY cleanroom. He covers her walls and furniture in plastic tarps, throws out potentially plague-ridden mementos, sets up germ-killing lights and a decontamination protocol. He will bar her from leaving the apartment. He will dictate whom she can speak to on the phone and what she can say online to a chatroom of survivors, whose numbers dwindle every day. He commands her to stay away from the windows. He does all this without her consent, seeing himself as her protector. Meanwhile, Eva is powerless to stop Will’s transformation from beloved boyfriend to tiresome tyrant. That is until she convinces him it’s time they leave the clean room behind.
Exhilarated to leave her claustrophobic apartment, Eva soon discovers she is not free of male threats. The government has called open season on uninfected cis-gender women in the last ditch effort to save the human race. A gun salesman recommends a rifle for accuracy, noting you won’t get the bounty if you hit ‘em in the ovaries! And prowling packs of rednecks and grim father-and-son teams stalk the highways. Still, Will and Eva seek to find the beauty in this dying world and rediscover their love for each other. But this isn’t a romance worth rooting for.
Beginning in media res, we don’t immediately know all that Will has done to confine/protect Eva. As government agents in riot gear raid the apartment, he stays steely while Eva trembles quietly in a secret cubby. Once they leave, she seems weirdly flippant about their dire circumstances as they pack up to flee. And though Only slides back and forth along its timeline, Eva will be presented as naive, even childish in the face of annihilation. The backstory of these strained lovers is woven through their dangerous journey to an unexplained destination. Along the way, we’ll see witness Eva pout, cry, and throw tantrums, while Will lectures, commands, and calls her “emotional.” (It’s just the end of the world!) The more that’s revealed the harder it is to root for this dying relationship, but Doscher seems blithely oblivious as marches to third act that gives voice to the ovary-hunters, utilizes Eva’s sex appeal as a weapon, and mistakes resignation for romance. And Odom and Pinto do not share a chemistry compelling enough to smooth over these very rough edges.
Doscher’s script offers little for either lead to work with. Odom is mostly allowed to glower and sulk, while Pinto is chiefly there to look sad and beautiful. And the latter actually becomes kind of a plot problem! In a world where women are LITERALLY hunted, Eva disguises herself by binding her breasts, wearing oversized men’s clothes, and popping on a knit cap that is horrendously misshapen because of her long hair. One scene where she uses dust give the impression of five-o-clock shadow, and we’re meant to believe anyone would look at her and not recognize her as a woman right away?
It’s completely preposterous but feeds into how Doscher falls prey to the toxic masculinity his film aims to rebuke. The Male Gaze is powerful in Only, not only being a plot point where her nude body is used as a disarming tactic, but also how the camera ogles her bare flesh and fetishizes her long lashes and lush lips as the flutter or grimace in pain. Despite being a shut-in for months, depressed, and grieving, Eva is still presented as breathtakingly beautiful, with perfect skin, glossy hair, and a slimmer figure than you might imagine from a steady diet of canned ravioli. Even as this movie focuses on the suffering inflicted on women by the patriarchy, it objectifies its heroine and turns her pain into pretty tragedy porn.
Only is currently in limited release.
Header Image Source: Tribeca Film Festival