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Liam Neeson’s Revenge Fantasy Shows How Men Fail to Deal With Rape

Call it the 'Taken' brand of masculinity poisoning

At this point, it can be tough to differentiate one gritty Liam Neeson movie from another. But his latest, Cold Pursuit, may be remembered best for a truly astonishing confession the actor made during a pre-release promotional junket. Speaking with the Independent, Neeson described how he once reacted to finding out a friend had been raped, outlining a bizarre, violent and racist revenge fantasy that followed — and how it almost became a reality.

From the interview:

It was some time ago. Neeson had just come back from overseas to find out about the rape. “She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way,” Neeson says. “But my immediate reaction was…” There’s a pause. “I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person.

“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody — I’m ashamed to say that — and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.”

The Twitter commentariat has condemned the striking racism here, which slots neatly into a Black History Month inaugurated by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s appalling blackface scandal. Yet Neeson’s myopic interest in the rapist’s ethnicity, and his stated desire to murder anyone of similar appearance for a minor slight, hints at a coequal fragility. Not only did prejudice lead him to conflate sexual assault with racial friction — the same thing Trump does when arguing for a wall on the Mexican border — he erases his friend in favor of inward analysis. He uses her trauma as the catalyst for a story in which he is the protagonist.

There’s nothing in Neeson’s remarks about directly aiding a person who confided something terrible and life-altering. He jumps right to what he finds most important and relevant: his brooding, specifically male rage, and the corresponding instinct for random brutality. Call it the Taken brand of “toxic masculinity poisoning,” as New York‘s Ezekiel Kweku put it. Coming out of Neeson’s mouth, it’s a story of primal response and the choice to reject it, not of a woman’s strength and resilience in a hostile, misogynist world.

By the end, he’s explaining the moral: “But I did learn a lesson from it, when I eventually thought, ‘What the fuck are you doing,’ you know?” he said. Her pain is thereby transformed into his opportunity for (rather meager) personal growth, as he ultimately concludes what should be self-evident: Nothing is gained and no one is healed by a homicidal vigilante.

That Neeson had to struggle toward this truth is, if alarming, perhaps understandable — or at least more understandable than the impulse to bring it up during a fluffy Q&A, another incident in what’s already being called “the year of telling on yourself.” It may require the obliviousness of a celebrity to reveal that kind of toxic thinking, but it is by no means uncommon.

Matt Atkinson, a social worker specializing in domestic and sexual violence response, touches on the revenge problem in “A Man’s Guide to Helping a Woman Who Has Been Raped.” Identifying “intense anger toward the rapist” as the most common reaction among men informed of a sexual assault, he stresses the necessity of calm in this moment, then spells out the consequences of extralegal payback:

Going after the guy can scare the victim by making her wonder if the attacker will come after her for revenge because she told someone what he’d done, had him beaten up, etc. Retaliation by the rapist is possible in some instances. And it shows her that yet one more person she thought she could trust becomes violent as a way of handling angry emotions. She’s just had to deal with one person like that; the last thing she wants to see is yet another person in her life using violence to achieve a goal. That can make her feel guilty, as if she’s imposed an emotional burden on you. She may see the fierce anger of your reaction and wish she hadn’t stressed you out […] She may even try to take the role of being your comforter, counseling and soothing you when in fact she is the one in need.

Neeson also flunked another of Atkinson’s basic standards: “No matter how curious you are, avoid asking about details of the attack.” Focusing on the particulars — like, say, the race of the aggressor — is a clear indication of misplaced concern. For one thing, it often sounds as if you’re second-guessing the victim’s decisions and shifting some of the blame to them. On top of that, you’ve misunderstood your role in the situation: You’re a sympathetic loved one, not a detective, so leave the forensics to law enforcement and try to access your emotional intelligence instead.

Even genuine fury can be cathartic, so long as it doesn’t spiral into more violence; M.L. Mortimer, a rape survivor and contributor to the Good Men Project, has written that she was grateful even for “expressions of anger toward the perpetrators,” because silence “can be felt as suspicion or judgment” where open and honest solidarity is what the person requires.

Again, divorced from the overt racism, Neeson’s reckoning with his rage is not unhealthy in itself, and it’s easy to imagine oneself consumed by something akin to his Death Wish–style fatalism. The idea of bloody retribution can be cozy, especially where Hollywood is concerned — this being the matter Neeson tried and spectacularly failed to address. From Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies and historically revisionist gorefests to the recent spate of feminist rape-revenge films, we crave and celebrate all manner of visceral or immediate “justice.”

Much rarer is the depiction of individuals wrestling with the morality of eye-for-an-eye reprisals: In one of The Sopranos’ memorable storylines, Dr. Jennifer Melfi endures a rape and later chides her husband for voicing the wish to harm her assailant. Meanwhile, she’s resisting the urge to discuss the event with her mob boss patient, Tony Soprano, who would undoubtedly have the rapist killed.

What Neeson’s gaffe shows us is how negative forms of masculinity feed on themselves or fester when locked up inside a man’s head, creating a private illogic. It’s unclear whether he ever shared this angst with the woman who relied on him for support; on the contrary, he spoke of hiding his feelings when she inquired about them: “‘What’s wrong?’ ‘No no, nothing’s wrong.’”

That phony stoicism is itself another damaging male legacy. If, back then, Neeson had been able to admit how deeply the attack on his friend had affected him, it might have helped both of them heal and recover. Containing that darkness, nursing it until it threatened to destroy a life — and then harboring its weight for many years afterward — did not. But what do you know: It spilled out anyway.

Too bad it wasn’t in a therapist’s office.