**Trigger Warning: While not discussed in detail, the film does center on a female character post-rape and that aspect will be explored within.**
Director Juliane Block is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. Her 2018 film, 8 Remains, examines toxic relationships, suicide, depression, and child loss through the lens of the supernatural as the protagonist fights for her life. Her latest feature, 3 Lives, delves deeper into violence against women and male toxicity, but forgoes the supernatural for a more typical thriller. Returning writer Wolf-Peter Arand (8 Remains) and Block take the audience on a journey that’s as much for general entertainment as it is a provocative means of creating conversation. Where some depictions of attacks against women, specifically rape, result in cries of unnecessary violence in lieu of proper character development and motivation, there’s been a recent rise in stories where this isn’t the case (ex. IFC’s The Nightingale). Joining the latter, 3 Lives is confrontational, forward-thinking, and not without a few surprises.
After a particularly rough therapy session with a client, Emma (Mhairi Calvey) goes for a run to clear her head. Unfortunately, someone had their eye on her and plucks her off the street, takes her to a remote wooded location, and locks her in a cage. Alone and confused, her cries for help are answered by two men, also recently abducted, who are shocked to not only find themselves together, but with Emma. The shock isn’t just for the traumatic way in which they were collected and stored, but the fact that the men, Ben and Jamie (Tyron Ricketts and Martin Kaps), were involved in her 15-year old rape case. Ben stood as the accused and Jamie as his defendant. With three armed men hot on their heels, the three need to find a way to work together if they’re going to make it out of the woods alive. With tensions already high, questions of the past slowly filter into their arguments as each wonder if their abductors are somehow connected to an event long past and not easily forgotten.
There’re two ways to interpret the concept of 3 Lives: intriguing approach to confronting one’s past or utilizing trauma as both catalyst for action and cover for low-brow action. In a strange way, both views are slightly accurate. Emma’s assault is front and center the entire film, so those who’ve experienced it or are sensitive to such triggers need to be advised that there’s no avoiding it. That said, Emma is not a victim. The character’s been crafted to be resilient, so that, even amongst the dredges of her past, she’s able to find a means to carry on. Some of this could be attributed to survival, but it’s clear by the end of the story that it’s more than that: Emma doesn’t want to be defined by her past. As it’s slowly explored through the script, Emma’s not sought proper help to heal, but that doesn’t mean she’s weak or helpless. This is perhaps what makes 3 Lives so bewildering, the thriller aspect serves simultaneously as the weakest aspect (becoming harder to maintain tension over time) and as the strongest (it allows a forced confrontation to take place). All films possess conflict, but usually it’s more emotional than physical so that the protagonist has only one hurtle to jump. Block and Arand are not so kind, pummeling Emma in the present as a means of pushing her to a place of potential peace.
Don’t let this description confuse, 3 Lives is no Revenge, Holiday, or I Spit on Your Grave. The majority of the rape is implied without being shown directly as a choice to focus on Emma’s reaction more than the act. This is a laudable decision as it enables the audience to take in the violation more emotionally and less viscerally. So often depiction of rape involves shooting it as something sexy or potentially lurid, so Block’s choices here seem authentic from a feminine perspective, but also far more focused on conveying the trauma over shock value. Whether in spurts or longer stretches, any moment wherein the audience is given a view of Emma’s attack, it hurts. You can feel it in your bones. It’s to Block’s credit that simple staging and framing can do this, though Calvey’s performance certainly has a great deal to do with it, as well. As strong as the film is at capturing the emotional violence, the actual physical violence is strangely less evocative. The captors are more often over-the-top aggressive rather than terrifying and any fights characters get into lack something instinctive in the presentation. Especially as tensions run high amongst the characters, the diminishing presence of spontaneous reactions gives way to mechanical performances which look stilted and not at all threatening on camera.
A film like 3 Lives, though, doesn’t hinge on the literal action as much as it does the turmoil of the characters. Here, Arand and Block thought through the details of the tumultuous trio’s dynamic and how they function under existential and outward stress. Calvey as Emma holds it all down, offering a performance that never feels melodramatic, even under the character’s extensive duress. As her companions in flight, Ricketts and Kaps make their constantly evolving intentions questionable, making even the innocuous seem somehow menacing. Even as their characters’ respective involvements in Emma’s attack are slowly explained and explored, the actor’s never lose sight of their individual moral compasses, even if in brief flashes. The question of who did what, why, and how in the past reverberates into their present with deadly consequences.
Strong though the performances may be, there’s likely going to be some push-back on the reveal of the how/why of the plot, but there’s something bold about the approach. When everyone’s a suspect, the culprit must be someone with the most to lose and the most to gain, which describes everyone. How well the reveal works is honestly up to the audience and how they’ve received the story thus far. But if you’re all in, then it not only makes the most sense, but it’s the only logical outcome. As the credits roll with the audience processing the final scenes, Block intentionally puts up data about sexual assault and violence. If 3 Lives didn’t chill you in some way, learning that 94% of the film’s female crew have experienced sexual assault or violence takes the fiction and makes it all too real. Though the violation does serve as motivation for the story, it is not done in a gratuitous fashion. It is done to call greater attention to a travesty which occurs more often than audiences may realize. Suddenly, it’s not about Emma, but is about all women everywhere. That is a particularly strong, sobering, and slightly subconscious notion to end on.
Available for streaming via most digital services now.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.