Before director Katherine Brooks made the controversial 2006 lesbian drama Loving Annabelle, she wrote and directed the erotic thriller Surrender (2003), which is now available on DVD. Set in Los Angeles' S/M underworld, Surrender stars Brooks as a dominatrix who begins an affair with a provincial country girl. Murder, unexplained flashbacks and Skinemax-type hi jinks ensue.
Salene (Brooks' role, under the pseudonym Kate Hill) is a bossy, rude, alcoholic, drug-addicted, jaded California writer who is working as a dominatrix to get inspiration for a novel. Georgia (Julie Clay) is a polite, cheerful, sexually conservative, naive but curious young woman from Alabama who doesn't seem to have any career goals in mind. The only thing these two have in common is Georgia's friend Summer, who is also Salene's estranged sister.
Summer apparently does not realize what a mismatch Georgia and Salene are, because she arranges for Georgia to be Salene's roommate. Salene takes an instant dislike to Georgia and goes out of her way to treat her cruelly. She insults her, blows smoke in her face and wakes her up by stepping on her (with a high-heeled boot, no less).
But Georgia toughs out Salene's abuse. And when Salene finally does comes around, Georgia is, surprisingly, all too ready to be her friend and lover. Unfortunately, their romance — the film's centerpiece — happens far too quickly to be believable.
Salene soon guides Georgia into the exciting and sometimes scary world of S/M. But the brakes are put on their relationship after one of Salene's “slaves” dies during an autoerotic act. Georgia is disturbed by Salene's lack of emotion in reaction to the death. The police, meanwhile, think that Salene might have had something to do with it.
Though the plot of Surrender sounds intriguing, the execution is awful. Watching it is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle that's missing some major pieces.
One of the things the movie focuses on is a childhood trauma that Salene suffered. We can tell this trauma still disturbs Salene today because she is frequently haunted by flashbacks of it. But we can only guess why that trauma haunts her, since the flashbacks never give us a clear idea of what that trauma was. It seems like a family picnic was involved. For all we know, Salene's recalling the time her mother served her some bad egg salad.
It's frustrating because we get the feeling that if only we knew what happened to Salene, we'd understand so many things about her — like why she loves S/M, why she's so mean, why she hates her mother, and why she doesn't get along with her sister.
The film leaves a number of loose threads dangling that are more frustrating than tantalizing. For example, when Georgia makes an important and shocking choice about her life, we don't see her decision-making process. As a result, we are left scratching our heads, saying, “Huh?”
In addition, the film's engagement with S/M is more contradictory than complex. Surrender seems to imply that S/M can be dangerous to one's soul, but it can also be good therapy. This is the type of film that's so strange and nonsensical, you almost expect to discover it's all been a character's dream.
Perhaps the main problem with Surrender is that it never seems to figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. Sometimes it feels like a Skinemax flick; other times, it's like a
Law & Order: SVU episode. This means if you're watching Surrender for the mystery, you might be annoyed by the gratuitous sex scenes (which, despite the S/M kink, are sorely lacking in emotion). If you're watching it for the sex, you might be annoyed by the gratuitous plot.
Surrender does not entirely surrender, however, to bad movie-making. The character of Salene is quite a unique woman, and even if you want to dislike her, chances are you won't, because she simply cries out for sympathy.
In addition, Brooks and Clay (who is also one of the film's producers) deliver surprisingly natural performances. They easily could have turned their characters into Goth and Southern belle stereotypes, but manage to steer clear of those missteps. Brooks is a bit more impressive than Clay, but only because she has the juicier part.
But ultimately, the only reason to watch Surrender is if you've got your own sadomasochistic desire to see a really bad movie.