‘Exhibit A’: Found Footage’s Opening Statement on Male Fragility
April 5th, 2022 | By David Churack
If horror is the neglected outcast of film, found footage is its filthy, mutated offspring. The subgenre is sometimes dismissed as an excuse for cheap, amateurish storytelling. But Dom Rotheroe’s shocking 2007 feature Exhibit A totally justifies its grimy, kitchen-sink filmmaking.
For the first third of its runtime, Exhibit A unfolds like a domestic drama. It centres on the Kings, an average middle-class British family of four. They seem to have it all and are on the cusp of having more. Dad Andy is anticipating a promotion that will allow them to move to a larger seaside house. Our initial POV character is daughter Judith, whose problems are comfortably teenage. She has an unrequited crush on the girl next door, who’s far more interested in her brother Joe. And after being gifted a camera, Judith innocuously turns it on those closest to her.
But Andy’s increasingly unhinged behaviour introduces a sense of unease, which slowly builds into forehead-dampening terror. He makes increasingly erratic decisions and explodes violently at his son over nothing. We learn he’s been lying to his family about their finances, and they’re now drowning in debt. His desperation to cover up that lie — and refusal to admit his mistakes — leads him to the most extreme behaviour imaginable.
Behind Closed Doors
Exhibit A is profoundly harrowing because its central conceit is convincing and its source of horror nightmarishly plausible. Its “found footage” is so immersive as to be alienating. The film painfully renders the claustrophobic intensity of everyday family life and recreates amateur filmmaking to dizzying effect.
Since we follow Judith filming her immediate family, we’re afforded an incredibly intimate look at the characters. Judith is the closeted, emotional daughter. Joe the rebellious son. Sheila the warm but increasingly exasperated wife. And Andy the jovial dad who buries his chasm of insecurities under a cheeky smile. He’s a man who will quite literally stop at nothing to avoid confronting his own failures.
Exhibit A’s greatest strength is its nuanced portrayal of Andy’s psychological disintegration. He is not cruel or sadistic. Nor is he a calculating and unemotional villain. He’s a deeply emotional, family-oriented man who is openly affectionate to his wife and children. If anything, Andy’s failing is that he cares too much, and lacks the emotional tools to deal with that. A palpable sense of insecurity underlies every desperate dad joke. He doubles down on failures, attempting to fix a truck and dig a pool despite his lack of experience as though these things will work through applied testosterone. And when he inevitably fails, he only becomes more desperate and removed from reality.
The most disturbing scenes in the film show Andy repeatedly refusing to accept his own mistakes. After one awkward confrontation with a colleague at a party, he tries to cover up the deathly silence by dancing manically. Yelling at his embarrassed guests — “Who wants to dance with Andy?” — his behaviour is so pathetic and disturbing that Judith begs him to stop. “Just look at yourself in the screen,” she screams. “I understand. We’ll sort it out alright. You don’t have to pretend anymore.” We see Andy hesitate for a moment as he struggles to be emotionally open with his daughter and to accept his failings.
Time and again, Andy is offered a way out of his own problems, but he cannot bring himself to be vulnerable. Instead, he plays Judith’s tapes for his guests, who witness his recorded insanity and leave. And rather than reckoning with this objective evidence of his behaviour, Andy lashes out at his family. He calls Judith a “snoop” and petulantly takes her camera. For the rest of the film, he decides what we see.
This is a pivotal moment that leads directly to the film’s violent and shocking finale. If the camera is our way into the story, then Andy taking it is his violent decentring of his own children. The teenage drama Exhibit A initially presents is permanently erased. All that’s left is Andy’s emotions, Andy’s anger, and finally Andy’s decision on what’s best for his family.
Andy’s narrative, told directly to camera, casts himself as a constant victim. And his only attempt to reconcile with his family is to snoop into their lives. To leave no emotional space between him and them. By exposing his wife’s dildo, his daughter’s lesbianism and his son’s budding sexuality on camera, he deflects his shame onto them. Their lives distinct from him are threats to his self-image. And the biggest threat comes when Sheila confesses she had a secret abortion. She was emotionally bullied by Andy into having his children, and didn’t feel she could trust him with the news of another pregnancy.
That’s when Exhibit A stops short of blaming economic anxiety for Andy’s actions. Because he’d always been a selfish lover and father. And after he realises he cannot force his way back into his family, we are left with the story he tells himself (and us) about why his family has to die.
Toxic Men, Terrible Violence
Andy’s foregrounding of his own emotions over his family’s very lives parallels the frequent privileging of one narrative of male violence. A narrative that focuses on the motivations of violent men over their victims. Family annihilation (or familicide) is of course a real and tragic phenomenon. Perpetrators are overwhelmingly men who struggle with their traditional role of being a provider, and turn to violence when their relationships collapse.
This is the foundation of toxic masculinity: male fragility. An inability to reckon with falling short of the traditional male role. Andy cannot accept that he has failed as a provider by putting his family into severe debt. Instead, he compensates by stocking up on lottery tickets, setting himself token tests of manliness like digging a pool, and trying to gaslight his family into accepting his behaviour.
Horror hasn’t shied away from confronting toxic masculinity. Recent films like The Invisible Man and Midsommar make this social issue a driving plot mechanic. But their portraits of dangerous men are less multifaceted. Adrian in The Invisible Man is an archetypal and one-dimensional abuser. A genius with zero emotional affect who finds joy only in sadism, he elicits no complex emotion beyond loathing. Midsommar’s quintessential terrible boyfriend, Christian, is similarly uncomplicated in his driving desire to avoid any emotional labour.
These characters represent negative masculine traits, but they don’t interrogate the traits themselves. In contrast, Andy is not strong or particularly capable. He’s overflowing with emotions he can’t accept, never mind process. And that’s precisely what makes him so terrifying. By introducing an element of understanding and (initial) sympathy to Andy, Exhibit A succeeds in making dangerous men pathetic.
Andy’s violent murdering of his family is (appropriately) horrifying, even if it’s largely offscreen. But his final act is to destroy the camera. To erase any perception of who he truly is. Because that’s the core of male fragility: an inability to reckon with one’s failings. Or indeed, one’s true self.
Exhibit A’s subject matter undoubtedly makes it a difficult watch. But its searingly relevant perspective on male violence, and pitch perfect execution of the found footage form, mean it deserves a far better reputation. After all, in a world of incel terrorism and Proud Boys, Exhibit A shouldn’t feel so radical.