Rape-revenge scenarios have resulted in some of the most potent and morally queasy films ever made, possibly because there's no satisfactory response to such a violation. Revenge isn't going to erase what's already happened, but the promise of any measure of justice leads characters—and their movies—into even darker places than they began. When victims work to restore the power taken from them—whether they're women asserting themselves (I Spit On Your Grave, Ms. 45) or men reclaiming their lost masculinity (Straw Dogs, Irreversible)—bad movies usually slip up, because it's relatively easy to make rape seem harrowing, but considerably harder to get a handle on the significance and meaning of revenge.

The ambitious indie film Descent stumbles badly in this regard, but its powerful first third captures the events leading up to a date rape with sickening, step-by-step plausibility. Rosario Dawson stars as a headstrong college student who goes to a frat party at a friend's behest and winds up cornered by Chad Faust, whom she immediately pegs as the sort of backward-cap-wearing jock that she despises. Her instincts are correct, but Faust proves to be a smooth talker, and he gradually defuses her suspicions and coaxes her into seeing him again. Their first date is right out of the gentleman's handbook—flowers, a fancy dinner, some stargazing, a bottle of wine—but Dawson isn't quite ready to give him the green light, and things quickly go south.

From there, Descent quickly goes south, too, because it can't find a more compelling way to deal with the aftermath than to have Dawson sink into deep, murky, inscrutable malaise. Little in the second act makes much sense, other than the news that Dawson has lost her intellectual drive and turned to a hedonistic nightlife to dull her pain. Her relationship with a bartender/DJ (Marcus Patrick) who appears to specialize in mending broken women is frustratingly vague, and her metamorphosis into an avenging angel comes out of nowhere. Co-writer/director Talia Lugacy takes a bold risk by trying to turn Descent into a mood piece, but she winds up losing all sense of purpose in the middle section, only to recover in time for a truly risible finale. Though a clearly gifted new filmmaker, Lugacy doesn't get a handle on the combustible material, and she gets scalded in the process.