Concussion is a not-quite-comedy about a fortysomething woman who gets whacked in the head and decides to become a call girl. Because the woman is an upper-middle-class lesbian who gets to pick her clients, and because her pimp happens to be her employee, all of the desperation and degradation popularly associated with sex-worker stories gets elided. So, incidentally, does most of the sex.
For Concussion’s protagonist, prostitution is just kinky role-playing, a way to satisfy her need to be desired as a commodity, something other women would pay to have. The movie’s “non-judgmental” attitude depends on this safety zone; when the main character hires a real hooker, all of the ugly things associated with prostitution—drugs, motel rooms, uncleanliness—get trotted out for laughs. Sex work, the movie seems to say, can be empowering as long as the provider doesn’t need the money and sets rules that put her on equal terms with the client—but then it’s just sex, isn’t it?
As the movie’s heroine, Robin Weigert (Deadwood’s Calamity Jane) wears a perpetually bemused half-smirk that lets the other characters (and the audience) know that she’s in control of the situation, but also distances her from the action, as though she were an observer of her own life. Sex—which occurs mostly offscreen, on a clean white bed in a Manhattan apartment Weigert is rehabbing—is put in quotation marks. The closest the movie comes to overt eroticism is in the occasional moments when the camera lingers on Weigert’s sinewy back and shoulders; even then, it’s the eroticism of a body completely in control of itself.
There’s a provocative idea at the core of Concussion’s work-less sex work: Perhaps Weigert’s desire to be bought has more to do with her career as a businesswoman than with her head injury. However, like the movie’s other provocative ideas—the dynamic between Weigert and her employee-pimp, the college-age madam who eventually takes the pimp’s place, Weigert’s place as a lesbian mother in a community of straight parents—it never develops into anything. Instead, the viewer is presented with a series of caustic, vignette-like scenes which tease bigger themes but end before they can tackle them, as though the film had accidentally started a conversation it didn’t want to have—an impression underscored by the tidy, arbitrary ending.