In no scenario would Phoenix Rising have gone down easy. An HBO documentary cut from the same must-watch-can’t-stomach cloth as 2019’s Leaving Neverland, Phoenix Rising is actor Evan Rachel Wood’s platform for detailing the abuse she says she suffered over the course of her four-year relationship with Marilyn Manson. Phoenix Rising is technically a documentary that roughly spans the year leading up to Wood publicly naming Manson as her abuser (in a 2018 House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing, Wood described abuse but declined to name Manson), but it feels more like a memoir than a proper doc. Wood’s testimony drives the film, and many of its stunning moments are the product of a simple shot of Wood talking directly to the camera. It is arresting in its simplicity by design. A profile of Wood that ran this week in The Cut reported that Phoenix Rising director Amy Berg “didn’t want the doc to feel like a ‘celebrity exposé’ and was relieved when HBO told her an early cut felt like an intimate conversation between best friends.”
In the two-part doc’s first entry, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Wood recounts meeting Manson in 2006 when she was 18 and he was 37. Among her claims are those that Manson groomed her, dragged her through a hotel, isolated her from her family, and “essentially raped” her during the filming of his 2007 “Heart-Shaped Glasses” video. In the second part, which premiered this week on HBO, Wood describes being sleep-deprived by Manson, as well as raped in her sleep after he gave her a sleeping pill. She says she suspected at other points that he was dosing her with meth. She recounts being tied up and tortured, at one point being whipped with “a Nazi whip from the Holocaust” while she was tied to a kneeler. She describes ensuing PTSD, a suicide attempt, and death threats from fans after the aforementioned House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing.
Joining Wood onscreen are others who alleged abuse from Manson, among them a former girlfriend named Sarah (no last name given) who says he threatened her with a baseball bat, and another identified as Ashley S., who says Manson fractured her nose during a rape. Also notable is the appearance of Dan Cleary, Manson’s former assistant, who tweeted his support for those speaking out against Manson in September 2020. On camera, he claims he heard Manson saying to his current wife, Lindsay Usich, “I’m going to kill you. I’m going to chop you up and Dan’s gonna bury you in the desert.” Usich notably, posted an apparent message in support of Manson last year on Instagram. They remain married. (Cleary is standing by his words in the doc, per a recent tweet.)
Complicating matters is the defamation lawsuit that Manson filed earlier this month against Wood and Illma Gore. Wood and Gore were collaborators on the formation of the Phoenix Act, a bill proposed to extend the statute of limitations for sexual assault survivors in California. It was passed into law in 2020, albeit in amended form. (Per Wood’s Cut interview, Gore is no longer involved in any Phoenix Act-oriented organization’s activity.) Manson’s complaint reiterates his denial of any wrongdoing and accuses Wood of having “handpicked co-conspirators” to bolster her abuse claims. As of now, 16 women have accused the rock star of abuse, and four have sued for sexual assault. His complaint describes Phoenix Rising as “a one-sided ‘documentary’ premised on the existence of an entirely fictitious federal investigation.” In Phoenix Rising’s second part, however, there is footage of Wood entering an FBI building and, apparently, recounting her abuse (this plays without audio and in slow motion).
What Manson alleges is nothing short of a conspiracy to defame him on a Hollywood production’s scale. In his telling, the cast is in the dozens, the plan has been years in the making. It’s worth repeating that Phoenix Rising ends in February 2021 when Wood named Manson as her abuser. Hours and hours were shot before she really spoke out against him. That’s a mighty gamble for something based on a series of lies, as Manson would like us to believe. Using the “crazy ex-girlfriend” trope to cast doubt on Wood’s story is one thing, but it hardly stands to reason that director Amy Berg, who’s been nominated for an Oscar, would risk her reputation as a documentarian by aiding in the concoction of such a thorough conspiracy.
And yet, his bravado is disconcerting. Manson linked to a PDF of his complaint in his Instagram bio (a post pointed to it), practically daring people to read it. His complaint “demands a trial by jury.” He accuses Wood and Gore of a host of misdeeds, including pressuring his accusers. He claims that Gore impersonated him, hacked into his computer and social media accounts, and swatted him (that is, she called the police to claim that she could not reach him and it might be as a result of an emergency, when no such emergency existed). He says Gore and Wood created a fraudulent document purportedly from a FBI agency that doesn’t exist (Federal Violent Crimes Department) claiming that “Evan Rachel Wood is a key witness in connection to a criminal investigation in Los Angeles, California involving an international and well known public figure.”
The complaint goes on to claim that “Wood submitted the forged letter in a California custody proceeding, using it as supposed evidence for why she should be able to move her son to Tennessee.” In Manson’s telling, the letter would further serve to “draw attention to the Phoenix Act, Wood, and the false allegations against [Brian] Warner [Editor’s note: Manson’s, given name]; and the forged letter would be used to recruit, encourage, and convince people to claim they were abused by Warner, because they were being led to believe that Warner was a threat to their safety and under federal investigation.” As proof of its forgery, attached to the complaint is a screenshot of texts purportedly between Wood and Gore in which the letter is being workshopped.
How Manson could even get his hands on such a screenshot is an outstanding question. People certainly present supposed evidence in lawsuits all the time that falls apart under a trial’s scrutiny, and yet if Manson is bluffing here, he’s bluffing hard. For her part, Gore allegedly tweeted a soon-deleted post that would seem to confirm the veracity of at least one of the documents in Manson’s arsenal of evidence (these also include a picture from a note book in which she wrote that one of her goals in being involved with the Phoenix Act was in part to “make money” and supposed checklist of Manson’ offenses that was sent to survivors in order to put words in their mouth, per Manson’s telling). A screenshot alleges that the day Manson’s complaint dropped, Gore tweeted: “Before publishing images be aware that photos and images from my hard drive have been registered with the U.S. Copyright office. This documentation names me as the rightful copyright owner. I have not nor will give permission to use them.” This tweet no longer exists, but something else that she tweeted that day does: “Bring it the fuck on you rapist pedophile motherfucker.”
What can we make of Manson’s supposed evidence and his “demand” to see it scrutinized in court? Is it rock-star confidence rendered in a legal filing? Is his proof as hard as he seems to think it is? After all, many things could be true: Gore and Wood could have fabricated a letter, and he also could have raped and abused Wood for years. A fraudulent doc would not render her story automatically untrue; her motivation for doing so could have amounted to gilding the lily for the sake of convincing others of something she already knew to be true. On The View this week, Wood described the lawsuit as “part of the retaliation that keeps survivors quiet.”
“I am not scared,” she said. “I am sad.” To The Cut, Wood talked about the lingering fear as a result of her speaking out, as well as its potential cost to her career and bank account: “Wood says she has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on security (‘I love when people think you do this for the money’).” Manson’s lawsuit, Wood has noted, was well-timed, coming just before the documentary’s HBO debut.
Whether he’s telling the truth or not, his complaint constitutes interference and it complicates the Phoenix Rising viewing experience. If his claims are unfounded, he’s playing with not just his survivors’ heads but the collective head of the public. And if so, he’s a real motherfucker for that one.