This article was slightly edited on 6 February 2022 to correct a plot detail revealed later on.
The Yellowjackets premiere capped off another year of angry, vengeful women on screen. Director Karyn Kusama transforms Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson’s twist on the classic wilderness survival story into a bizarre, brutal narrative that oscillates between the mid-1990s and 2021, complete with bad perms, grunge hits, and cannibalism (yes, cannibalism). More than 25 years after their private plane crashed in the Canadian wilderness and left them stranded for 19 months, an all-female group of former soccer players grapples with the consequences of their rage. When postcards with a cryptic sigil from their past start making the rounds, these women have no choice but to confront their long-buried acts of violence before the truth gets out.
The pilot opens with an unknown member of the Yellowjackets running barefoot through the woods, terrified by disturbing chanting and animal sounds made by girls off-screen. She stumbles into a dead fall and meets her end on a dozen spikes, her heart-shaped necklace spattered in blood. This opening image asserts that Kusama was the perfect choice to direct Lyle and Nickerson’s story, which shows female rage can be a source of empowerment. It harks back to Kusama’s cult classic, Jennifer’s Body (2009), which proves that pissed off teenage girls can bite (literally).
In the present, we weave in and out of more disturbing flashbacks as we meet the four core survivors: Shauna Sheridan (Melanie Lynskey), Natalie Scatorccio (Juliette Lewis), Misty Quigley (Christina Ricci), and Taissa Turner (Tawny Cypress). Arguably the gatekeeper of the Yellowjackets’ trauma, Shauna sets the stage by telling reporter Jessica Roberts (Rekha Sharma) that after their plane crashed, “a bunch of my friends died, and the rest of us starved, and scavenged, and prayed” for 19 months. Her life is stunningly mediocre and suburban, with a husband who sells furniture and a bitchy teenage daughter. Jackie (Ella Purnell), the Yellowjackets’ peppy captain and Shauna’s closest childhood friend, is noticeably and eerily absent. Still, Shauna says she has “moved on.” But Jessica insists that “there’s a bit more to it than that,” promising us juicy, gory secrets await. After all, teenaged Shauna (Sophie Nelisse) secretly hooked up with Jackie’s boyfriend, Jeff — whom she ended up marrying. It’s a classic act of betrayal spiced up by the most nontraditional of circumstances.
Taissa aspires to “lead New Jersey out of the wilderness.” Her ironic phrasing and forced smile during a photography session for a local magazine are so intentional that her pain is palpable. The photographer calls her an “inspiration” despite “all the nasty stories” about what happened after the plane crash, while Taissa insists on looking towards the future. The cutthroat nature of politics is a good fit: a young Taissa (Jasmin Savoy Brown) ensured that her weakest teammate, Allie, wouldn’t drag the Yellowjackets down at nationals by staging a plot that led to Allie suffering from a compound open fracture. At the last bonfire the girls ever attend, Jackie glosses over Taissa’s capacity for aggression, insisting that “we’re still a team.” Her inability to allow the girls to express their rage foreshadows the trauma that fuels the rumors that swirl around Taissa’s campaign.
While Natalie walks into an immaculate rehab center in Los Angeles, Kusama intentionally turns to flashbacks of the ritual where a dying Jackie is dragged through the snow, strung up, and butchered. Moments later, Natalie’s group counselor explains that “anger can be good” but “true violence isn’t the answer.” Natalie chimes in that it’s important to learn how to “keep the tiger in the cage” — but that the horrific events that she witnessed and participated in didn’t fuel her sex, alcohol, and drug addiction. The real source of her pain was losing her “purpose” after being rescued, another cryptic nod to her role in the Yellowjackets’ descent into darkness. Her barely contained disgust and carefully crafted, emotionless mask suggests the tiger is gnawing at the bars.
The flamboyant yet frightening Misty was undoubtedly created as a complement to Natalie. More than two decades later, Misty still sports a terrible perm and funnels her frustration into denying obstinate senior patients their morphine. Instead of hiding her contempt behind the façade of a nurse’s uniform, the pilot ends with Natalie boldly handling a semi-automatic rifle with a casual confidence that inspires awe and fear. Natalie is on a mission to carry out her vigilante justice and reclaim her purpose, dramatically subverting the classic cinematic portrayal of the damaged survivor. Her lines are delivered with the artificial calm of a woman about to implode, while Misty’s suspiciously peppy persona (both then and now) and fascination with watching drowning animals gives new meaning to the “beware the nice ones” trope.
In the pilot’s most unforgettable flashback, we see a young Misty (Samantha Hanratty) has become an agent to the chthonic overlord of their new world, a mysterious woman hidden under a horned veil, serving her tribe girl-meat without blinking. Close-up shots of Misty taking off her ritual mask inform us that like Natalie, a young Misty found her purpose in the wilderness. Here, she can safely express her sociopathic tendencies to conquer the elements and “save” the girls. Her mesmerized expression at watching them devour Jackie is darkly humorous and delightfully characteristic of Kusama’s portraits of women romanced by rage — comfortable, not conflicted with their bloodthirsty urges.
After all, most female-driven narratives that explore anger, violence, and survival are centered around men. The Kill Bill (2011) duology gives a perfect example of a woman who seeks revenge in the most brutal ways possible, including scalping another woman, all while under the scrutiny of the male gaze (who could forget that toe scene?). When women weaponize their rage, we anticipate their ensuing loss, the moment of enlightenment where they realize they reacted, not acted, and if they’re lucky (like Kill Bill’s protagonist, Beatrice Kiddo), they find love. But in Yellowjackets, female rage is not only unrestrained but also occurs beyond the boundaries of the patriarchy. The wilderness is both their greatest enemy and their greatest liberator.
While it’s typical for male domination to be the catalyst for female wrath, women often pay the price. In films such as Carrie (1976) and Promising Young Woman (2020), women engage in acts of violence against the patriarchy and in exchange for their lives. Yellowjackets subverts this model of storytelling by showing us that through embracing their furious, carnal urges, the girls develop a matriarchal society that allows them to thrive in one of the most hostile environments on Earth. They are not the shivering, desperate plane crash survivors their masculine counterparts become in Alive (1993), a film where an all-male team of athletes are forced to eat survivors who die of hypothermia. The Yellowjackets are ferocious, and they like their meat fresh. Like their namesake, they attack without warning — and without being backhanded or sexualized for their indulgence in violence. Although a few men accompanied the Yellowjackets, the pilot hints that in their new world, male influence no longer poses a threat, nor any meaning.
The pilot’s concluding scene of the girls feasting on Jackie challenges the inherent belief that women are born with a stronger morality. While some studies have shown women are more empathetic and likely to adhere to deontological (ethical) principles than men, Yellowjackets insists that in the wild, women have a greater capacity for ruthlessness. After being left behind for 19 months, the uniquely feminine fury of being overlooked manifests for the girls as learning how to weaponize nature — often against each other, in contrast to male-driven wilderness survival stories such as The Way Back (2010) and Everest (2015). Where those men band together against windstorms, bears, and other natural forces, the Yellowjackets descend into cultish chanting and creating deadfalls in a nod to feminine rage: being denied the opportunity to release it without judgment.
In addition to stunning cinematography and a haunting original score, the Yellowjackets pilot succeeds thanks to Ricci, Lewis, Lynskey, and Cypress offering brilliant performances that suggest forgiveness may not always be the best way to recoup after trauma. If anything, these survivors were plucked from the pith of a heart-pumping battleground of their own making and — particularly in Natalie’s case — nearly lost themselves in the act of suppressing their pain. Even in the arms of salvation, the Yellowjackets remind us that those emotions don’t simply disappear. Their barely contained resentment towards each other, themselves, and a world that shames furious women lights up the screen. Echoing author Gabor Maté’s insistence that when inauthentic, moving on can have catastrophic consequences, Yellowjackets promises to show the thrill of watching repressed women finally come undone — on their own terms, and all the better for it.