“Kindred” is a horror movie that isn’t scary in a very obvious way. Rather, there’s a feeling of unease that permeates the film and gets under your skin, staying there long after the credits roll. Director and co-writer Joe Marcantonio’s debut feature may draw comparisons to other films such as “Rosemary’s Baby,” but he takes a familiar premise and imbues with strong direction, a great cast, and outstanding production design, all underlined with a touch of social commentary.
“Kindred” follows Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance), a young woman whose world is turned upside down when her boyfriend Ben (Edward Holcroft) is suddenly killed in a freak accident. Reluctantly pregnant and with her plans to move to Australia to get out from under the thumb of Ben’s domineering mother Margaret (Fiona Shaw) dashed, Charlotte finds herself forced under the same roof as Margaret and her stepson Thomas (Jack Lowden). Initially, Margaret and Thomas don’t appear much more than overly helpful, determined that Charlotte should stay with them until her baby arrives. But Charlotte soon begins feeling confused on top of her grief, trapped within the confines of their decaying family estate in the English countryside, and is haunted by strange dreams that make her suspicious of Margaret and Thomas’ true intentions. Are her anxieties brought on by the same illness Charlotte’s mother had when she was pregnant with her? Or is she being gaslit by a family who wants to take her child for themselves?
From the moment Ben dies going forward, it’s evident that Charlotte is utterly alone, with no one to turn to. Even people who it seems like she ought to be able to trust—doctors, friends—prove themselves untrustworthy. And she gradually has things taken away from her: first it’s tangible items, like her cottage, which Margaret sells without her permission so that Charlotte, with no other family around, is forced to remain with her. And then it becomes her autonomy that starts to disappear, as the family drugs her (it’s never confirmed within the film that this is what was happening, but I think it’s safe to assume it was) and renders her incapable of making her own decisions about herself and her child. It reaches the point where she cannot leave the estate’s grounds; then the house; then her room. The fact that Charlotte is the only Black character in the film lends added weight to all of this drama. In Charlotte we see the idea that white people can and do take what they want from Black people, from material items right down to their identity, play out. And we also witness through her the unequal treatment Black people often face when seeking help for medical problems, especially regarding Black women and pregnancy. Throughout the film, we see Charlotte’s concerns downplayed at every turn; no one will believe her, and no one will help her. So, she must help herself.
Charlotte’s tenacity is admirable and unstoppable, and in the film’s final act in particular we watch her do whatever it takes to fight for independence from Ben’s family. Lawrance delivers a performance that finds power in Charlotte’s vulnerability. She also embodies the grief and loneliness that dominate Charlotte for much of the film so well. Shaw’s Margaret, meanwhile, is alternately cold and explosive. About mid-way through the film she delivers a monologue about giving birth to Ben that is about the most we learn about her character throughout the movie, but that proves that Shaw is one of the finest actors working today. Lowden is impressively unpredictable as Thomas, who is controlling but in a weirdly polite way that constantly causes you to question what his real motives are in this scheme.
Much of “Kindred” was shot inside a real manor house in Ireland, and the interiors—largely dilapidated but with lingering evidence of its prior grandness—add a lot of symbolism to the film. The colors are drab and dusty, and Marcantonio frames his establishing shots in a way that emphasizes how small and trapped the characters are within these spaces. He and cinematographer Carlos Catalán also used different lenses when shooting inside the house versus shooting outside to make Charlotte’s environment appear even more disorienting. We see symbolism appear throughout the film in other ways as well, especially with dead creatures and with crows. Charlotte sees crows—representative of a bad omen—often, and while that particular bit of symbolism may be heavy-handed, it effectively ratchets up the tension every time one appears.
Some might find the pacing of “Kindred” rather slow and frustrating, but I thought it was perfect. Suspense is gradually built throughout the film as we receive nuggets of unnerving information here and there, culminating in a heart-pounding and ultimately devastating finale. “Kindred” may be better classified as a psychological thriller than horror, although its ability to successfully draw from several different genres makes it hard to pin down. Those searching for scares in the moment may be disappointed in the lack of jump scares in “Kindred,” but those wanting that disturbing, unsettling feeling to last will find that “Kindred” is terrifying in a much more subtle way.
“Kindred” is now available to rent on demand. Runtime: 101 minutes. Not rated.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.