Many of us have one thing, one traumatic incident, of which the slightest reminder will immediately cause any semblance of control or sanity we had to fly out the window. For Margaret (Rebecca Hall), that trauma takes the form of a person: David (Tim Roth). When she glimpses him from across the room during a meeting, she’s instantly affected: her breathing quickens, and her eyes become frightened. This reaction is so alarming because up until this point, we’ve seen Margaret lead nothing but an incredibly disciplined life. She’s in control at work, a mentor to the younger interns. She’s in control of her body; she exercises rigorously and routinely. She’s in control of her relationships; she’s having an affair with a married coworker (Michael Esper), and she’s the one who decides when he comes over, and when it’s time for him to leave. She’s in control of her teenage daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), or at least, tries to be, to the frustration of the latter, who feels smothered. But this somewhat, understandably, fraught relationship with her daughter is the only visible crack in her armor. Until David comes back into her life.
Toxic relationships are at the heart of writer and director Andrew Semans’ psychological thriller “Resurrection.” In a stunning seven minute monologue that perfectly captures what a riveting talent Hall is, Margaret describes her history with David to a coworker. In order to tip-toe around spoilers as much as possible, let’s just say that Margaret and David had a relationship a couple of decades ago. He charmed her, and once he had drawn her in, began to exert control over her, in ways both big and small, commanding her to perform tasks for him that he referred to as “kindnesses.” We never see any of these interactions from Margaret’s past enacted out in flashback form, and we don’t need to. As the camera stays focused on Hall’s haunted face, her eyes far away, she describes the nature of their relationship in increasingly nightmarish detail, her voice tinged with sadness that it happened, and perhaps some regret that she let it. Semans is quick to establish little doubt that David is a bad person, but Roth’s performance is calm, even good-natured. His stoicism plays well against Margaret’s unraveling. The more she sees him around, this reminder of a past she tried to bury, the more she struggles to grasp on to the control she previously had over all aspects of her life. And we begin to understand too why she is so controlling; on one level, it’s to keep her daughter safe in a way she failed to before, but it’s also due to David’s influence. Margaret is not about to let herself get caught under the thumb of another person again.
But Semans introduces surreal elements into this story too. Initially, they manifest themselves in the form of frightening visions Margaret has that blur the lines between what’s real and not real. That aforementioned monologue gets progressively weirder, as Margaret reveals that there’s a more sinister twist to David’s torment of her; subsequent conversations with him seem to confirm what she described. But later, we—as well as the other figures in Margaret’s life—also start to question Margaret’s reliability as a narrator, as she begins to see and experience things that cannot possibly be real. This has become a somewhat irritating trope especially recent in horror films, and especially recently in horror films that center around women’s stories. We want to believe her, but the movie prompts us to ponder whether we can, and this approach to storytelling that tries to have it both ways can be wearying. While the final shot of the film is ambiguous—whether it’s actually happy or sad, real or not real, is all up for interpretation—the shockingly bloody climax, which goes in a direction that you’ll never guess from the way this film starts, does at least see Margaret taking control back. She’s a woman freeing herself from a poisonous relationship, a mother protecting her child.
There isn’t anything particularly visually interesting about “Resurrection,” although Semans’ straightforward direction and the use of a handful of supremely ordinary locations as the setting for the action benefits his bonkers narrative, and allows the cast to take center stage. The question surrounding just what exactly is going on here is enough to maintain audience interest throughout, while performances keep the proceedings grounded enough that those questions never feel too elusive. The film is sure to drum on buzz after just one viewing (as it did when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year), but I believe there are riches to be gained from subsequent viewings. The opening scene, for example, packs a much harder punch after you know Margaret’s story. The scene opens on one of the younger employees Margaret works with, Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone), saying to Margaret, “I really like him.” She’s describing a relationship with a guy she really likes, but who doesn’t treat her respectfully in return, cracking jokes at her expense that she insists are just him “trying to be funny.” While the title of the movie more immediately draws to mind dredging up the past, it’s as much, if not more, about the bad relationships we fall in to. Even Margaret’s fling with her coworker, a seemingly nice, normal guy, begins on a rocky foundation and eventually turns ugly. And it all starts with a description of a toxic relationship. On first viewing, this just seems like a pleasant mentor/student exchange. On second viewing, Margaret’s urging to Gwyn that she find someone who makes her happy has a much more layered meaning, as does her hard assessment of this guy that couldn’t come from anything else but personal experience: “He likes to cut you down. He’s a sadist. A sadist never understands why others aren’t enjoying his sadism as much as he is.”
“Resurrection” will be released in theaters on July 29 and on demand on August 5. It will stream exclusively on Shudder beginning October 28. Runtime: 103 minutes.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.