Film Review: “Resurrection” — Turning Words into Weapons

By Betsy Sherman

Rebecca Hall gives Resurrection the psychological grounding it needs, as the thriller stretches towards a macabre, fable-like payoff.

Resurrection, directed by Andrew Semans. Streaming on Video on Demand

A scene from Resurrection. Photo: Wyatt Garfield.

Rebecca Hall is the riveting presence at the center of Resurrection. The feature, written and directed by Andrew Semans, sits among a subset of recent thrillers (made by male filmmakers) that survey damage wrought by toxic masculinity on female protagonists. As in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man and Alex Garland’s surreal Men, it’s the conviction invested by the lead actress (Elisabeth Moss and Jessie Buckley, in those cases) that gives the viewer something to latch onto, while the movie itself is less than totally cohesive. Hall gives Resurrection the psychological grounding it needs, as it stretches towards a macabre, fable-like payoff. In spite of its hitches, the movie has enough substance in its more serious aspects, and enough jaw-drops in its scary parts, to make it worth seeing.

Hall plays Margaret, an executive who prizes toughness — physical and mental — above all else. It’s a value that, in the opening scene, she’s trying to instill in her young female intern, as she has in the daughter she’s raised by herself. Daughter Abbie is about to turn 18 and move away to college.

Margaret has an athletic body, a sleek wardrobe, and a compartmentalized life that includes casual sex with a married colleague. While at a biotech conference, listening to a presentation, Margaret lets her eyes wander among the men in the room. When they take in the sight of a certain middle-aged gent, in a split second the distance between herself and a trauma from her youth collapses. She bolts from the room. Tim Roth plays David, the man she loved when she was 18, but who emotionally abused her in a situation that, as we learn more about it, appears to be a classic case of gaslighting. Margaret fears that David has come to prey on her daughter.

This is a story of PTSD, and how it has consequences over generations. Margaret has kept her past a secret, but she tells the backstory of her abuse in a monologue (delivered by Hall over seven minutes, without cuts). A lonely teenager who loved to draw, Margaret traveled with her biologist parents from Britain to a research station on an island off Canada’s west coast. David, a British scientist about 20 years her senior, took an interest in her. She fell for him, happy to be his “muse.” Her parents let her move in with him, and then they returned home. In that isolated environment, the older man created a world of rituals and euphemisms with which he controlled his young lover, eroding her sense of self. After a wrenching tragedy, Margaret escaped and built a life for herself.

Part of that life was having a child independent of any ties with a partner. It’s through Margaret’s protectiveness as a mother that David can now continue his gaslighting (the infiltration starts with the placement of a mysterious tooth). Once Margaret confronts David, the film moves into the thriller realm. Though we follow her stalking him, it becomes plain that he’s still the cat, and she’s the mouse.

What detours Resurrection away from the standard victim-becomes-avenger routine is a preposterous — and rather admirably sick — claim that David makes. He planted this seed in Margaret’s mind years ago, and it still has the power to knock her off balance. I won’t reveal what his contention is, but it gives the movie a welcome touch of unpredictability akin to that in Italian giallo horror. A gruesome narrative passage is shown to be a nightmare. But does it also represent something real? Or is it only a hallucination?

One of Resurrection’s bumpier shifts between drama and genre-movie involves the alarm we come to feel for Margaret’s daughter. Motherly concern for Abbie’s safety turns into its own form of abuse: Margaret forbids the teen from leaving the apartment, at first lying about the reason why. Grace Kaufman does an excellent job in this difficult role: initially she’s treated by her mother as a pal, but eventually she’s become a prisoner.

Hall, who returns to acting after having directed last year’s superb Passing, doesn’t overtly try to make Margaret sympathetic. However, in spite of the character’s flaws, it’s hard to remain untouched as we watch her sob in exhaustion and terror after her bouts with David. Roth (star of one of my favorite releases this year, Sundown) makes David an unexpected mixture of seediness and cunning: he suggests a tenured professor at a small liberal arts college who they just can’t get rid of. Speaking plainly and firmly, he turns words into weapons. David claims that the endurance tests he put “Maggie” (as he calls her) through in her youth made her a warrior; if that’s true, he’s likely to be the object of her onslaught.

And it’s so nice that the pair get to speak in their British voices in the American setting. It separates them into a little psychodramatic bubble, churning in our midst.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, and Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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