Prevenge (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, March 2017

ReviewPrevenge begins and ends, literally, on a cliff’s edge. This is also the primal scene, where Matt was killed in a climbing incident on the very same day that his wife Ruth (played by the film’s writer/director Alice Lowe) discovered she was pregnant. Now in her third trimester, Ruth is tracking down and killing one by one those whom she holds responsible for her husband’s death, spurred on to these acts of murder by the vindictive voice of her unborn child.

This is Lowe’s feature debut, but the comedienne’s previous screenplay (written with her co-star Steve Oram) for Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers (2012) also exposed a psychotic serial-killing double act to hilarious banality, and also ended on a precipice – but this time around the buddy comedy is entirely internalised, with a well-spoken (if occasionally foul-mouthed) foetus standing in for Oram’s fellow-traveller Chris. Ruth comes with her own edge as a character, not just because she is a heavily gravid slasher (and Lowe was herself going through all-too-real pregnancy throughout production), but also because she is an improbable amalgam, subject not only to the control of the embryo within, but also to the disparate influences of Mia Farrow’s prepartum anxieties in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), of Uma Thurman’s vengeful hit list in the Kill Bill diptych (2003-4), and of Ryan Reynold’s schizophrenic dialectics in The Voices (2014). Meanwhile Ruth takes more immediate inspiration from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s Crime Without Passion (1934), which is seen playing on the television in her hotel room, and which also features alter egos and insanity.

Further edge comes from Ruth’s eroding moral high ground. Her first two victims are odious, sexually predatory men (played respectively by Dan Renton Skinner and Tom Davis), so that their deaths are figured as rebellious acts of emasculation (literally so, in one case) perpetrated by a vulnerable (albeit manipulative and murderous) woman against the prevailing patriarchy. Yet soon Ruth is killing women (Kate Dickie, Gemma Whelan) too, as well as an innocent bystander (Mike Wozniak) who she herself admits is “really kind”. Her biggest ethical conundrum comes when she faces a man who is himself (as her own husband was) married to a pregnant woman (“I can’t put her in the same position,” Ruth says of the man’s wife). Similarly, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Matt’s death was not, as Ruth insists, a deliberate act of collective murder, but rather a horrific accident – and that Ruth’s relationship with Matt, though romanticised by her, may have been as rocky as the landscape that killed him.

While all this shifting ground plays havoc with our sympathies (replicating the emotional turmoil within Ruth herself), Prevenge pivots its tensions around different kinds of ‘cut’: the shearing of Matt’s rope by his climbing companions, the severing of jobs by Dickie’s ‘cutthroat’ executive Ella, the slashing of Ruth’s blades, and finally the need for Lowe to call ‘Cut!’ on-set before she actually gave birth. “When it’s life and death. we have to make that cut,” Ruth is told by her midwife (Jo Hartley) – and those words resonate in complicated ways through a film whose conflicting, transformative gestations are never less than razor sharp.

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Synopsis: Ruth’s husband Matt was killed in a cliff-climbing accident the same day that she learnt she was carrying their child. Now heavily pregnant, Ruth is instructed by the voice of her unborn daughter to murder Matt’s climbing companions whom she blames for his death. First she kills innuendo-spouting Mr Zabeh in his exotic pet store. Then, after seducing DJ Dan and castrating him in his home, she helps his demented mother with the washing. Ruth tries to confide in her midwife, but the midwife regards conflict and confusion as a normal part of pregnancy. Pretending to be a job applicant, Ruth cuts executive Ella’s throat in her office. Ruth visits climbing instructor Tom in his crowded workplace, and menaces him. She then goes to Zac’s shared apartment, where his flatmate Josh (thinking she is applying for the spare room) treats her kindly – but when Zac arrives, Ruth kills them both. Ruth visits Len in her home, and stabs her. At Tom’s Hallowe’en party, Ruth sees Tom’s own wife is pregnant, and hesitates. Tom reveals that Matt was thinking of leaving Ruth. Ruth is rushed to hospital, and has an emergency Caesarean. Rushing to the cliffside, Ruth raises her knife to a stranger who resembles Matt.

© Anton Bitel