“A sadist never understands why others aren’t enjoying his sadism as much as he is,” says Margaret (Rebecca Hall) in the opening scene of Andrew Semans’ Resurrection.
Margaret is talking to an intern whom she is mentoring for a biotech company. Naïve, inexperienced Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone) has reached out to Margaret about a boyfriend who casually demeans her, and Margaret, assured and confident, gives impeccable advice and pastoral care to the young woman under her wing. Protective and maternal, Margaret is indeed herself a single mother, and deftly juggles her high-end job, her home life, and an affair with married colleague Peter (Michael Esper) – where Margaret is both metaphorically and literally on top. Yet much as she notices a water ring left by a glass on the otherwise immaculate surface of her office desk, Margaret’s own apparently perfect life is about to reveal a stain – and one that is not so easily brushed away.
Margaret knows of what she speaks in her conversation with Gwyn. For 22 years earlier, when she was just 18, Margaret too was trapped in a toxic relationship, with an older, abusive man – and now, shortly after hearing about Gwyn’s vaguely similar situation, and as her own daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) is herself turning 18 and starting to dip her toes into a world of adulthood and independence away from home, Margaret’s former partner David (Tim Roth) suddenly resurfaces, whether by coincidence or conjuration, sending the normally tough, centred Margaret into a spiral of anxiety and panic.
Margaret may have fled David decades ago, changing her surname and her country to ensure that he never find her, but now that he has finally caught up with her, it is as though no time has passed at all. For the sociopathic sadist is immediately back to his old tricks: lying, manipulating and cajoling, all in the service of his sinister ends to control and humiliate. And Margaret, who has lost a child before, is terrified that the same thing is going to happen again with Abbie – even if holding on to her daughter too tightly might be precisely what drives her away
“Because someone is – behaving erratically,” Margaret tells Abbie, as she tries to explain why she no longer wants her daughter to go out of their apartment or to talk to strangers. Margaret vaguely references a disgruntled male acquaintance – yet plainly it is her own behaviour which is erratic, as she has wild mood swings, makes bizarre claims, becomes suffocatingly overprotective of Abbie, spends long hours absent without leave, experiences vividly hallucinatory nightmares, keeps making arbitrary threats, stops going to work altogether, and has taken the pistol out from the safe where it has long been hidden.
Resurrection is a film about the persistence and recurrence of trauma. David was a grand master at insinuating himself into the younger Margaret’s affections and undermining her sense of what was real – and even now, though she is much older, wiser and stronger, Margaret still clings to David’s cruellest, most impossible lie as her only hope for recovering from the grief and guilt of the past, and for rebuilding her fragile sense of motherhood. While reflected in Gwyn’s story and retold in different fragments, Margaret’s primal scene – the source of her trauma – has certain gaps in it which can be filled only with the imagination, even as their content seems truly, horrifyingly unimaginable. The return of David is an equally ambiguous affair – maybe actuality, maybe fantasy – unreliably focalised through an increasingly unhinged Margaret, so that the viewer is made to feel as gaslit and unmoored from reality as this addled heroine.
In this respect, Semans’ psychodrama joins the ranks of a run of recent titles – Frida Kempff’s Knocking (2021), Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021), Alex Garland’s Men (2022) and of course David Bruckner’s The Night House (2020), which also starred Hall. For all these films show women struggling to process their own trauma – a trauma dramatised in the idioms of a paranoid mystery thriller, and given a “happy ending” (like the one promised by Margaret to Gwyn) which may be merely the sort of dreamy wish fulfilment that cinema is so good at delivering. Meanwhile a grubbier, more disturbing reality leaves its stains and scars on the film’s otherwise slick, clean surfaces.
Margaret’s tense dialogues with the sneering, menacing David are also internal monologues (like the ones she regularly addresses to the mirror), as she must confront the burden of an unresolved history that is carried inside, gestating unhealthily beyond its term. She longs to clean house – to erase David once and for all from her life and her memory – but at the same time she worries that doing so might involve throwing out the baby with the bath water. As past anguish, a lost childhood and a buried life are harrowingly resurrected (at least in the mind), Margaret must learn to kill with kindness (‘kindness’ being a word whose meaning is forever grotesquely reconfigured by Resurrection). Both Hall and Roth are electric as a couple inextricably bound together in extended mutual suffering – and their characters’ journey through torments both physical and psychological (indeed, psychosomatic, with the film’s late swerve towards body horror) confounds genre, confuses gender and internalises sadism, with this mother’s only way out as tragic as it is triumphant.
strap: Andrew Semans’ psychological thriller couples triggering and trauma, maternity and madness, gaslighting and grotesquerie
© Anton Bitel
RESURRECTION will be available to Rent and Own on Digital from November