The new psychological horror-thriller Resurrection burns slowly, with two elements guaranteed to hold my attention. One is Rebecca Hall, who has become one of the movies’ foremost chroniclers of a loosening grip on rationality, in large part because she projects such an unwavering intelligence. The other is the city of Albany, located 30 miles south of where I grew up, and rarely captured on film with such evocative clarity. (Usually, if it’s being captured at all, it’s to stand in for other cities.) Hall plays Margaret, a successful executive and single mother, whose Albany-based life is a feat of imposed order, reflected in the modernist/brutalist architecture of the city skyline. She’s a mentor at work at a doting, perhaps overprotective mother to her teenage daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman), who is close to leaving the nest for college. And when David (Tim Roth), a figure from her past, re-appears, she slowly begins to unravel.
David seems to know he would have this effect on her. At first, their encounters are barely that—Margaret thinks she glimpses him in the distance, or finds him on a public bench, seemingly minding his business. Is he a hallucination, even? He’s such a ghostly figure that it seems possible, though no one looks askance when the two appear in public together. Margaret may wish that she was merely talking to herself, but that’s not the case. Fearing for the safety of her child, she tightens her grip, and of course Abbie, and the rest of her world, resists this attempt at control. David won’t make a move to generate suspicion in the eyes of anyone else, but he also refuses to be denied.
I may have just described to you an eerie, unnerving horror movie of rare discipline and exactitude. If so, I apologize, because Resurrection is, for the most part, a well-shot crock of shit.
As a slow burn, it’s intriguing but ultimately low-key incompetent. Half a movie’s worth of creepy build-up gives way to a monologue from Hall that’s obviously supposed to be a bravura minimalist one-take set piece, where she unloads her character’s entire salient background as it pertains to her nightmarish relationship with David. There’s relief, at first, in the way the movie finally lays its cards on the table after so much intentional withholding—a clever reversal after creating the expectation that maybe writer-director Andrew Semans would keep everything close to the vest for the entire runtime, or at least until the final minutes. But though Hall gives this scene her best—if she can convincingly feign concern over a massive CG ape in Godzilla vs. Kong, of course she can kill it with a juicy monologue—it’s also the point where Resurrection no longer seems to trust her carefully calibrated performance. She can convey so much through her expression or her behavior, as she does in The Night House and countless other movies; giving her a baldly expositional ten-minute monologue doesn’t necessarily serve her character or performance. It serves the movie’s desire to shock and provoke.
It is provocative, I’ll give it that; this is a movie dying for its “F” CinemaScore badge of honor. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I’ll say that Margaret reveals the details of an abusive relationship she had with David when she was a young woman, capped by an off-screen (both in terms of the movie and her own eyes) act of pure evil, made especially insidious by Margaret being forced to rely on David’s account of the incident. His telling adds a layer of fantastical impossibility, and now that he’s returned to her orbit, the psychological gravity of his bizarre claims threatens to pull her back in.
The thing is, what David tells Margaret about their old life together sounds like incoherent (and, conceptually, rather abstract) ranting, delivered with am eerie (some might say minimally acted) calm by Roth. It’s a gambit doubtless designed to make Resurrection really go there. The movie is clearly trying to say something both about the controlling, irrational nature of abuse, and, perhaps secondarily, about the psychological horrors of a parent attempting to keep their child safe. Mainly, that… they really suck and can make you do bad stuff? That central monologue does both too much and too little; it explains everything so precisely and directly that it breaks the film’s mysterious spell, while also failing to make a convincing case for Margaret believing something that is not just highly unlikely, but literally impossible. Yes, yes, this is the insidious and seductive nature of abuse, illustrating how that power may never actually go away, and so on. But if this is metaphorical, it’s also tautological: Believing stuff your abusive partner says is as irrational and unwinnable and damaging as… believing stuff your abusive partner says.
A movie canny enough to simply rip off The Vanishing might have shifted the emphasis from the impossible to the unknown: David is in the position to promise Margaret access to something she desperately wants, if only she submits to him. Isn’t that more in the realm of abuse, the promise of something that could technically happen—that the abuser will provide some semblance of what the abused desperately wants—but in reality will not? Instead, David promises Margaret something absolutely insane, and she submits to him.
This could make a case for operating on a more abstract, dreamlike level if Resurrection was more visceral, or even just entertaining. On a purely practical level, this revelation sends the movie into a slog of repetition: Margaret faces David, spits venom at him, tries to strong-arm him into leaving her alone; he reacts with an unflappable, sanguine smugness; she bends to his will in some way or another; repeat, repeat, repeat. Add in some boilerplate scenes of Margaret trying and failing to exert control over her daughter, and Semans also sours a potent metaphor about parenting into programmatic plot points (while tacitly insisting that these are no mere plot points).
All of this simmering tedium does come to a head, in a scene that is, admittedly, a wild ride—though perhaps it seems more like one because the movie has heretofore self-consciously restrained itself beyond all reason. Resurrection ultimately feels like it was reverse-engineered to reach this big confrontation between Margaret and David, and look, the sequence has its moments; there is one in particular, involving the appearance of a knife, that made me laugh in delight, a momentary heedlessness taking over all the preciously arranged writer’s conceits. Then—and again, trying to avoid spoilers on a movie I by this point despised—there’s a “crazy” turn as predictable as any writing workshop short story, chased with an equally predictable note of ambiguity in the denouement. These aren’t moments of impossible-yet-inevitable clarity that dot good literary fiction; they’re the only moves Semans can really make, because the movie’s nightmare logic is narrower than it looks. Mostly, it looks a lot like an “elevated” horror movie greenlit in the wake of Hereditary. Even the distinctive Albany Look gradually recedes from view.
At best, Resurrection is a geek show. At worst, it’s a game of three-card monte that’s all shuffling and no meaningful catharsis. It’s one thing to rig a card game; it’s quite another for the dealer attempt to convince you it’s actually been an interpretive dance.