A pivotal scene in the recently wrapped third season of HBO’s black comedy Barry (2018-) centers on a revealing and devastating character beat for eager, slightly self-deluded LA actress Sally Reed, marvelously portrayed by Sarah Goldberg. In a moment of crisis, the mask of goofball sweetness that has (mostly) remained firmly affixed to Sally’s boyfriend, assassin turned actor Barry (Bill Hader), finally comes fully unglued. He backs Sally against a wall, screaming horrific insults and threats literal inches from her face, while her co-workers look on in stunned silence. At this point, Sally had spent two seasons coming to grips with her past as domestic-abuse survivor, eventually repurposing her fraught history as raw material for a prestige television show. And yet, suddenly nose-to-nose with another abusive partner, Sally just … crumbles. This ambitious and self-assured woman retreats into cringing, eager-to-please deference. Later, she makes Barry a spaghetti dinner and cracks open a cold beer for him, as if she is the one who needs to apologize. The sheer, predictable banality of it all shames Sally fiercely, and yet she feels powerless to escape this clichéd victim's reflex.
The bruise-dark history that haunts Resurrection's Margaret (Rebecca Hall) is more convoluted, and much more psychologically twisted. However, when the past that she outran long ago improbably slithers back into her life, she is overcome with the same icy, marrow-deep instinct to roll over and present her proverbial throat. Margaret’s shame is, if anything, more piercing, given that she has spent more than two decades forging herself into the steel-plated antithesis of a victim. A high-profile executive at a biotech company, Margaret is known as a cool professional and supportive straight talker, offering clear-eyed, Reddit-worthy advice to a guileless intern with a loutish boyfriend. She is also a proud single mom, raising her 18-year-old daughter, Abbie (Grace Kaufman), to be a confident, independent woman (and being only somewhat overbearing about it). Margaret might not describe herself as a Good Person – she is, after all, screwing her married co-worker Peter (Michael Esper) – but right and wrong don’t hold much meaning for her anymore. There is only strength and weakness, and she’ll be damned if she’s going to succumb to the latter.
Of course, the past isn’t ever past. While idly scanning the audience at a conference, Margaret spies a familiar-looking man. The mere sight of this short, scruffy, professorial fellow is all it takes to send her spiraling into an animal panic. Hyperventilating and drenched in sweat, she bolts down the aisle, out the door, and all the way home at a full sprint. Distressingly, this man continues to materialize at the periphery of Margaret’s daily life, appearing next at a clothing store and later at a public park. When she eventually approaches and confronts him, the terrible truth is confirmed: David (Tim Roth) has found her. It requires a few more scenes before writer-director Andrew Semans’ fantastically unnerving psychological thriller fully fleshes out the history between these two. Initially, David’s smarmy declarations are cryptic – “Ben is with me, right now, here,” he taunts, while patting his own abdomen – but the malevolence of his intent is clear. To her horror and ours, Margaret is irresistibly drawn back into David’s power, her long-dead Pavlovian conditioning crawling forth from its grave like some undead abomination.
Semans is not working in an allegorical mode here: Margaret’s terrifying predicament is grounded in the grim reality that countless stalking victims and abuse survivors endure every day. The police are worse than useless, of course – David hasn’t actually done anything, an officer notes condescendingly – obliging Margaret to take extreme measures to defend herself and her increasingly distressed daughter. Plans are canceled, locks are changed, and a well-oiled revolver is dug out of its hiding place in the back of a closet. Granted, the dynamic between Margaret and David is uniquely perverse, centered as it is on a morsel of private mythology so deranged it seems plucked from a David Lynch or Andrzej Żuławski soap opera. However, Margaret’s raw-nerved, cold-sweat anxiety is sickeningly real, as is the self-loathing that swells in her gut each time she concedes to one of David’s sadistic endurance tests (which he calls “kindnesses”). The fact that she believes in a deep, Jesus-saves way in her own despicable culpability only makes her coerced “consent” all the more horrifying.
Inevitably, some viewers will shake their heads in disbelief as Margaret veers erratically between defiance and surrender, undoing two decades of post-traumatic recovery by submitting to David’s elaborate tests with only a whimper of resistance. It makes no sense, and that lack of sense prompts one to withdraw one’s sympathy, if only unconsciously. This incredulity is the monster that crouches in the hellish half-light of Resurrection. Although substantively a psychological thriller, Semans’ film also functions as a horror film about the slippery illogic of abuse, about the vast, benighted gulf between supposed common sense and messy, ugly reality. Our blithe assumptions direct our gaze and our compassion: Abused women look a certain way, act a certain way, and come from a certain background. (And when they don’t, pity turns to contempt.) The gangrene of victim-blaming skepticism takes root in the fissures between rational thought and irrational action. Why didn’t she leave? Why didn’t she fight back? And why in God’s name did she go back to him again and again? The way people respond to abuse has its own mad coherence, however, a roiling synaptic storm of monkey-brain instinct, sinister conditioning, and unruly emotion. It is as vast and terrible as any Lovecraftian elder god, and it will not be denied.
That Resurrection is capable of gracefully evoking such themes within the confines of a lean-and-mean horror-thriller – without ever needing to state them outright – is one key reason it succeeds as such a terrifically tense work of cinema. Equally essential is the lead actors’ well-honed ability to maintain emotional realism while simultaneously committing enthusiastically to the story’s paranoid thrills and repulsive melodrama. Now well into her art-horror revival period, the multi-hyphenate Hall delivers a characteristically mesmerizing performance, imbuing Margaret’s most ludicrous actions with the acute agony of self-aware compulsion. Roth, meanwhile, twists his sad-sack, stubbly countenance into the stuff of nightmares, all dry predatory grins and Mephistophelean manipulation. One can see the infernal cogs of his scheme clicking, and this somehow makes his evil seem even darker. Together, Hall and Roth turn Resurrection into a positively venomous two-hander, a duel of wills that seems destined to end in blood, one way or another.
That said, the gut-twisting psychological swerves of Semans’ feature are almost overshadowed by the story’s fundamental bleakness. Viewers expecting a conventional, liberating catharsis after all the nerve-wracking cat-and-mouse will be sorely disappointed (if not outright sickened). Concluding in a torrent of New French Extremity-style gore topped by a dollop of surreal body horror, Resurrection leaves the viewer with more questions than answers, and virtually nothing in the way of reassurance. The best that the film can offer is ghoulishly ironic tragedy, in which the unintended consequences of a control freak’s mind games emerge from the shadows and sink their fangs deep into his jugular.
Resurrection opens in select local theaters and will be available to rent from major online platforms on July 29.