Heightening is a fundamental part of storytelling. Stories exist to help us understand our lives, but none of us want to see the real boredom and hardships of life play out on screen. So we exaggerate, condense, and create strange metaphors to get across the truth of life if not the reality.
Pretty much every filmmaker will own this, even if they stay within the conventional rules that approximate reality. Others wildly throw all semblance of believability out the window, and when you encounter them you must simply go with the madness, which is what writer/director Andrew Semans asks of the audience with Resurrection.
The strangeness hits early if you’re dialed into the initial conversation between Rebecca Hall’s Margaret and Tim Roth’s David. David says some bizarre things which remain unexplained until a bravura monologue by Hall halfway through the film lays their history bare. If there’s a single reason to see Resurrection it’s these six and a half minutes, which pit a black screen and Hall’s face against everything you know about the world (or, given the film’s central metaphor, everything you wish to believe about the world). That you go with it is a testament to Hall’s ability as an actor, which has been proven time and again in films like Christine, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, and The Night House to little fanfare. To say she’s among the best actors working today is simply a statement of fact, and this handful of disturbing, wrenching minutes is just a sliver of the greatness she’s given us.
But it’s important to pause on these moments not just because of her skill at selling the emotional core of the absurdity but because the rest of the film fails to pull off the same trick. She’s saddled with what is essentially exposition, recounting her memories as a vulnerable, naive young adult who falls prey to an abusive older man. It is, sadly, a tale as old as time, and it’s one that’s been spun again and again into something benign or with vague fault, which allows these dynamics to not just endure in society but to thrive.
Pretty much all types of abuse falls prey to targeted attacks through storytelling, so much so that their messaging has seeped deep into the cultural and personal thoughts we have when we encounter it for real. That’s why, as tiring as it is, it’s important to hash out precisely what stories of abuse are saying and what narrative they’re feeding into, because all too often, consciously or unconsciously, they feed the beast.
Where many trip up is the question of heightening. What should one do with a horrifying story that, if the reality is told, people have been trained to sweep it under the rug? Earlier this year Watcher tried to take a realistic approach to stalking and received muted praise and under $2 million at the box office. Men went absolutely wild with its vision of systemic abuse and received lesser praise but a much healthier box office return (the A24 effect can’t be ignored). In 2021 The Last Duel created a damning message about the ramifications of distorted messaging on rape using a triptych and came nowhere near earning back its massive budget. And to go way back to 1999, star of Resurrection Tim Roth’s lone directorial credit was The War Zone, an unblinking look at familial abuse that my colleague Richard Propes wrote is “the best film ever created on the subject of sexual abuse/family violence” (he gets no argument from me).
However, no one saw The War Zone, and while I’m usually reticent to discuss box office/viewer numbers, it’s relevant here because there’s a great need to change the cultural narrative about abuse. For films to make an impact they need to be seen, and the most financially successful of the bunch I’ve listed is the most heightened, Men. Maybe people want the distance of a very heightened, metaphorical approach when exploring something as upsetting as abuse? They clearly didn’t want to look it straight in the eye like The War Zone did, and The Last Duel’s punishing approach of depicting the central rape multiple times scared people off. Then there’s Watcher, a movie whose performance is hard to read as either a success or failure but whose muted praise included an awful lot of the word “chilly” (critics finding a woman’s fear of stalking a bit emotionally removed deserves its own essay).
So maybe you won’t get as many people to see your movie about abuse if you don’t distance yourself a bit from the topic, and the absurd layer that is applied in Resurrection certainly distances you from the topic at hand. But the further you distance the more precise your metaphor must be, otherwise you leave yourself open to losing the point entirely or making it too open to interpretation by the culture’s toxic lens. Men, I would say, falls into the latter category. Resurrection, outside of those few minutes you spend under the steady gaze of Rebecca Hall, gets lost.
There’s aspects that land. Roth is perfectly cast as a man with an unplaceable threat and the moments between him and Hall that are more anchored in reality get across the damage of their dynamic. The attention given to Margaret’s daughter, who is approaching the age Margaret was when she first met David, is given more attention than expected (and is aided by a fantastic performance from Grace Kaufman). But all the attempts to say anything about abuse gets filtered through the story’s unreal elements, and they reflect back only the most basic ideas on the topic before completely losing the thread. The ending feels more like an attempt to shock than to say much, which, whether you chose to heighten the story or not, is what ultimately determines whether they have value.
Stories of abuse should never be used for simple entertainment. A heightened take may attract more viewers, but if they don’t walk away with a clear message that overrides the toxic things they’ve been told then the story is of no use. And if they walk away more concerned about sussing out the who, what, where, and when of your story than the why, as people are apt to do with Resurrection, then you may have made something too concerned with entertainment than its message.
Release: available now on VOD
Director: Andrew Semans
Writers: Andrew Semans
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Tim Roth, Grace Kaufman, Michael Esper, Angela Wong Carbone