Fiendishly splitting the difference between the kind of low-rent parental vigilante movies that will always live on basic cable, and the kind of high-brow polymorphic freakouts that all but died with Andrzej Żuławski, Andrew Semans’ aptly named “Resurrection” may never quite reach “Possession” levels of psychic collapse (what does?), but it sure gets a hell of a lot closer than the broad familiarity of its setup might lead you to expect. In fact, the first act of this impressively deranged Sundance premiere almost seems to lure you into a false sense of security on purpose.
There have been any number of basic psychological thrillers about strong women who get dismissed as “hysterical” and/or gaslit into self-doubt when they report an urgent threat of some kind, and “Resurrection” is happy to disguise itself as the latest thing off the assembly line. Even when Semans’ original script is punctured by occasional stabs of sickening horror — its control-obsessed heroine so unmoored by the sudden reappearance of a strange man from her past that she sees a baby-shaped chicken carcass screaming in the oven of her Albany condo — the film’s basic plot and deceptively bland aesthetic still make it feel like the kind of thing that Ashley Judd or Halle Berry might have made a couple of decades ago.
Then again, some of the other red flags that bleed into view during those first 20 minutes make it harder for us to lower our guard. The most obvious of them all is the fact that Margaret is played by Rebecca Hall, a severe talent whose affinity for acting in genuinely twisted shit (“Christine,” “The Night House,” “A Rainy Day in New York”) was on full display in the years leading up to her far more austere and prestigious directorial debut (“Passing”). If Hall’s presence doesn’t have you on high alert, the idea that Tim Roth agreed to play Margaret’s stalker definitely should. The British vet has taken the occasional paycheck gig over the course of his long career, but his signature blend of primitive-brilliant menace has been in such great demand that it would be out of character for him to play some off-the-rack Bad Man in an indie thriller made by someone with just a few credits to their name. Great actors simply don’t spend their summer in Albany without a good reason, but it only takes Roth a single reaction shot in his first proper scene — a split-second flash of a sadistic grin — to know for certain that “Resurrection” gave him a great one.
If the details of Margaret and David’s shared past are best left unspoiled, that’s not because you wouldn’t believe how fucked up they are, but rather because you would. While “Resurrection” eventually offers its fair share of amateur surgery, the movie first gets under the skin because its jaw-dropping backstory is just plausible enough to belong to you or someone you love or even the badass single mom who works in your office, runs like Tom Cruise, rocks a form-fitting power suit during her corporate biology presentations, and blithely summons a married underling to her apartment for sex whenever she needs to feel like she has control over someone.
The film lays all its cards on the table over the course of a monologue at the end of the first act, as Hall — so magnetic in an unbroken eight-minute close-up that you hardly notice the darkness creeping around her shoulders and subsuming her body into shadow — unloads Margaret’s deepest secrets on an unsuspecting intern, who buttons the scene with the funniest line of a thriller that otherwise settles for nervous laughter. It’s a flex that lets us know we’re not in Kansas, anymore; that makes it clear once and for all this won’t be the kind of movie that rolls credits over a crane shot of David’s body lying on the ground while Margaret hugs her teenage daughter (Grace Kaufman) and the cops apologize for not taking her seriously. On the contrary, it’s the kind of movie that composer Jim Williams decided to score as soon as he finished work on “Titane.”
At the risk of overstating the extent to which “Resurrection” transcends the guilty pleasures of a typical thriller — or suggesting that its subdued direction is really a galaxy brain meta-commentary on the limits of control — Semans’ film stands out for how purposefully it seems to walk the line between schlocky crap and serious cinema. A more rigid or hyper-stylized movie would have worked against Margaret’s powerlessness, while a sloppier one would have distracted from the desperation of her grip. In art, as in our own minds, there is only so much that is in our ability to determine; in “Resurrection,” the need for absolute control is nothing short of a death trap.
As a woman who was once groomed by the “kindnesses” of an older man and has since spent the entirety of her adult life fighting to reassert the agency she surrendered as a teenager, Margaret would love to exert a Kubrickian authority over every detail of her life. Her daughter’s father isn’t in the picture, and I assume that’s because Margaret didn’t want to dilute the purity of her own influence as a parent. Hall’s performance, ironically hyper-precise, suggests a kind of female Patrick Bateman you can believe in; her ruthlessness and eccentricities (no swearing!) never detract from the sincerity of her love for Abbie, or the all-too-relatable sense that she’s always just a stiff breeze away from coming undone.
If having a kid is itself a tricky proposition for someone with an understandably pathological need for everything to be in its right place, the prospect of Abbie leaving home and going off to college where anything might happen to her is enough to push Margaret to the brink, especially as she was the same age when her own parents failed to protect her. The deviousness with which “Resurrection” uses that dynamic against Margaret — forcing her to surrender the soundness of her logic to the irrationality of her emotions — is so palpable that it carries Semans’ film through the dead air of its second act, and eventually pays off a slender plot that might have benefited from a bit more red meat on its bones.
The way that David baits her back under his thumb doesn’t make a lick of material sense, and yet Margaret is powerless to resist. That sets the tone for a film that constantly threatens to kill her with kindness. It’s Margaret’s obsession with keeping Abbie safe that puts the girl in danger; it’s her fear of the world that makes it so frightening; it’s her need to project strength that allows a 60-year-old ponce to make her into his plaything. None of this is her fault, and yet all of it will have to be confronted in order for Margaret to regain any measure of control, a tug-of-war that allows “Resurrection” to be a heady psychodrama one minute and a shout-at-the-screen romp the next on its way to an ending that hits both notes at the same time. It would have been an absolute mess in lesser hands, and even as it stands I suspect that plenty of people will laugh their heads off at some of Semans’ bigger swings, but after watching so many movies mine a woman’s trauma for cheap thrills — often using mental anguish as an excuse for empty jolts from things that aren’t there — it’s satisfying to see one so eager to move beyond that. By the time “Resurrection” arrives at its inevitably ambiguous final shot, the absolute reality of Margaret’s trauma will no longer be denied.
“Resurrection” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.