In Charlotte Colbert’s moody “She Will,” fallen movie idol Veronica Ghent (a riveting Alice Krige) struggles with the many masks — figurative and literal — she’s had to put on over the years. The latest is “about preservation,” icy Veronica explains in the film’s opening moments: A recent double mastectomy is the latest twist that has robbed her of yet another piece of her identity. As Colbert’s mystical first feature unfolds, Veronica is surprised by the new identities she can tap into, even if they prove less shocking to the film’s audience.
Intent on healing somewhere without prying eyes, Veronica alights for a solitary retreat in the middle of Scotland with only a young nurse in tow. Desi (Kota Eberhardt) isn’t at all impressed by her employer’s pedigree; she just wants to ensure her new charge takes care of herself, a much bigger ask than she could have possibly anticipated. (Veronica is all sneers, telling Desi she only needs her for “bandages and the occasional bath.”) Soon, these two very different women will be bound by what they find in in Scotland, its history, and their own prodigious pain.
Colbert’s feature debut is striking enough to have already amassed some major fans, chief among them executive producer Dario Argento. It’s no wonder: Colbert is a master of building striking compositions and icky tension, aided by stellar casting. And yet for all the twists and turns and questions and complications of “She Will,” there’s something oddly undone — too many answers avoided, too many possibilities unanswered, all topped with a too-neat ending that deviates wildly from the film’s tone.
When Veronica and Desi arrive at their retreat, they’re shocked to find it filled with a motley crew of other crunchy types (many of whom are delighted to recognize Veronica, to her dismay). While Veronica is hard to love, there’s empathy in the distress she experiences as total strangers gleefully descend on her during one of the worst times of her life. As Colbert moves between Veronica’s present and her fraught past, it will become clear just how often Veronica has had to deal with such invasions, and the toll they’ve taken on her.
Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC
Veronica’s ill health is a lot to explore (to say nothing of the surgery, which makes the vain Veronica feel like a stranger in her body), but Colbert also works in plots about Veronica’s earlier life. Veronica’s body, her sense of self, her fame, her talent, all of it has been tread on by others, including one key man. In fussy style, from flashbacks to news footage, we learn what else haunts Veronica: Her most iconic role is being recast, with alleged-genius director Eric Hathbourne (an underutilized but well-cast Malcolm McDowell) readying to make a sequel to his beloved “Navajo Frontier,” which originally starred a young Veronica (Layla Burns).
Veronica is pissed off and freaked out, and who could blame her? How convenient then that she’s landed in a place populated by the ghosts of many, many other pissed-off and freaked-out women. The Scottish highlands have a rich and wild history, the sort of place where so many young witches were burnt at the stake that the very soil is infused with their ashes. There’s something in the dirt, something in the water, and visions aplenty that connect Veronica to them. Perhaps she can harness all that raw power into something useful?
Unimportant are the mechanics of how Veronica turns her rage and the aura that hangs over the place into action (she’s eventually able to travel out of her body, not a spoiler for a film so dense that it would be difficult to reveal all its many mysteries in twice as many words), but it speaks to the film’s undercooked elements. Is any of this really happening? Did Veronica just happen to choose this place? What does Desi know? Are they alone in these newly witchy pursuits? Those questions (and many more) hang over the film’s second half, prickly enough to detract from its otherwise artful tension.
For all the film’s darkness, Colbert displays a real knack for comedy — Veronica’s introduction to the rest of the retreat-goers teeters between hilarious and grim — but it’s often at odds with the rest of the film, which is rife with characters (from Rupert Everett’s retreat leader Tirador to Amy Manson’s property manager Lois) who feel pulled from an entirely different outing. That wackiness is out of place, just as grating as Colbert’s repeated use of animal symbolism (birds flying in weird formations!) and a bent toward throwing in unnecessary visions, flashbacks, and dreams to tell this very immediate story.
Krige is magical enough in a complex role (and relative newcomer Eberhardt makes for a wonderful foil), but she can only pull the film along through sheer force of will for so long. At a certain point, someone needs to let go, let providence take over, tap into all that rage, fly free — but by the end of “She Will,” it’s not a question of if she (if anyone) will do something crazy, but why it never feels like enough.
IFC Midnight will open “She Will” in theaters and on demand on Friday, July 15, followed by a Shudder streaming launch on Friday, October 14.