Writer-director Andrew Semans’ deeply strange and truly traumatizing “Resurrection” has a lot in common with a typical stalker thriller. Rebecca Hall, no stranger to the sub-genre after “The Gift” (and, in a roundabout way, “The Night House”), plays a successful executive at a pharmaceutical company, a single mother to a teenaged daughter, whose reality unravels when an abusive ex-husband (played by Tim Roth) unexpectedly re-enters her life.
There’s nothing that isn’t scary about that scenario, narratively familiar as it might be, and for a good, long portion of “Resurrection,” that’s all we need to know. Hall is a masterful performer, one of the best at conveying complex psychological trauma, and watching her confident persona crack at the mere sight of Roth at a conference, or 50 meters away at a department store, is an upsetting sight. We don’t need to know details of her pain. We trust her pain.
But when the time comes for Semans’ thriller to lay all its cards out on the table, and to reveal exactly what happened in our protagonist’s past that has reduced her to a walking panic attack, something altogether new happens. In a single-shot monologue, Hall reveals a torrent of decades-old trauma, at first disturbingly plausible, then uncomfortably strange. Until finally, hidden in the middle of a creepy future audition piece, comes a revelation so ugly and absurd that, were a critic to reveal it right now, you’d assume “Resurrection” was playing a joke on us.
The central conceit of “Resurrection” is so bafflingly weird that, when performers like Hall and Roth take it seriously, the audience starts losing its bearings just as badly as the characters. Semans may have simply written himself into a corner. Hall’s character, Margaret, needs a backstory so horrifying that the audience understands and forgives her for not sharing her history with her teenage daughter, Abbie (Grace Kaufman, “Man with a Plan”), no matter how much Abbie begs for Margaret to explain her increasingly terrifying, erratic behavior.
And maybe, just maybe, Semans overshot the mark just a little, concocting a scenario so weird and grotesque that it burrows into our minds. Or maybe the whole point is to prove, by infusing an abusive relationship with a delusion that cannot possibly be literal, just how powerful psychological manipulation can be. If a person as fiercely reasonable and rational as Margaret can, over the course of multiple sleepless nights, fraught and threatening conversations, and regression into unhealthy power manipulations, lose sight of reality, well — surely anyone can.
“Resurrection” pushes about as far as it can possibly go, and the incredibly game cast supplies much of the pressure. As Margaret, Hall is a tower of strength built on a foundation of vulnerability, while Roth gives us a terror of a human being who’s also possibly frail enough to believe his own twisted lies. Kaufman’s Abbie, who knows nothing of her mother’s plight, becomes a victim of a different kind of emotional trauma and fights back as best she possibly can. It’s a five-alarm fire of an ensemble, scorching their way through every scene.
Keeping us grounded in some form of reality are the stark cinematography of Wyatt Garfield (“Nine Days”) and the orchestral editing of Ron Dulin (“Model”), who seamlessly modulate between clearly defined reality and surreality so gracefully that it’s exceptionally difficult to tell where one segues into the next, or if indeed they ever have. It takes a nimble execution to make the plot of “Resurrection” seem horrifyingly plausible instead of eccentrically camp, and everyone seems to have been on the same page behind the scenes.
It’s so easy to watch a film that takes monumentally big swings like “Resurrection” and give into the urge to reject it. But on its own terms, in a story where sanity is fluid and delusions seem indistinguishable from emotional truth, its power to shock is very real and very valid.
It’s the sort of horror movie where a simple conversation can have you begging, in the back of your mind, for the scene to stop moving forward. Where the tiniest possibility that what we’re seeing is real is enough to put you off your lunch. But by the time you think to scream “Don’t go in there,” the film has already made a home in your discomfort, and started poking you with a knife.
“Resurrection” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.