- Brandon Streussnig
Crisis Actor: Rebecca Hall and RESURRECTION
“It’s about trauma."
This is the reductive sentiment we’ve heard bandied about quite a bit in a post-A24, “elevated horror” landscape. Of course, most horror heads know their gory diversions have always been about something. Romero’s zombies became walking societal ills. Craven’s Nightmare pictures shredded our subconscious. Hooper chainsawed through Nixon's (and then Reagan’s) America like butter. Monsters have consistently doubled for the abstractions we’re too afraid to confront; the metaphors seemingly always having been there. But lately, the lurch of subtext-as-text horror cinema has undoubtedly overwhelmed our screens, to the point that one finds themselves asking “I get it, now can you scare me, too?”
In his Guardian review of Alex Garland’s Men (2022), writer Charles Bramesco coined the term “metaphorror” as a glib shorthand for this trend. It’s a brand of neo scary movie we’re all familiar with even if we don’t necessarily agree that “elevated horror” is an actual genre. Everything from the aforementioned Men and its blunt force messaging on, well, men or Halloween Kills (2021) embarrassingly trying to graft the '20 Black Lives Matter protests onto a Michael Myers movie, the film often stops dead to tell rather than show. None of this is to say that subtlety is a requirement, nor is it to say that it’s the messaging that’s the problem. Far from it. Some ideas deserve to be screamed at the top of our lungs. Yet too often a TED Talk replaces the scares.
Enter Andrew Semans’ Resurrection (2022) and, perhaps most importantly, Rebecca Hall. At first glance Resurrection is another one of the above. Margaret (Hall) is living an ideal life as a single mother. She’s wealthy, her high end corporate job providing a comfortable living for her and her daughter, Abbie (Grace Kaufman). She’s in the best shape of her life, jogging like a speed demon when not at work. And, in a fun bit of gender-bending, she pulls any guy she wants, married or otherwise, without a second thought. Margaret is, on the surface, a guy’s definition of the horrendously dated “girlboss”. She’s fit, confident, sexy and unbothered by the expectations of a male dominated society.
Of course, that all goes to hell the minute a familiar sinister face begins filling the margins of her peaceful existence. As she gives presentations at work or runs through the park, Tim Roth’s distinctive mug keeps catching her eye. She tries to ignore it, but you can’t simply glide past a face like that. Who is he? Why is he here? Why on earth is he smiling like that? Those questions race through your mind as Margaret tries her damndest to stay on track. Look at her, not at him. If you look, she looks and if she looks? No, that’s too much to bear. Revealing their shared history spoils the "fun" of Semans' film, but really, it’s almost impossible to do so. See, the thing about Resurrection is that it doesn’t matter why he’s around every corner. Not really. What matters is that Margaret’s idyllic, autonomous tapestry is about to be unwoven, thread by thread, transforming her eggshell psyche to powder.
As her stalker begins to gaslight her, Margaret’s mind shatters, and all you can think is “well, of course she’s going to overcome him.” The terror of his presence will eventually erode into a long spiel about the evil that men do and we’ll reach our bloody finale. That’s what would happen in the staid, tidy world these kinds of films usually operate in. Thankfully, experiencing Resurrection is like living through a psychotic break. It’s as if Andrzej Żuławski binged Ashley Judd’s 90s catalog and suffered severe head trauma before making Possession (1981). Refreshingly, rather than explain what grief and trauma are, Semans has the novel idea of using the medium to show you.
Abstractions are labeled as such because we can’t really describe them, at least not in a one-size fits all definition. Forcing you to exist inside Margaret’s fractured nightmare, Resurrection vaults past digestible into an abstraction of its own. Trauma is debilitating and your actions are inexplicable. The more erratic she becomes in the name of “protecting” her daughter, the more dangerous the situation is. Unable to speak on who or what this man is, Margaret insists that Grace trusts her, but when her mother is tearing through the house speaking in fragments, how could she? Many films paint in clear, well-defined brushstrokes. It’s a lot of sobbing, maybe some screaming, definitely some wailing, but don’t worry, everyone will make out just fine by the credits. That Semans doesn’t do this isn’t the film's most audacious decision. It’s in allowing Margaret to be wholly unlikable, diving headfirst into unhinged hysteria that sets Resurrection apart from it's so-called "elevated" brethren.
One of the keys to sidestepping horror-as-lecture is a committed performance that works in tandem with the unsaid. If you don’t buy into a character's unraveling, half the terror is immediately absent from the runtime. Wicked sights and sounds are one thing, but as the great empathy machine, film requires some kind of way in. Without Shelley Duvall’s wide-eyed, terrified Wendy, Jack Nicholson’s reign of destruction feels distant in The Shining (1980). Remove Jamie Lee Curtis’ down to earth presence from Halloween (1978) and it’s just another dead babysitter flick. We need a grounding force in order to process an unimaginable current of psychotic electricity.
To be frank, there simply isn’t a better actor in the world at this moment than Rebecca Hall. It’s easy to throw platitudes onto someone willing to get down and dirty, mess up their looks a bit in the name of an “exploration of grief.” What’s so striking about Hall is that, as she peels away the layers of her humanity and becomes a vibrating, raw nerve, she never loses those movie star looks. It’s a bias many of us can’t shake, but we want to root for gorgeous people. It is what it is. There’s something frightening about someone who looks like Rebecca Hall losing their goddamn mind. Compound that with the jarring juxtaposition of how collected she still appears and it’s something wholly unique within this space. That she’s so well put together when we meet her is key because, when the snap occurs, you circle back to the woman you met and you wonder that maybe something wasn’t adding up. An eyebrow movement here. A smirk there. Was she too in control? Was it always an act? How can you be so in control one moment only to lose it just like that?
The brilliance in this, of course, is in forcing the viewer to ask these questions, perfectly setting the trap of allowing a victim’s well earned “hysteria” to be a convenient way to write them off. Margaret’s being terrorized by a grinning lunatic and what you’re fixated on is that she’s not that easy to like. It’s not that you don’t believe she’s being terrorized, it’s that you begin to focus a little too much on how she’s reacting to it. The “hysterical woman” is a common image at this point and how society writes them off in the face of victimization is abjectly atrocious. That Hall’s performance so delicately trades on that without you even realizing it in the moment is stunning.
The fearlessness Hall pours into these kinds of roles is impossible to overstate. At a time where cinema is so didactic and too willing to hold your hand, Hall abandons any attempt at sympathy. Think about her work in The Night House (2021). Similarly to Resurrection, that film drags you into the muddy undercurrents of grief and, even if its ending tidies it all up a little too much, Hall centers it with her truly difficult and dynamic depiction of depression. Her husband’s committed suicide, no one seems to know how to talk to her, and the expectation is that she’s just supposed to receive their awkward attempts at comfort. Hall could play the overly gracious, deeply broken widow who respectfully holds the tears back but that’s too cheap, too easy. She’s too good for that, so instead we’re given a deeply loathsome person who speaks a little too freely about how her husband did it, gets brutally frank about how she feels about her students’ parents right to her time, and houses liquor like any moment could be her last. Because it could be! A hole torn into your soul so suddenly and so painfully isn’t supposed to heal when it’s convenient for everyone else.
It’s this inconveniently unhinged quality she brings to Resurrection that elevates it above “elevated horror.” In perhaps the scene of the year, Margaret, well into the throes of coiled paranoia, tells her story to a young assistant at work. As she details who Roth’s David is, their connection and his irreparable mark on her life, the room becomes darker and smaller. The camera stays unbroken on Margaret’s face and what we’re left with is a black box performance of her one woman show. Hall, as steady as ever, never wavers. Matter of factly, she lays out every disturbing detail as tears begin to fall from her far too calm face. It’s a remarkable piece of acting and Hall’s specific brand of controlled chaos is the only way it works. Her monologue isn’t an exploration of the trauma that's broken her. In fact, it wasn’t even the “correct” response to her now horrified assistant’s attempt to engage with her. Hall plays these abstractions the way they truly are. A mind cloudy with a thousand thoughts a minute, she oversteps every boundary and reveals far too much of herself. In what passes for polite society, nobody truly cares how you are when they ask you in passing. Barriers gone, Hall’s Margaret is going to make sure you get the answer you absolutely didn’t want. No, she’s not “fine”, so what else could she possibly lose? Your respect? Fuck your respect.
In dissolving her being into these thoroughly unapproachable characters, Rebecca Hall allows a film like Resurrection or The Night House to revel in the ambiguity. Moments of understanding are fleeting, a deeper well of empathy is required. We can process typical depictions of grief and, in turn, root for somebody clearly hurting. The real work is in swimming through the sardonic anger or despair so bleak it becomes borderline comedic. Hall’s embrace of these traits creates a kind of dread that exists beyond who’s lurking behind a corner. Your body squirms at the fear of what’s going to come out of her mouth next. There’s no tidiness in a Rebecca Hall performance and yet, there is catharsis. Mental health is no excuse to act like an asshole but you do wish society would have a little grace to let you come back to yourself however you need. Many will watch Resurrection through the lens of a “yes, YESSSS” sicko meme and that’s fair. It’s truly bizarre. But if you’ve ever wanted to tell somebody laying their condolences on a little too thick to “shut the fuck up”, Hall’s prickliness becomes a balm; an angry, tightly wound hero we can all see ourselves in. Because no, trauma’s not a buzzword of the moment to put a bow on. It’s permanently shattering and hey, sometimes the adhesive isn’t going to hold.
Brandon Streussnig is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Playlist, Fangoria, and Film Combat Syndicate.