There’s a tendency among critics to heap praise on female filmmakers for withstanding the macho rigors of traditionally male-ruled genre fare — though it’s a more unusual feat to see the rules of such films rerouted entirely by an expressly feminine perspective. “Prevenge,” a scrappy but excitingly singular directorial debut for British actress-writer Alice Lowe, takes the latter route. A bleakly humorous serial-killer tale in which the murderer is both eight months pregnant and under the imagined instruction of her unborn child, it’s a film that refreshingly couldn’t have been born — at least, not with quite such blunt conviction — of a man’s imagination. That Lowe herself was with child during the production only heightens the raw nerve of proceedings; while not every tonal downshift here is entirely fluid, this remains a smart, risky one-off, unconcerned with those (and there will be many) who can’t acquire its taste.
Those who can may well be admirers of “Sightseers,” director Ben Wheatley’s 2012 comedy of pleasantly murderous Midlanders, which Lowe co-wrote and headlined with Steve Oram. (Oram made his own solo directing debut last year with the riotous de-evolutionary fable “Aaaaaaaargh!”; British cinema is a more curious place for this pair’s very existence.) Like “Sightseers,” “Prevenge” is heavily dependent on the tension between the banality of its setting (in this case, a featureless slab of suburban Cardiff) and the brutality of what occurs there, though the result is less broadly comic in this case. In the film’s latter half especially, as its over-burdened heroine wrestles with the moral weight of her bloody spree, the laughs come neither thick nor fast.
“Prevenge’s” warped humor and its vivid sense of the absurd aren’t always one and the same. It’s a film sympathetically and often quite seriously preoccupied with the fundamental mystery of pregnancy. Like Ira Levin and Roman Polanski in “Rosemary’s Baby,” only with more first-hand experience, Lowe appears fascinated and terrified in equal measure by the notion of growing a complete stranger inside one’s own body.
“You have no control over your mind or body any more,” an irksomely upbeat NHS midwife (Jo Hartley) tells the dejectedly expecting Ruth (Lowe) during one of her regular checkups. She doesn’t mean that quite as literally, however, as Ruth appears to experience it. The weary mother-to-be is raggedly beholden to her vengeful tyrant of an unborn daughter, who “speaks” to her in insidiously high-pitched tones, goading her into a series of targeted murders — the motive for which Lowe’s casually structured script invites audiences to assemble piecemeal, as we simultaneously discover the circumstances behind the baby’s father’s absence. This much is clear: Ruth is carrying a whole lot of grief along with her bundle of joy.
Lowe cleverly staggers her reveals in such a way that the narrative’s rhetorical implications shift slightly with each one. When the first two people on Ruth’s hitlist turn out to be loathsome men — a pervy pet-store proprietor (Dan Renton Skinner) and a schlubby, aggressively misogynistic pub DJ (Tom Davis) who comes on to her with the the line, “I f—ing love fat birds… you don’t mind what people do to you” — it seems she might be on an extremist feminist cleansing mission. But when a chilly career woman (Kate Dickie) is next up for the chop, it turns out Ruth’s killing impulse is a lot more specific than that, while her general misanthropy is a lot less discriminating. “Let the past be the past, it’s nature’s way,” the midwife advises, attempting to counsel Ruth past her mourning. “Nature’s a bit of a c—t,” comes the reply — a typical Lowe line (and delivery) in its unimpressed obscenity.
But as Ruth and her foetus wind up disagreeing on crucial moral calls, their already amateur plan — like a klutzier “Kill Bill” project — goes further awry, and “Prevenge” emerges as a uniquely frightening, funny take on the alienating effects of prepartum depression. Having set up this terrific idea, the film runs on fumes a bit in its final third — drawing out the final battle between Ruth’s conscience and not-so-maternal instinct, and articulating facets of her psyche that were already elegantly implicit in Lowe’s script. (Our heroine’s raddled state, meanwhile, is aptly reflected in the deliberately unpolished nature of the filmmaking — of which with the icy, stabbing synths of Toydrum’s excellent score are the most expressive asset.)
Lowe’s determinedly low-key performance is a marvel even through the film’s few lulls: She’s dry even when anguished, with flashes of wide-eyed mania that seem to channel Isabelle Adjani in “Possession.” Furthermore, the director-star’s own pregnancy surely makes an invaluable contribution to her character’s affectingly weary comportment — call it ultimate method acting if you will, but it’s not often that a filmmaker has quite so clearly conveyed the external and internal strain of child-carrying.