Like most great actors, Nina Hoss has the gift of bringing innate credibility to writing not necessarily blessed with the same virtue: When a character’s choices make little sense, or their backstory seems incompletely shaded, she can play these flaws as messy human glitches rather than conceptual gaps. That ability counts for a lot in “Pelican Blood,” a handsome, initially intriguing twist on the old “bad seed” horror premise from genre-mixing German writer-director Katrin Gebbe. As a single mother trying every available route to avoid giving up on (or simply giving up) the seemingly psychotic five-year-old girl she has recently adopted, Hoss’s teeth-gritted commitment to the role keeps us on side through more questionable stages of maternal meltdown than many a talented thesp would manage.
But to look a gift Hoss in the mouth for a moment, the star’s best efforts can’t prevent “Pelican Blood” from spiraling into outright ludicrousness in its latter stages. The film’s early efforts to put a humane, character-driven tilt on a subgenre usually played for lurid shocks are laudable, but ultimately swamped by so much literal mumbo-jumbo. Too long and languorous at 126 minutes, the film presents a bit of a bit of a poser to potential distributors: Do they lean more into its prestigious arthouse trappings or its menacing chiller elements, and risk bewildering much of their audience either way? This year’s Orizzonti opener at Venice, “Pelican Blood” looks unlikely to court the midnight-movie crowd the way Gebbe’s grisly, Cannes-selected 2013 debut “Nothing Bad Can Happen” (which scored a U.S. deal with Drafthouse Films) did; it is, however, assured a festival run long enough that alternative paths may emerge.
“Nothing Bad Can Happen” would have worked as a grimly ironic title for Gebbe’s sophomore film too. “Don’t be afraid, I’ll take good care of you, I promise,” says steely mama bear Wiebke Landau (Hoss) to her cherubic nine-year-old adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Giovanni Ocleppo) early on in proceedings; you practically expect a doomy organ chord to creep in on the soundtrack at that very moment. Wiebke, a police horse trainer, and Nicolina are a happy two-person family at the outset, living on a vast, peaceful ranch in the countryside. Despite romantic overtures from Wiebke’s sexy single-dad colleague Benedikt (Murathan Muslu), there seems to be little call for a man in this household. It’s pointedly noted, however, that single working women aren’t permitted to adopt children in Germany: Wiebke has had to journey to Bulgaria to realize her dream of motherhood.
It’s a third female presence, then, that turns the Landau family nuclear in all the wrong ways. Apple-cheeked, flaxen-haired Raya (Katerina Lipovska) is eat-you-right-up adorable when Wiebke and Nicolina first meet her at a Sofia orphanage, where their union is eagerly applauded by staff and fellow orphans alike — the first red flag, if we can claim to have learned anything at all from that ignoble 1990 smash “Problem Child.” Their first days together as a family are cheery, with early hiccups that seem understandable, given the disoriented tyke’s trauma. But it doesn’t take long for her misbehavior to strike a more unnerving note.
Raya progresses fast from smashing plates to mutilating small animals to violently attacking her mother, sister and fellow kindergarteners; her increasingly demonic-looking scribbles on the wall, meanwhile, suggest issues beyond the powers of Ritalin. Is she, as a child psychologist calmly suggests, afflicted with a reactive attachment disorder that has diminished her capacity for fear and empathy? Or is she possessed by a darker supernatural force? That the increasingly raddled, irrational Wiebke — who has never given up on a wayward horse, and sees motherhood as a similar test of her resolve — comes to believe the latter theory costs her the sympathy of multiple allies, a wounded Nicolina among them. Maintaining a stern earnestness of tone throughout, Gebbe’s screenplay likewise takes the notion entirely seriously, without committing to a clear perspective on what is real or feverishly imagined.
It’s that calculated ambiguity that prevents “Pelican Blood” from going full-tilt horror; the balance it strikes between the respective parenting nightmares of “Orphan” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a delicate one, yet upended by an overblown final act more preoccupied with exoticized spiritual atmospherics than close-up psychological scrutiny. It’s a discombobulating swerve in a film that otherwise cultivates a strenuous seriousness of intent — be it in Moritz Schultheiss’ serenely beautiful widescreen lensing, with its muted sticks-and-stones palette, or the aptly agonized, well-essayed performances.
Hoss, whose vigilant, scarred-but-proud screen presence has been so vital in humanizing the melodrama of Christian Petzold’s films, is often what stands between “Pelican Blood” and outright silliness: Her wired, tense body language and spliced emotions keep Wiebke complicated rather than contradictory, even as the script pulls her into some gonzo provocations. (The titular metaphor, for one thing, is realized in a most wince-inducing way.) Gebbe knows what she has in her leading lady, too: If the film has one too many slow-motion shots of that face in pained, expressive transition, that’s easily forgiven. What Gebbe draws from young Lipovska, meanwhile, is also remarkable: As a shrieking hair trigger of a human with a watery, impenetrable gaze, her genuinely unpredictable, anxiety-inducing turn deserves equal credit for making “Pelican Blood” oddly credible, even as our belief is sorely tested.