Beneath the eerily calm surfaces of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor’s terrific “Rose Plays Julie,” a transgressive story bides its time. It’s a tale that feels ancient in structure, but terrifyingly modern in detail, mapping MeToo-era revelations and a contemporary preoccupation with fractured identities onto a deceptively simple revenge plot that could have been plucked directly from a Greek drama, then plunged into liquid nitrogen to achieve its deep-freeze aesthetic. Still waters run deep, but frozen ones reach down fathoms, and who knows what perfectly preserved bodies lie waiting to be excavated.
Digging up the past is one of its many themes, laid out almost immediately as Rose (an uncannily poised and unreadable Ann Skelly), a Dublin-based veterinary student, takes faltering but determined steps to track down her biological parents. First, she calls her mother Ellen (Orla Brady, superb, strong and desperately sympathetic) an actress now living in London, with a 16-year-old daughter who knows nothing of Rose’s existence. Neither, for that matter, does Ellen — when she gave her baby up for adoption, the name she put on the birth certificate was Julie, which causes the already introspective, perhaps unstable Rose to wonder, in voiceover, whether perhaps Julie was the person she was always supposed to be.
Ellen had indicated that she did not want any contact, so Rose’s initial overtures are unwelcome, especially once she literally shows up on Ellen’s doorstep under the pretext of viewing her house, which is up for sale. It’s only the first of several invasions of privacy that the characters visit on each other. Later, Ellen will turn up unannounced in Rose’s college dorm room, and Rose will appear uninvited at the well-appointed Dublin house where her biological father Peter (Aiden Gillen, in an astonishing turn that’s always loathsome, threatening and pitiful) lives with his wife (Catherine Walker).
Despite these physical violations, which echo back to the story’s original-sin violation as hauntingly as the ethereal voices of Stephen McKeon’s score echo its horror-tinged melodies, there’s also a strange kinship between these three blood-linked strangers. The house for sale, the dorm, the home that Peter overtly states is his wife’s and not his own, a blandly plush hotel room, even the car interiors where most of the key conversations take place, are all explicitly temporary spaces, places without a permanent connection to their occupants. It’s as though all three are on some level rootless, sundered from their pasts, floating around in anticipation of an inevitable collision.
That collision course is set when Ellen reluctantly gives Peter’s name to Rose and reveals her traumatized history, in stuttering edits that showcase Molloy’s unsettlingly razor-sharp cutting technique. Rose then dons a wig and calls herself Julie — acting and disguise is another recurring theme, with professional actress Ellen, ironically, emerging as the least self-deceiving of all of them — and volunteers on the dig that Peter, a well-known archaeologist, is supervising.
Until this point, the twanging unease the directors have achieved has emanated mainly from Rose. We’re never quite sure what she might say or how deep her identity crisis really runs. The pristine formalism of Tom Comerford’s exquisite camerawork only serves to heighten that ambivalence, as she seems to sleepwalk through veterinary tutorials and lectures with ominous titles like “Euthanasia and the Healthy Animal.” But in the second half, the locus of all that tension shifts, without ever letting up, as all three principals are set in slow, but fatalistically predestined motion against each other.
This is Molloy and Lawlor’s fourth feature and it, too, explores their recurrent, glitchy themes of identity/doubling and performance. But there is also a strong mythic undercurrent, rendered almost statuesque by the film’s formidably controlled craft, in which every glassy glance and every chiseled closeup is as expressive as a tear rolling down a perfectly impassive cheek. Shades of Oedipus and Electra abound, but also, at one point Peter has to kill a deer that has wandered onto his dig site. Not only does this oddly echo Yorgos Lanthimos’ similarly formalist thriller, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” but it also summons the same original legend.
In it, an endless cycle of matricide, patricide and filicide results when King Agamemnon kills one of the goddess Artemis’ sacred stags. Lawlor and Molloy may scramble the genders and the generations, but the myth’s ancient throughlines of female vengeance, trauma, sacrifice and guilt remain, as simple and scintillating as the swipe of a sword. It partly accounts for why the film’s ending, which is neither wholly unexpected nor in any manner predictable, should, despite its unmistakable perversity, feel so thrillingly, cathartically right. The most disturbing thing about the impressively disturbing “Rose Plays Julie” may just be how satisfying it is.