There are very few actors with Rebecca Hall’s facility for making difficult, even contradictory characters seem plausible. So it’s quite something to say that even her knack for the dignified and intelligent portrayal of mental and behavioral instability meets its Waterloo with Andrew Semans’ “Resurrection,” a psychological thriller that starts off promisingly before swerving into serious (and sadly self-serious) derangement. It winds up several stops north of bonkers, in a finale that shoots for transgressive, psycho-biological role-reversal, but plays like 1994’s Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy “Junior” given a torture-porn makeover.
Initially, Margaret (Hall) is an aspirational figure. With a glass-walled office at her lucrative pharma job, a well-appointed apartment and intimate yet no-strings sex-on-demand with married co-worker Peter (Michael Esper), she is also a doting mom to 17-year-old Abbie (Grace Kaufman), who is about to head off to college. (On one level “Resurrection” can be read as the mother of all empty-nest breakdowns.) She’s so together, in fact, that we are introduced to her dispensing sensible, tough-love advice to callow intern Gwyn (Angela Wong Carbone), whose boyfriend belittles her, then sneers that she can’t take a joke when she complains. “Sadists never understand why other people don’t enjoy their sadism as much as they do,” says Margaret, firmly but kindly encouraging Gwyn to stand up for herself.
Perhaps the leap to “sadism” seems premature, though we will soon find out she knows whereof she speaks. Still, the exchange establishes Margaret’s no-nonsense credentials as a strong, admirably supportive woman. So what if she’s a little overprotective toward Grace, never having allowed her to ride a bike and insisting on constant check-ins? So what if she lets slip the odd hardbitten homily about toughness and self-reliance and seems faintly derisive of weakness? Otherwise, she’s a credit and an inspiration to the sisterhood.
But omens are gathering. Margaret has started to draw again for the first time in 22 years. Abbie discovers a human molar in her wallet one day. Then, at a conference, Margaret spots David (Tim Roth), a man she hasn’t seen for two decades, since she escaped the monstrously manipulative clutches of a relationship that “toxic” doesn’t even begin to cover. She immediately suffers a full-blown panic attack. Suddenly he’s everywhere, and when finally she musters the courage to confront him, his ghastly smile shows he’s missing a tooth.
This is a solid #MeToo thriller set-up, classed up by the ever-classy Hall and Roth’s sinister underplaying, by Wyatt Garfield’s somber, elegant shooting style and by the stabbing strings of Jim Williams’ unsettling score. But then the exact nature of David and Margaret’s long-ago relationship is revealed, in a seven-minute monologue delivered by Hall in one unbroken close-up: a distractingly actorly exercise that is treated with the dramaturgical reverence of a speech from “The Cherry Orchard,” despite the lunacy of its revelations. In one of the very rare instances of a relatable reaction, Margaret’s convenient confidante Gwyn stutters, “Is this a joke?” before tottering away, doubtless making the “she crazy” hand gesture the second she turns the corner.
It is not a joke. Nothing is a joke in “Resurrection,” which takes itself so seriously in the commission of its increasingly bananas plot that all the craziness can’t even be said to be that entertaining — the odd surreal image aside. (There is, to be fair, a grotesquely convincing roasted baby.) You can see how this same material might make for enjoyably lurid horror in other hands. But Semans, directing from his own Black List-ed script, goes hard for importance and topical, trauma-survivor relevance, despite Margaret’s violation amounting to cult-brainwashing so severe it’s genuinely hard to relate to, and impossible to see how she can have suppressed its psychotic, delusional influence so successfully for so long.
It makes Margaret a dubious-at-best avatar for abuse survivors, notwithstanding the script’s best efforts to turn her into an avenging virago. “Men! You can’t stick your dick in anything without deciding that you love it or you hate it,” she snarls at the hapless Peter, in a sequence framed as a meme-able moment that will have women high-fiving in recognition and men wincing at having been so exposed. The problem is, like a lot of the observations around the toxicity of men, it only sounds pithy. If you give it half a thought, it appears to be a recommendation that men stick their dicks into things to which they are indifferent, which is a weird thing to wish for.
Similarly, the theme of maternal self-sacrifice is done little justice by the straight-faced utterance of Gothic melodrama lines like, “When you have children of your own, you’ll understand… You become disposable. Gloriously disposable.” Everyone is terribly committed and there’s a handful of memorable moments. Mostly, however, the muddled, manic “Resurrection” serves as a reminder that if you’re looking for a Sundance movie in which a psychologically disintegrating Rebecca Hall is convincingly menaced by the specters of guilt and trauma past, last year’s undervalued “The Night House” is available to stream right now.