Deciding when is the right time to conceive a child is a huge decision for anyone, let alone the career-minded woman at the center of “Clock.” Writer-director Alexis Jacknow amps up the anxiety by blending science and religion into paranoia-soaked mayhem, conjuring resonant emotion and haunting menace in this psychological horror film about an unconventional route to reproduction. Like a taut, “Rosemary’s Baby”-inspired “Black Mirror” episode, the film’s defiant sentiment that society should stop pressuring women to procreate is bold, brutal and bloodier than a pregnant woman’s bloody show.
Ella Patel (Dianna Agron) has it all: a gorgeous modern home in the suburbs, a fulfilling career as an in-demand interior designer and a robust sex life with hunky husband Aiden (Jay Ali), who’s training to be a doctor but is always on call for her needs. That she’s never felt the urge to add a child into the equation rankles her aging father Joseph (Saul Rubinek), who frequently lays on the guilt to convince her to carry on the family’s religious birthright and Holocaust-surviving bloodline. Even Ella’s pregnant best friend Shauna (Grace Porter) would like to see her become a mother.
With her 38th birthday fast approaching, Ella visits her gynecologist, questioning why she’s never felt her own biological clock ticking. She’s informed of an intensive, 10-day clinical trial, led by Dr. Elizabeth Simmons (Melora Hardin), that’s a possible solution to her problem. Out of curiosity — and possibly rebellious spite to prove she’s not broken — Ella flakes on her next big gig to secretly stay at the institution. There she’s subjected to a gauntlet of psychological experiments, from revealing 3D Rorschach tests to sensory deprivation tanks. But when the meds kick in, so do horrific hallucinations, including spiders and a tall, mysterious woman (Rosa Gilmore) stalking her.
Jacknow’s genuinely disturbing imagery crawls under our skin, lingering long after the tense, bleak finale — everything from the stalker jump scare when Ella escapes the clinic (a piercing shot that rivals the demon creeping behind Patrick Wilson in “Insidious”) to the stillborn fetus that dangles from an umbilical cord like a pendulum on her grandfather clock. There are also lighter shivers scattered throughout, like Shauna’s demented nursery from hell and Ella’s malfunctioning implant, which Aiden has the misfortune of discovering during sex with his mentally compromised wife. Though Jacknow uses a handful of tropes endemic to the genre, she also blessedly rejects others.
Production designer Kristin Gibler’s desaturated color palettes and cinematographer Martim Vian’s washed-out lighting augment our sense of Ella’s slowly slipping sanity, drawing us further into her tortured psyche. Her frustration at her own inability to complete basic tasks — shopping for colorful paint in an aisle full of greys, or attempting to be her regular self at her birthday party without spiraling into madness — is palpable, with tactile feelings transmitted through cleverly calculated aesthetics.
Nailing the intricacies of her character’s nervous breakdown, Agron delivers a nuanced, delicately detailed performance: Her Mia Farrow-esque qualities come across when she’s pushing back against authoritarian gaslighting, especially in the climax, when all the pieces of a larger conspiracy fit together. In her supporting role, Hardin is especially good at conveying soothing and slippery overtones simultaneously. She innately knows how to play her hand, and doesn’t reveal all her cards until the end.
By hyper-focusing on a woman’s pre-natal needs and desires — or lack thereof — Jacknow’s film fits in with darker maternity-themed predecessors like “Tully” and “The Babadook,” which dispel the fallacies that motherhood is all sunshine and rainbows, or that all women should be moms. It rightly holds a pushy, judgmental society accountable for its constant pressure on childless or childfree women to breed or fear being seen as worthless. Though the overt symbolism in “Clock” is a tad pedestrian, its ringing alarm will surely touch a nerve.