Resurrection finds Rebecca Hall at her most psychologically fraught, which is to say that a knockout performance is guaranteed. In the vein of The Gift and The Night House, Hall plays an unwell woman haunted by a less well man. This time around, she’s Margaret, whose impressive but delicate life is thrown into chaos when a dangerous ex returns. It’s a familiar setup, but it’s indeed only a setup. What begins as a reticent stalker thriller metastasizes into a cold, surrealist nightmare.
Writer/director Andrew Semans proves himself a subtle table-setter. In early scenes, he develops Margaret’s character primarily through insinuation: she’s confident and candid in the office and all business in bed, but at home, her attachment to her daughter Abbie is desperate and cloying. This is a woman with walls up in the wrong places. When her ex-boyfriend David—who groomed and abused her as a teenager—reappears after 22 years, her inner architecture is immediately validated. David (Tim Roth) is a certified weirdo, and when he finds a proverbial hole in the wall to leer through, Margaret loses her mind.
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The first act tries leveraging the tension of David’s presence, but the stakes are caught in a lukewarm purgatory between clear and vague. In their first confrontation, David threatens non-specific harm to Margaret’s daughter if Margaret doesn’t demean herself for him, but that threat doesn’t escalate so much as it hangs in the air. David rarely comes anywhere near Abbie, and Margaret completes her tasks with relative (if not emotional) ease, so if anything, the David-borne tension deflates as the film unfolds. The stakes, then, could arise from Margaret’s mental state. She’s obviously unwinding; has David driven her to the brink? A truly bizarre crime she believes David committed calls her sanity into question, but this question, which should hang in the air, does not. Her claim is corroborated by both David and the film’s growing predilection for surreality—things get weird enough that Margaret could very well be telling the truth. There’s not enough edge for her to teeter on. The first act of this psychological thriller falls short of both its genres.
The surreal angle opens a new dimension, however. Resurrection is close enough to reality that its gradual slide into uncanny raises eyebrows. Hall’s performance is so believably traumatized and Roth’s so believably traumatic—what could an element of the unbelievable add? A heaping of unease, it turns out. Through careful wavering between grounded thriller and gonzo allegory, the prospects of crashing down to reality and leaving it behind are equally frightening. The film is shot, graded, scored, and paced like many other low-key thrillers, but unlike its more narratively revelatory contemporaries, its ambiguity is more unsettling than its answers (not that you’ll be getting those).
Amid a story of abuse played seriously, the dose of uncanny feels a little cheeky, like Semans knows he’s playing a game with the audience. This tends to come at odds with Hall’s performance. David’s alleged deed, which Hall describes at last in an exceptional monologue, is ridiculous—something out of more outsized films like mother! and Snowpiercer. That Hall plays her description of the deed straight is unnerving, as ostensibly intended, but the strangeness of the reveal garners more attention in the scene. It’s the first of a few moments in which Resurrection seems to favor its gambit over its characters. One begins to wonder what kind of movie this is rather than what the characters might do. That’s a fine game to play, but in the end, it robs Resurrection of an emotional gut punch. What’s left is intellectual exercise—though a very well-acted one.