Directed & Written by Andrew Semans
Starring Rebecca Hall, Tim Roth, and Grace Kaufman.
Drama / Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains some spoilers.
You’ve been warned.
In Andrew Semans’s new film Resurrection, Margaret Ballion (Rebecca Hall) watches her normal, successful life unravel after a man from her past, David Moore (Tim Roth), resurfaces. The trauma from Margaret’s past comes along with David, whom she believes is back to hurt not only her but her daughter, Abbie (Grace Kaufman). This sends her into a spiral of hypervigilance and paranoia. She refuses to share the secrets of her past with anybody, even her own daughter. So she has to decide whether to continue living under the Gothic trauma David’s resurrected, or if there’s a permanent way to finally stop David, as well as their shared past, from haunting her.
The film’s title is indicative of Margaret’s past and the traumatic terror attached to it being resurrected. This is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a disturbing—and, in the finale, surreal—plot about a woman trying to escape an awful trauma from when she was young, only for that part of her past to catch up with her and come back to life like a ghost of flesh and blood. The cautionary aspect of Margaret’s story is about confronting one’s trauma and dealing with it instead of hiding it from oneself and others. Her decision to isolate herself within past trauma and keep it a secret, especially from her daughter, amplifies the trauma’s effects when, in the form of David, it finally catches up to her. Resurrection is an allegory about how destructive buried trauma is when it inevitably bubbles up to the surface.
A theme of terrible men begins right from the start as we watch Margaret at work helping a younger colleague deal with a toxic boyfriend who has boundary issues. The younger woman explains how her boyfriend makes fun of her even though she tells him it’s hurtful, so Margaret says simply the man is “a sadist.” Margaret knows sadists well, as we see after David turns up. Throughout the film she tells several stories about the sadistic ways in which David controlled her and her life. Sadly, her whole life is filled with controlling men, on some level or another. The married man having sex with Margaret becomes a controlling figure later in the film after he starts showing up unexpectedly at her place without calling, stepping over boundaries they clearly set when they started having their affair.
Whether it’s a colleague life or personal experience, Margaret’s existence is suffocated by men seeking to exert control over women. Margaret succinctly explains to the married man with whom she’s having an affair the various forms of control men display, from one end of the spectrum to another: “Fucking men—you can‘t stick your dick in anything without deciding that you love it or you hate it.”
It isn’t long until the audience understands Margaret’s fleeing from a dark trauma in her past. There’s an interesting juxtaposition of running scenes in Resurrection that portray how Margaret’s stayed vigilant over the years when we see her early on running for exercise, then a little later she’s running similarly after seeing David for the first time in decades, this time out of a flight response to survive. But running in the film generally represents avoidance. Margaret runs to stay fit, and ready, however, she admits in one scene that she ran from her past rather than confront the terrible truth of it. And the whole film is about her realising it’s time to stop her running.
Still, for many women, running from an abusive situation can be the only option rather than seeking actual help because, as Resurrection makes clear, the people who are meant to protect the vulnerable fall short of their responsibilities. During one scene, Margaret goes to the police and tries to get help, only receiving a “Be smart, be careful” message, laying the onus on her to be careful instead of doing anything proactive to deter her abuser/stalker. This leads Margaret to consider one of the only other options left to abused women neglected by society: the potential for violence. And though her plans don’t go the way she imagined them, she does still go down a dark, violent path that irreparably shapes her and her daughter’s lives.
Semans expertly weaves the story of Margaret’s secret trauma by keeping Abbie in the dark about her mother’s past while the audience is privy to everything from Margaret’s perspective, so while we see all the nasty cigarette burns on Margaret’s back they remain a secret part of her past kept hidden from her own daughter. We watch Margaret descend deeper into paranoid isolation because when she sees David while she and Abbie are out shopping, she rushes them out of there, and the fact she hasn’t told her daughter about anything only makes her seem insane. When she does finally open up about her secrets, she blames herself for it all, telling a colleague: “I let it happen.”
Far worse than the way Margaret appears to others, or how she takes the blame for the abuse done to her, is how she falls into a terrifying headspace, complete with visions; they play into the eventual gruesome finale during which she loses touch with all reality. Perhaps the most affecting moment in the film is a vision Margaret has of a smoky kitchen, and when she goes to check the oven, from which smoke is billowing, she discovers a bloody, crispy baby inside like a cooked turkey. That brutal image takes on greater significance once more about Margaret’s traumatic past is revealed. In one scene when Margaret and David are arguing over what happened to their child, he says “you protest too much,” echoing a line from Hamlet, one of the great pre-Gothic plays about ghostly visions, guilt, and traumatic pasts.
The final 20 minutes of Resurrection will leave many in shock; for the horror hounds, shock in the best way. There’s a genuinely subversive quality to the finale because of the way David’s return is like a surrogate past because he is (figuratively) carrying his and Margaret’s former child Ben inside his belly. It’s an eerie subversion of traditional expectations about gender roles. To torture Margaret psychologically to the fullest extent here, David essentially paints himself as mother and father, the only parent who cares enough about Ben to still carry him. He remains the father but also occupies the mother’s role by having Ben inside him. It’s yet another way of degrading and shaming Margaret, as if she was never Ben’s mother, as if David made and birthed their child all by himself; the most cruel psychological game he plays with Margaret. Except David’s mind games with Margaret backfire this time, and she eviscerates him to save baby Ben from the sadist’s mental clutches, freeing herself from his trauma.
Trauma will always find us, and unresolved trauma will forever haunt us if we shove it down into the dark recesses of our memory to suppress it. Resurrection depicts Margaret’s downward spiral as due to unresolved trauma she didn’t deal with—a trauma that eventually hunted her down and destroyed everything in her life. Most of all, there’s truth in what David says to Margaret about her new life being “a character” she created to run away from her traumas in the past. When we avoid the traumas haunting us, we’re not able to be our authentic selves, and we instead become caricatures of ourselves, a character to play for our own sake and, as Margaret did for Abbie, for others.
In the end when Margaret tells baby Ben “I saved you,” she’s also talking about herself; she’s confronted the past, and, at least in an allegorical sense, reversed it, along with her Gothic regrets. Even though the reality is not that Maggie’s saved her first child, but that she’s murdered her abuser and Abbie’s left home to get away from her, she’s broken free from the traumatic shackles of her past with David at all costs, and she’s ripped out all the power David once had over her.