Normally, I’m not the biggest fan of trauma horror – horror that basically boils down to exploring the lingering effects of trauma. Resurrection is a big exception to the rule, however, thanks to how mercilessly and eerily it captures the way that trauma stays in the body and mind, as well as the rigour with which it takes its premise all the way to its shocking conclusion. Written and directed by Andrew Semans, it focuses on Margaret, a businesswoman living in Albany, New York, played by Rebecca Hall, who has to fight for her life, and the life of her daughter, Abbie, played by Grace Kaufman, when her abuser David, played by Tim Roth, comes back into her life. Apart from Margaret’s casual partner Peter, played by Michael Esper, and her assistant Gwyn, played by Angela Wong Carbone, there’s virtually no other speaking parts in the film, creating a brooding and monomaniacal intensity from the very first scene that rises to an almost unbearable pitch by the time it all climaxes.
Part of the power of Resurrection is that Semans evokes Margaret’s trauma before we have any clear sense of her past, or even her character, capturing how thoroughly this trauma has subsumed both her past and her character. In the opening scenes, which depict her home and work routine, we sense a life lived defensively, a barely contained trauma, that makes catastrophe seem like it’s perpetually imminent. It’s there in the meticulous corporate deportment that allows her to sleep with a married subordinate and still maintain clear boundaries, as well as in her militaristic running routine, which quickly feels like a way of containing her urge to continually run – away from her life, her past and, ultimately, herself. Even the brutalist backdrop of Albany, which we glimpse here, but comes into its own in the second act, feels like a part of this masochistic self-image, as if Margaret had gravitated towards one of the most austere and alienating administrative districts in the country. When David, her abuser, turns up, it’s initially as an intensification of these traumatic textures, rather than through explicit contact. He doesn’t initiate contact, or even eye contact, and only appears, as if incidentally, in public places – a conference, a store, a park – making it impossible for local police to do anything about his presence. Nevertheless, one glimpse of David is enough to induce hyperventilation, so radically does he shatter Margaret’s perception of herself, leaving her powerless to do anything but implore him to just “go away.”
Since David appears first as a node in Margaret’s daily traumapshere, she initially tries to deal with him by pushing her regular boundaries – already pronounced – to greater extremities. In the first scene of the film, we see her counselling Gwyn, her assistant, on the best way to extricate herself from a relationship that is starting to show signs of verbal and physical abuse. After David arrives, Margaret leans even more heavily on this mentoring relationship, regulating Gwyn’s boundaries with her partner as a way of reiterating her own. Similarly, she tries to absorb every part of her daughter’s personal life back into their household, starting with a scene in which she reacts against the promiscuous porosity of Abbie’s online gaming life by inviting her to get drunk for the first time in the comfort and safety of their living room. Margaret’s anxiety is only intensified by the fact that her own hippie parents had no real personal boundaries – and this, we quickly learn, is the main reason David was able to strike.
For, in an extraordinary monologue to her assistant, Margaret reveals that she first met David when she was holidaying with her parents on the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of Canada as an eighteen year old. They were oblivious to David’s advances, Margaret was oblivious to his agenda, and before she knew it she had moved in with him, at which point he started controlling her in ever more extreme ways. Forming boundaries from David is thus remarkably difficult for Margaret because his very predilection was for continually breaking and then re-establishing boundaries by forcing her to perform what he described as “kindnesses” – hours of meditation, days of fasting, remaining in contorted postures for extended lengths of time. In effect, he got off on her endurance, and so made the experience of endurance traumatic in itself, meaning that her subsequent efforts to endure his legacy was always tainted with his agency. David reserved the last kindness for when Margaret fell pregnant, by forbidding her to give birth, and so turning her against her own body. Of course, she couldn’t comply, so David punished her by taking the first opportunity to dispose of all but the two index fingers of their newborn son, and then telling Margaret that he had eaten him. Over time, she came to believe that their son was indeed inside David’s belly, “suffering, trapped and alive” and that, if she listened hard enough, she could her him calling out to her.
That terrifying premise works brilliantly to capture the way that trauma lingers in the body – and, more specifically, the way that trauma links the bodies of the abuser and the abused. By (supposedly) reabsorbing their son into his own body, David also reabsorbs part of Margaret into his body, refusing to allow her to claim full ownership of her trauma by insisting that a part of the pain is his, inextricably embedded in his gut. He’s like a serial killer who won’t disclose the location of a body, except that the body is inside his body, which perhaps explains why this backstory has such a profound impact on the body of the only person Margaret ever tells it to – her assistant, Gwyn, who is immediately traumatised by it, and effectively quits on the spot after her own body is thrown into paroxysms of empathetic grief. This all leads to the reason for David’s re-emergence in Margaret’s life – he wants to reassert their shared trauma, re-synergise their bodies, by demanding a new series of kindnesses, the first of which requires Margaret to with her walk to work to barefoot, and so feels the brutalism of the Albany city core, which comes into focus for the first time now, beneath her naked feet. If she doesn’t comply, David threatens, he will kill their son, and she will never hear him cry again.
The second act of the film focuses almost entirely on David and Margaret as they negotiate this situation, and as Margaret feels the old dependence on her abuser, the compulsion to allocate him some share of her own trauma, rise to the surface again. This infects the rhythms of her body, as she starts to lactate again at the sheer fantasy of seeing her dead son, but also the broader rhythms of the film, as she watches David obsessively walk and walk through Albany, drawing her deeper and deeper into his shadow and subjectivity. Paradoxically, the only way for Margaret to ensure that her daughter Abbie is safe is to continually follow David, and become this traumatised shadow, but this also forces her to sequester her daughter even more, since it means that she’s rarely home. By the time she instructs Abbie to “not leave this apartment, ever, for anything, unless I’m with you,” she’s tightened the boundaries so drastically that Abbie no longer feels safe with her, and sets out to escape. This seems to have been David’s intention all along – to force Margaret to relive her failure to erect proper boundaries with him through the proxy of her daughter, and so absorb Abbie into his scheme.
As the second act proceeds, then, Margaret’s body, and her embodied trauma, gradually collapses into David, until her whole body seems to be falling apart – fainting, slumping and sliding from one sequence to the next. In a vicious cycle of abuse, David re-integrates Margaret’s body through more disciplinary “kindnesses” and yet these only throw her further off balance, whether it’s the damage to her feet that arises from walking barefoot to work, or the impact of her second “kindness,” which demands that she “assume the position” by standing in a contorted posture all night in a local park, further dismantling her gait. David ends up congratulating her for this very cycle between disintegration and integration – “you’re a warrior, a champion” – like a cult leader who is continually deprogramming and reprogramming his flock, in a kind of monstrous mentorship that builds up just to break down. As we move into the third act, this relationship becomes more cerebral, and shifts more to the psychological sphere, as Margaret and David seek to negotiate the codependent fantasy that he has imposed upon both of them. Margaret’s final breakthrough comes from realising that, beyond a certain point, she will never completely escape this fantasy, never fully traverse the trauma, never totally extricate herself from the vicious cycle of abuse and reward that David has embedded so deeply in her life. Instead, she realises she must take their shared fantasy to its limit, inhabit it on her own terms, and so she agrees to met him in a hotel room, where she pulls out a knife, and starts to extricate her son from his chest. In the eeriest scene in the film, David now reveals how dependent he is upon the fantasy too, since he has ample chance to fight back here, but never summons a believable defence, sinking into the same slumping body language that Margaret displayed earlier, as his hold over the fantasy starts to slacken, and then going completely limp when Margaret takes control of it from the inside.
Critically, Margaret doesn’t restage David’s fantasy in an ironic or theatrical manner, but genuinely occupies it, gives herself over to the shared madness, lets down her defences for a full folie a deux, until she almost believes in it more than David does herself. Early on, Resurrection plays with the psychodramatic trope of the delusional woman, but the trajectory of the film twists it in an ingenious direction. In the first act, we suspect that some of this might be in Margaret’s head, in the second act we know that none of it is in her head, and in the third act we realise that all of it has to be in her head for her to escape it. This is the resurrection of the film’s title – a resurrection of fantasy, on Margaret’s own terms – and ensures that the violence of the surgical scene is especially visceral, partly because it has such a psychic intensity to it, and partly because it reiterates, rather than traverses, this fantasy.
For when Margaret cuts open David’s stomach, she does indeed find a baby boy, who accompanies her to the idealised home life that forms the coda to the film proper. Some critics took issue with this conclusion, but my sense was that the film was taking the same radical path as Margaret herself by refusing to ever offer us a space outside or “after” her fantasy. Rather than offering horror as the fantasy the protagonist needs to traverse to heal from grief, as occurs in so much trauma horror, the horror here lies precisely in how thoroughly the film and Margaret must continue to inhabit this fantasy (albeit on their own terms) to survive. And that horror is encapsulated in the final image – a zoom in on Margaret’s face as it modulates, almost gives way to the trauma beneath the fantasy, and momentarily ruptures with a sharp intake of breath that cuts us to black and brings the film to a close, leaving us suspsended, like Margaret, in the precipitous space between trauma and fantasy.