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Movies You Haven’t Seen But Should: “Grace”

February 11, 2011 Leave a comment

The Bride and I were discussing feminist horror the other day (doesn’t every couple), spurred by the DVD cover of the “I Spit On Your Grave” remake. The remake’s cover offers a variation on the original’s poster, and while both are essentially offering up a combo of sex and violence, each movie comes down to being revenge fantasies about a woman taking out her rapists. The original is notable for a gut-wrenching rape sequence years before “Irreversible” gained notoriety of a similiar sequence, while the remake apparently pulls back on that somewhat and focuses more on the revenge aspect of things.

There’s an attempt by the filmmakers of both the original and the remake to call them “feminist horror,” since ultimately they both tell the story of women delivering a deserved come-uppance onto groups of men. It’s the same attempt that Eli Roth put out with “Hostel 2” that it had a feminist overtone because (SPOILER ALERT), in the end, the woman with money had more power than the poor and thusly emasculated man.(END SPOILER) 

The Bride’s contention, and I tend to agree, is that castrating a man does not feminist horror make. You have to go deeper than that, and a movie like Paul Solet’s vastly underrated  “Grace” does just that thing. It’s a movie I’ve debated on writing about for months, that I had to chew on for weeks afterwards, one that has kept popping up into conversations with the Bride . “Grace” is, and I say this with the deepest of sincerity, one righteously effed-up movie.

By rights, I shouldn’t like “Grace.” The director, Solet, was unknown to me, and the star, Jordan Ladd, was not exactly someone who had impressed me at any point with anything she’d been in. But I remembered the boys over at CHUD discussing it following Sundance back in ’09, and Devin’s open letter to the film’s eventual home, Anchor Bay, imploring for a theatrical release for the movie. Eventually it landed on DVD and it lived in our Netflix Instant Streaming queue for a while before we decided to kill part of a Saturday afternoon with it.

“Kill” is the key word there.

I won’t go into the plot, because plot isn’t really what makes “Grace” an unsettling and effective movie. The gist of the story is about Ladd’s Madeline, a pregnant woman who seems stuck in a marriage she’s not entirely pleased with. She and her husband are involved in a car accident that kills the husband and forced to deliver the baby, the titular Grace. What proceeds to happen from this point on is best experienced, preferably with the lights dimmed and the baby monitor turned off.

Most horror directors don’t understand tone. They don’t understand that oftentimes it is what is left out that is more important than what is left in. Solet, in his first feature, nails tone. He creates an incredibly disturbing tone from almost frame one, with a painful dinner conversation between Madeline, her husband, and her in-laws. Everything is painted in small, strong strokes, with off-putting glances and clipped dialogue. He continues the contrast with Madeline, a vegan, watching PETA-esque videos of animal cruelty.

Solet never lays it all out on the table the way many directors would have. When characters appear, their motives may appear clear, but their motivations less so. What drives Madeline, unhappy in her marriage (Ladd conveys a world of hurt and disinterest in a sex scene with the husband) and possibly having a baby only because that’s what society expects of a young married woman, to care for the “baby” speaks volumes about societal pressures and the very concept of motherhood and protecting your brood without ever once trying to answer any of those questions, knowing that there are no easy answers.

Solet does seem to acknowledge, however, the tacit power which lies in motherhood and, by proxy, womanhood. The mother-in-law, played by Canadian actress Gabrielle Rose, is a woman who is past childbearing years, and instead she clings to the fragile power of lording over her son and cuckolding her husband. Her attempts to take Grace from her daughter-in-law reflect her own fear of aging and how deeply connected the power of conception and birth are to our own ideas of youth. Meanwhile, Madeline’s midwife Patricia (Samantha Ferris) struggles to get control over her feelings about Madeline following a hinted-upon relationship. (Sollet’s script is brilliant in never explicitedly telling you anything, and respectfully thinking you might just be able to piece things together on your own).

“Grace” is a film about women struggling for control and for power. Don’t go into it expecting strong men; every male character is essentially neutered, from Madeline’s husband, who is still connected to his mother by apron strings, to the OB/GYN (Malcolm Stewart), who is a cretin of the highest (or lowest) caliber. But the women are shrews, they aren’t harpies, they aren’t witches and nags. What they are are women battling generations and millennia of expectations from men and society, looking for some way to exert their own power, and it is soon evident that it is in motherhood that they find their greatest strength.

And yes, “Grace” will scare the hell out of you too. It manages to succeed where a movie like Lucky McKee’s “May” was only partially successful, in building a complex portrait of a woman and then imbuing her with massive reserves of strength (“May” has a stunning first hour and then falls apart, sadly; that said, I’m looking forward to McKee’s “The Woman,” which massively divided audiences at Sundance this year, and actually drove people out of the theater). “Grace” builds and builds with dread, where a simple fly becames a harbinger of death, and once that is surprisingly unviolent until one sudden, shocking act turns everything on its ear and it almost becomes a Greek tragedy.

The ending on “Grace” may not be perfect, but it feels almost inevitable. Ladd taps into depths that nothing she’s been in prior even hints at, and shows that with the right director and script, she could easily move to the next level of film. Sollet is a name to watch from this point on, because he’s made a movie that will upset you, disturb you, and make you think long after the final credits.

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