Sundance 2009: 'Grace'
Strong performances and real subtext elevates disturbing dead baby horror film.
Q: How many dead babies does it take to freak out a Sundance audience?
A: Just one. Just one.
David Cronenberg is, and always will be, the king of body horror. Honestly, until his work, I don't think anyone had every approached the creeping dread we all experience about our own bodies at one time or another. Cronenberg helped create this sub-genre of horror, and these days, the avid horror fan with a region-free player has plenty of options for seeing crazy films that play on these primal biological fears of ours, films more explicit than even Cronenberg's grossest day.
Sad truth is, though, most of those films are terrible.
That's why I find myself impressed by what Paul Solet has pulled off with "Grace," a movie that is alternately impressive and too filthy to bear, as visceral an experience as I've had with a horror film in the theater in recent memory. And this is one of those horror films that you absolutely should see with a crowd of strangers in a theater. The way other people react is part of the fun with a movie like this. I know after our screening, Devin Faraci told me how glad he was he saw it with me, since I'm sort of a wuss regarding anything that has to do with babies, and I spent most of the movie practically crawling out of my skin.
See, I'm wired differently since the birth of my sons. And I'm sure that's a common experience for parents. I find I get far more emotional with far less prompting now in certain films, and, unsurprisingly, I find that there are also certain images or ideas that just plain freak me out now, or that I can't watch.
"Grace" is pretty much a laundry list of all the things that I find almost impossible to watch, and if all the film consisted of was grotesque events and vile moments, I wouldn't be able to recommend it. But the fact that all the viscera is in service of this smart, sad little story of a woman who, after two miscarriages and the loss of her husband, decides that absolutely nothing is going to take her child from her during this third pregnancy. She's determined to do everything right, to maintain perfect health, and to see this baby to term.
And, of course, the baby dies two weeks before she's supposed to deliver it, and Madeline, unable to let go and beside herself with grief, decides to carry the dead baby to full term and deliver it. She knows it's dead, thanks to the same accident that took her husband from her, and yet she wants to carry something to full term... just once. Even during the set-up for the film, Jordan Ladd does a nice job of playing a woman who wishes desperately to be a mommy, only to realize that the job isn't what she thought it would be. And neither is her not-quite-so-dead baby.
This is the sort of film that starts pushing your buttons right at the start, but then it keeps pushing them, and keeps pushing them, and keeps pushing them some more. The film doesn't really kick into "oh my god!" mode until the second half, but once it does, it delivers a steady stream of images that are so profoundly unpleasant, particularly if you've actually been through the harrowing emotional rollercoaster that is the first year of a child's life. As a parent, your one thought, your one responsibility is "Don't let anything happen to the baby," and it's enough to send you into a shrieking nervous breakdown. This movie preys on those fears, preys on the responses that are hardwired into us, and it demonstrates real control on the part of Paul Solet as both writer and director. When this comes out (I'm not sure it has theatrical distribution lined up yet, but it should), I'll make sure to go back with a group of friends.
Doubt I'll take my wife, though. There are some audiences who I believe really would be too upset by some of the content here. I know how extreme my reaction was to the craziest ideas on display here, but I'm curious to see just what this would do to someone who's actually given birth and nursed for the first few months. I have a feeling that even if they made it through the majority of the film, the last line would push them screaming into the night.
And for my money, that's exactly what a horror film should do. Disturb. Upset. Offend.
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