(2019) Drama (IFC Midnight) Raffey Cassidy, Michael Huisman, Denise Gough, Eve Connolly, Kelly Campbell, Isabelle Connolly, Aibhe Cowley, Irene Kelleher, Jane Herbert, Charlotte Moore, Mallory Adams, David Khalid Fawaz, Zara Devlin, Eva Mullen, Juliette Crosbie. Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska
It is, for better or worse (mostly the latter), a man’s world. Men take women for granted, objectify them, abuse them and for generations, women have borne their cross with quiet grace. The thing is, you can only push someone to the wall for so long before they push back.
Selah (Cassidy) has been raised in one of those cults which time has forgotten. Run by the charismatic Shepherd (Huisman) – the only male member – he sets the women to working hard, tending sheep, cooking, cleaning and raising the children. He has divided his flock into two groups; sisters and wives. When one of his wives has a baby, it always seems to be female. He makes sure the women wear plain, homespun dresses. They lead a life the Amish would find rustic.
But Selah isn’t like the other cult members. She’s intelligent, headstrong and doesn’t accept everything at face value. She is warned by outcast wife Sarah (Gough) that Shepherd isn’t necessarily the loving and caring creature he makes himself out to be. And as the outside world begins to encroach on their wooded paradise, Shepherd decides to move his flock to an even more remote, pastoral location where he can continue to live life as he sees fit but Selah, on the cusp of her first period, soon realizes that Shepherd is keeping some mighty dark secrets from his flock.
This largely allegorical tale incorporates elements of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Apostle into a beautiful pastoral setting. Cinematographer Michal Englert is the unsung hero here, filming the misty Irish countryside with a kind of grey sheen that is both oppressive and beautiful at the same time. This is as beautiful a film as it is disturbing.
Huisman, looking every inch the WASP Jesus, has the charisma to pull off the role. Handsome and soft-spoken, it’s not hard to figure ot why the women fall for him as they do. Shepherd is a master manipulator, as many sexual predators are. There’s a scene in which the flock grows almost hysterical in their devotion, whipped into a frenzy by their love for Shepherd. But, as Chrissie Hynde once sang, there’s a thin line between love and hate.
Cassidy is absolutely revelatory here. Already haven distinguished herself with performances in Vox Lux and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, she knocks it out of the park here. It’s always telling when you realize that she really doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to utter; much of her performance is done facially and through body language. There is a scene with Huisman when she is initiated into wife-hood that is heartbreaking and makes you want to reach through the screen and rescue her.
It is one of several scenes of disturbing content, such as one where Selah encounters a lamb prematurely born, hairless and in terrible pain. This isn’t a horror film per se, but one can’t discount the elements in it as being horrific. In that sense, the film will chill you to the bone.
It’s not perfect, though. The film drags a little bit and there is a lack of context that makes it hard to follow the action, occasionally. Szumowska has stated that the film is “a dark cry against the patriarchy” and if ever something deserved a cacophony of banshee-like shrieks, it’s the patriarchy but in some ways it fees a bit manufactured; certainly we’ve seen enough films about cults and this doesn’t really add a lot to the overall “cults are bad” dialogue.
This is the kind of movie that demands your full attention. When you watch it, make sure your smart phone is put away, the shades are drawn and any distractions are set aside. You can’t watch this passively, or as background noise. Give it the benefit of your commitment. You’ll be glad you did.
REASONS TO SEE: Cassidy delivers a powerful performance. Creepy and foreboding throughout.
REASONS TO AVOID: Does the world need another “cults are bad” movie?
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, some sudden and unexpected violence and much sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Three cast members (Kelly Campbell, Eve Connolly, Isabelle Connolly) have also appeared in the History Channel series Vikings.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Martha Marcy May Marlene
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Creed II