Friday, June 27, 2014

Antichrist: Nature Red In Tooth And Claw

One of the side effects I’ve noticed of writing this thing of mine is that occasionally friends will ask me for movie recommendations, and I’ve learned to preface any recommendations by feeling them out as to their basic comfort level for different types of stories and imagery. Because, see, there are horror films, and then there are horror films. There are the entertaining horror films, the ones that provide a thrill ride, some vicarious scares, a shiver and a startle, and it’s all in good fun. There’s something liberating about being scared in a safe environment, at opening the pressure valve on our everyday anxieties with a shriek, and lots of people like those sort of movies. But then there are the - for lack of a better term - serious horror films. The ones that are intent on plumbing our nightmares, digging deep into our collective unconscious and emerging with something unspeakable in their hands. These are the ones that face the worst we have to offer and speak to it in imagery that communicates directly in the ugliest way. These aren’t thrill rides, these are serious plunges into the worst corners of human experience, and they are not here to spook you. They are here to make you very uncomfortable.

I have been working up the courage to watch Antichrist pretty much since I started writing this thing. It is a painting of sadness, dread, grief, and rage both implosive and explosive. It will not entertain you, but it is a monolithic testament to the idea of horror.

The movie is about two people: He and She. That is all we get. They are stripped to their gender identifiers, and this is important. The movie opens in lush black and white, an aria plays, everything is in slow motion. He and She are having vigorous sex in their shower. Water falls slowly enough to be captured as single drops. In the other room, their son - Nick, the only person in the movie with a name - climbs out of his crib and wanders into another room. He sees snow falling outside at the same languid rate as the water falls upon He and She in the throes of their passion. Nick bypasses the baby gate, climbs up onto a desk, reaching for the snow, and as He and She reach their climax, Nick falls out an open window, slowly, almost luxuriantly. several stories to the concrete below.

People say that the death of a child is incomprehensible, that it is the worst thing that can possibly happen and is impossible to imagine. This, the worst of all things, is the linchpin event. She is still hospitalized a month later, her doctor keeping her on a steady regimen of tranquilizers. He is not happy about this. He is a psychotherapist, and he thinks the doctors do not know what they are doing. He is sure that he knows what is best for She. He acknowledges that treating your own family is normally one of the worst mistakes you can make as a therapist, but in THIS instance, he knows he’s right to do so. His arrogance does not lose a step.

So He checks She out of the hospital, has her flush all of her medication down the toilet, and begins his role as her therapist, when what She needs is her husband. Surprisingly, it does not go well, and He decides that more drastic measures are necessary. He resolves to take them to Eden, their cabin deep in the forest, where She worked on her dissertation, and there He will cure She.

He knows best.

What follows is a portrait of a couple in total and absolute nihilistic free-fall, as issues of control, consent, and the prisons of gender intersect with a wilderness not just indifferent, but actively malevolent. Eden is a bad place, and it takes their private strife and stretches it across a bloody canvas.

The violence in this film is total - it is physical, psychological, and emotional in scope. She is a raw, open wound, less paralyzed by her loss than contorted and deformed by it. It is a wild, primal grief and He attempts to impose logic on it, to define and constrain her experience in terms of reason and logic and rules and science, in utter negation of what she is experiencing. His arrogance in his own expertise is the arrogance of every man (especially but not restricted to every medical or therapeutic professional) who is utterly sure that they understand a woman's experience better than they do. She is suffering - she blames herself for Nick’s death and she wants desperately to die. He won’t let her. He is sure he can fix her, cure her, and in doing so he doesn’t much cross the line between husband and therapist as burn it down and piss on the ashes. He is professional when she needs someone loving, and he wants love when she is in crisis. He makes her do fear exposure exercises, patronizes and infantilizes her. She is close to feral in her self-destructiveness, and He blithely dismisses it as another puzzle to solve, another case to work. Anywhere else this would be a problem, but in Eden, everything is reduced to its most primal state. This is the forest, this is nature red in tooth and claw, evinced in shocking imagery and a relentless sense that the forest is closing in. The forest does not want them there, and the longer they are there, the worse things will get.

So, then, this isn’t just a psychological horror film or just a supernatural horror film, but both. The horror is absolute. It is the horror of losing a child, and it isthe horror of watching someone make absolutely the wrong decision at every turn (don't treat your spouse like a client, don't go into the woods), it is the horror of a relationship descending into madness, and it is the horror of a vision of nature that is utterly malevolent without once feeling unnatural. There are horror movie beats - mysterious noises, nightmares, going places at night by lamplight, unnatural visions - but they're used in service of a story that transcends typical horror cliche. This movie doesn't use monsters as stand-ins for human problems, the human problems evoke the monsters, call the dead, raise the spirits of the forest, of nature itself. If women are of nature and men propose to stand outside nature, here is where nature rises up and smites man for his arrogance.

And this is the final piece of the puzzle - He and She are in a sense all Hes and all Shes. Throughout this film, the idea that women are irrational objects to study and "correct" is interrogated - She is an example of how this is utterly corrosive to a woman's spirit and identity, when it is completely internalized. Her dissertation was on the history of misogyny, and too late, He realizes what so much time immersed in those ideas has done. And He is an example of the folly of this rational approach, so common among men who are used to having agency and influence, who are used to a world where making the rules means that the rules apply. But here, in the forest, in the realm of nature, of the woman, no matter how much you want to stamp your foot and make the world obey the rules you formulated, Mother Nature is not trying to hear your shit. The mistakes of poorly done therapy resulting from a man’s belief that he knows the mind of a woman, imagery evoking the witch hunts, medieval ideas about anatomy and witchcraft, even the practice of suttee - it's all here, displayed in its horror for righteous condemnation. It is an excoriation, a Boschian howl of rage uttered by a wounded animal.

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Available on Amazon Instant Video
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