Thursday, October 29, 2009

Movies: Saving grace.

William Blake once wrote that it was better to smother an infant in its cradle then to nurse unsatisfied desire. The murderous narcissism of nursed unsatisfied desires isn't just a theme in first-time feature director/writer Paul Solet's brilliantly played slow-burn horrorshow Grace, Solet makes it his monster. Sure there is a blood-and-flesh-eating undead tyke at the heart of the film, but it is really just a MacGuffin. Only slightly more grotesque than your average child, the fairly harmless monster baby is scary only in the way it affords the rest of Solet's characters the chance to truly become monstrous. An acid-etched, deeply misanthropic study of the modern family: a vapidly craving, painfully white, shallowly moral existence rendered sick by its own unexamined definitions of happiness, there's plenty of creepy things in Solet's dark flick; but the baby's hardly one of them. Far scarier is that selfish, ravenous egotism that destroys in the name of love. And that particular beast stomps its way through Grace like Godzilla through Tokyo.

For those who haven't seen this film – and you should: there's far more power and truth behind Grace's indiscriminately nihilistic view of suburban malaise than there is in the po-faced slumming platitudes of Mendes' sheep-in-wolf's-clothing American Beauty - it play's out like so: Madeline and Michael are two well-heeled upper middle class types who are trying to conceive. Michael is a milquetoast under the thumb of his tyrant mother, a retired judge named Vivian (Michael takes after his silent, suffering, insignificant father, Henry), which is unfortunate as it basically leaves between the rock of his WASPy mother domestic dictatorship and the hard place of Madeline's vacuously smug pseudo-Enlightenment. As luck would have it, Michael seals the deal and puts Madge in a motherly way. Sadly, fairly late in the pregnancy, Mike and Madge are in a car accident (they own a hybrid SUV, natch) that compels a shuffling off of Michael's mortal coil and snuffs the fetus in Madge's tumbly.

With the approval of her supposedly quite wise mid-wife, Madge decides to take the corpse to term and squeezes out the dead kid in a specialized Jacuzzi the mid-wife keeps for just such a purpose. But – miracle of miracles – the baby does not seem dead. Against all logic, the mid-wife lets Madge take little, cold, creepy Grace home. It's no spoiler to announce that Grace is not what you'd call a healthy baby. She stinks like a poisoned rat that's given up the ghost behind the walls of your house and she boots any food except human blood. And yet, poor insane Madge, fueled by that sacred love that binds mothers to any monster they may manage to force out of their breeding chute, decides to raise Grace as she is, feeding her blood sucked from her own breast (in a bizarre literalization of the Elizabethan Era metaphor that held that pelicans symbolized motherhood because – according to the mistaken notions of the time – they fed their young by piercing their own breast and suckling them on their blood).

To complicate things, Viv goes nuts after the death of her son and hatches a plot to seize Grace. It should be noted that Viv is unaware that Grace is a zombie baby; Viv simply wants to claim control over the bloodline she spawned and is willing to roll over Madge to do so. Viv involves a family doc over whom she seems to exert an erotic influence (there's a hint of misadventure in his past, something Viv might be exploiting given her previous history as a judge) and convinces the repressed skeez physician to call on Madge: All the better to declare her unfit, my dear. Only Madge "Audrey II"'s him, setting the stage for a final confrontation between Madge and Viv.

One of the more interesting aspects of Grace is the irrelevance of its titular character – or, rather, the Godot-ish relevance of her. One can that, in parallel universes, there are versions of Grace in which the baby is just a fun-sized corpse or a post-miscarriage depression induced figment of Madge's imagination. One can even imagine a melodrama in which Grace survived birth, but ended up brain dead or in a comma or something. Her zombie-ness is, while not totally irrelevant, not what drives the story. (Even when Madge feeds Grace the doctor, it occurs after she killed the doctor in an effort to prevent him from seeing the conditions her and Grace are living in – he's not killed to feed Grace.) This isn't to say Grace is sloppily made or doesn't hold together well. Grace's cannibalistic nature is a smartly done visual conceit for the larger family's willingness to eat itself in the mad pursuit of what they crave. Instead, it is praise for how confident Solet is in executing his scheme.

The characterization in Grace has been justly praised, though I think much of this praise has mischaracterized (as it were) Solet's work. Much has been made of Solet's careful handling of female characters and his supposedly feminist agenda; Grace had the misfortune of hit people's Netflix queues just as there was an absurd blogger dust up over whether or not there was such a thing as feminism in horror films (of course there is – the dude who started the whole kerfuffle admitted that he only assumed there wasn't because he never thought of films as feminist; that is about as solid an argument as color-blind person arguing there no such thing as red or green because he's never seen them). Consequently, it briefly became an ill-suited poster-flick for fright film feminism. While it's easy to see how worthwhile feminist readings of the flick can be generated, I think such interpretations miss the real power of Solet's vision: Grace is an all encompassing satire of how we live today, a scorched Earth style examination of the amoral selfishness of a culture that considers relentless self-regard as a form of deep wisdom. Grace is more Lovecraft than Freidan. It's not so much against the patriarchy as, to crib (Hah! That's a joke boy!) a title from a critical essay on H.P., "against the world, against life."

If one wants to make a claim for Solet's feminism, one could at least claim that Solet does not play favorites with genders (or sexual orientations) and treats them just as he treats the male characters in his film: They are destructive idiots. Never in doubt, especially when they are in error, they constantly place their desires before their reason, deaf to the efforts of others to lure them off the path to their doom. It's a source of darkly humorous irony that Grace's characters are so self-absorbed that they don't even need to fool others – as long as they're sure, then that's all they need to carry on. Indeed, this becomes a sort of motif in the flick: Characters are only able to fool themselves, so they are constantly brushing off the obviously good advice of others on the flimsiest pretences. When Michael wonders if the Madge's midwife has any medical training, he's treated as if he's a boor. When the midwife's assistant says that Madge needs full-on medical attention, she's dismissed on the grounds that the clearly losing her mind Madge "knows what she wants." When Viv puts her plans to steal Grace in motion, her stalking horse doctor tries to warn her off to no effect. And so on and so on.

With reason binned, the characters have nothing left to go on but impulse. Everything becomes relative. Madge's hectoring vegetarianism, for example, is tossed out the window the moment it clashes with Grace's clearly abnormal needs. The midwife's professionalism, which comes wrapped in the high-handed moralism that the distinct privilege of the righteous autodidact, and the ethics of the doctor are similarly disposable. In the face of erotic desire, they shed it easily. Throughout the film, Madge watches vegan torture porn: documentaries about the meat industry featuring extended sequences of slaughterhouses. At first, the viewer assumes this links to Madge's vegetarianism in some way and, indeed, in the flick Madge watches this stuff to reinforce the feelings of moral superiority she feels by abstaining from carnivorous behavior. But, for the viewer, they're meant to send a more general message about just how bloody people are ready to get in order to satisfy their hunger. Madge, Viv, and just about everybody else in this picture are ready to spill all manner of blood, so long as they get their way.

For me, a well done horror flick should be like punk rock – it's a resounding no in a culture of yes. Grace has bucketloads of no to pass out: No to well-meant but shallowly held ideological convictions, no to the modern cult of motherhood, no to smothering morality of family values, no to irresponsibility disguised as empowerment. Whatever it is, Grace is against it. In that sense, Grace is the one of the best horror flicks I've seen in a long time.

5 comments:

Adam Blomquist said...

One of the smartest and most eloquent write-ups of the movie out there. Great stuff.

Sasquatchan said...

Intriguing. Not sure it'll make the DVD player at home, but interesting still..

Saw on another site this link, thought it might warrant a mention or discussion: http://threatquality.com/2009/10/28/a-hierarchy-of-monsters/ (as in, I read it, and thought, "This seems like something CRWM would do..")

Carrie said...

Huh. I missed a chance to see a screening of this and now I am kicking myself.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Thanks for the link. Funny stuff. Not sure I agree with all the match-ups though.

CRwM said...

Adam,

Thanks for the kinds words.