film festivals

Sundance 2022 and the many faces of horror and abuse

Jason Tan Liwag
Sundance 2022 and the many faces of horror and abuse
'Speak No Evil,' 'FRESH,' 'Resurrection,' and 'We Need To Talk About Cosby' capture the many forms of cruelty on film

In Sundance 2022, three films and one documentary series exposed its audiences to the many faces and forms of abuse and cruelty — from seemingly friendly and well-intentioned strangers in Speak No Evil and FRESH, to long-forgotten lovers in Resurrection, to a high-profile serial rapist in We Need To Talk About Cosby.

Punishing pleasantries and politeness in ‘Speak No Evil

While vacationing in Italy, a Danish couple named Bjørn and Louise (Morten Burian and Sidsel Siem Koch) find themselves fed up with rigid schedules and the people they’ve met. Opting instead to walk around the city with their daughter Agnes (Liva Forsberg), the pair meet Dutch couple Patrick and Karin (Fedja van Huêt and Karina Smulders) and their son Abel (Marius Damslev) whom they immediately befriend. The families hit it off so well that when Bjørn and Louise arrive back home, they find a postcard from Patrick and Karin waiting for them, inviting the couple to their rural Holland home.

What begins as an idyllic vacation turns into a series of increasingly uncomfortable situations: Patrick feeds Louise wild boar upon their arrival, even if she previously told them she was vegetarian; Karin makes Agnes share a room with Abel, but asks her to sleep on the floor; and Louise wakes up to see Agnes in bed with the nude Dutch couple. When they return after an attempt to leave, their experiences of discomfort and disrespect are dismissed as oversight and even ungratefulness. Despite this, they stay.

In Speak No Evil, director and co-writer Christian Tafdrup creates an atmosphere of safety and captures how innocent people are lured into unwanted, abusive situations; punishing pleasantries and politeness in the process. In these small excuses, one family is able to place the blame on another, training them to be compliant and treating every act of speaking up as a weapon against them. While on paper these may sound off alarms to observers, abuse is difficult to identify, let alone resist, when you’re experiencing it. As the boundaries of what is acceptable begin to blur, the fates of the characters begin to clear up and what is revealed is a truth more horrifying because you see it coming.

No wonder Shudder picked up the film.

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The terrors of singlehood in ‘FRESH

After a string of unsolicited dick pics, unresponsive matches, and rude first dates, Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is done with the dating scene. But when she meets the charming doctor Steve (Sebastian Stan) at the produce section of a grocery store, it seems like her days of suffering are over. Her best friend Millie (Jonica T. Gibbs) believes it’s too good to be true, but after a long period of exhaustion and loneliness, Noa deserves to take the risk, right? I mean, can you blame her? Who wouldn’t fall for Sebastian Stan?

Everyone has a dating “horror” story, but few ramp it up to the level of director Mimi Cave’s tense and deliciously wicked FRESH. Cave injects so much style into the film that it elevates Lauryn Kahn’s uneven script to create an indelible and overwhelming audiovisual feast. Much of the success can be attributed to composer Alex Somers (Honey Boy) and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski (Midsommar) who fill the film with the grotesque images and the kind of unsettling thrum that will make you retch and awe in the face of genre goodness. When the rug is pulled from underneath Noa’s feet, you can’t help but cave (no pun intended) in with her.

But beneath the veneer and the excellent performances, the characterization is shallow and the cruel world from which FRESH depends on is only hinted at, never fully explored. Though the film’s final act is admittedly disappointing (even if I found myself laughing at the sheer implausibility), it gives us a fascinating peek into how the richest of the rich satisfy their cravings, even at the expense of others.

Returning patterns in “Resurrection”

Arguably the most horrifying non-Midnight section film in Sundance is Andrew Seman’s Resurrection: a film about Margaret (Rebecca Hall), a successful executive at a biotech firm and a single mother to the spunky high school senior Abbie (Grace Kaufman). Whatever semblance of normalcy they have slowly becomes undone when a figure from Margaret’s past reappears — her former lover David Moore (Tim Roth). But what begins as a run-of-the-mill psychological thriller transmogrifies into something far more insidious; the kind that the rational mind cannot accept but the subconscious knows far too well.

At the center of Resurrection is a towering performance by Rebecca Hall, whose every furtive move and panicked glance conveys all the pieces of personal history that she is unable to verbalize. In a monologue midway through the film, Seman, cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, and editor Ron Dulin leave the camera on Hall as she unspools the knot that has been bothering her. The scene that unravels is simultaneously transfixing and unsettling, as Hall talks about details so unsettling that you wonder how she’s still held together; her face serving as a map on which her character’s arc is drawn.

Roth and Kaufman provide excellent support, as their characters pull her towards the opposite poles of sanity. The further Margaret descends into previously abandoned cycles, the more her psyche splinters and her collapse seems inevitable. The rational mind can be trained to unlearn its irrationalities. But Resurrection demonstrates that the effects of abuse run past the rational and any progress, no matter how far, can be as quickly and as surely erased.

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“We Need To Talk About Cosby” and what to do with the art of bad men

Where does one begin with Bill Cosby? 

He’s one of the most influential figures in American comedy and television history, largely with how he influenced representation onscreen with works such as Fat Albert, I Spy, and The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby had opened doors for so many Black artists, especially Black stuntmen, but it was also through his carefully cultivated persona that he gained access to his victims, with his Grammy-winning comedy albums containing what seem to be confessions of his alleged* crimes. The power he accrued as a comedian, the image he constructed as a trustworthy sitcom star, and the opportunities he had access to were what he dangled in front of unassuming women, and were deeply intertwined with his method of alleged sexual assault and rape.

There are many economic ways of terminating support, but how does one wrestle with the art of bad men? Can we truly separate the art from the artist? Do we stop engaging with it like Stephen Colbert or do we continue to enjoy it for what it was like Jerry Seinfeld? It’s easy to believe that Cosby’s legacy was only one of two extremes. But by presenting his complicated legacy, director W. Kamau Bell is able to create a fuller picture not only of Cosby himself, but the society which ignored the pleas of the women around him and enabled him to continue his alleged crimes and the methods through which he was able to escape accountability and punishment. Such is the nature of grappling with any form of cruelty: to acknowledge the complexity, one must understand that good can also be a source of great evil. – Rappler.com

*In light of the recent overturning of his conviction in June 2021, we are legally obligated to refer to these crimes as alleged.

Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.