Rebecca Hall’s Margaret carries herself very much like an ultra-high-functioning executive in the early scenes of “Resurrection.” She works at a company whose exact line of work is kept kind of vague, and has an office with a door, and inside that office, she listens to her intern Gwen confess misgivings about the fellow she’s currently dating. When Gwen speaks of the guy’s sarcasm, Margaret clarifies: “He makes jokes at your expense.” After giving Gwen some solid and unforgiving advice, she assures the younger colleague, who asks her not to mention the situation to anyone, of her discretion: “Of course not. Fort Knox.”
Margaret is tightly wound in every respect — when she goes out for a run, her form is rather like Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” And she is also full of secrets. Some are relatively recent: She’s sleeping with a married co-worker. Another, a very big one, goes back over two decades.
One morning Allie (Grace Kaufman) Margaret’s 18-year-old daughter — of whom Margaret is overly protective, and it’s going to get worse — shows her mother something she found in her change purse. A human tooth, stained with tartar, grotty in the way that adult human teeth disconnected from their owners tend to be. Well, that’s weird. And a little after that, Margaret sees, at a conference, a man who terrifies her so much she gets up, leaves the building, and T-1000s it all the way back to her apartment.
After that, ultra-high-functioning Margaret begins to unravel at head-spinning speed. While shopping with Allie, who’s worn the same dull orange hoodie throughout the picture (Margaret’s own wardrobe tends toward punishingly Prada-esque gray pantsuits), she sees the man again. And again, at a park, where she confronts him. His name is David, he’s a part of the decades-old secret, and he’s played by Tim Roth.
No actor alive does tetchy like Roth. Just raising his head and looking into the middle distance, he seems to have Resting Vexed Face. It’s the face of a person you don’t want to rouse to anger. Roth makes concentrated, purposeful use of this performance feature here. First, David insists he’s not David. Then he tacitly admits he is. Enigmatically, he says “Ben is with me,” tapping his belly. Rising from a park bench he looks at Margaret, and he grins. The grin is noteworthy not just for its transparent phoniness but because it reveals David’s got a tooth missing.
Just who is David? Margaret is not too forthcoming when she goes to the police and tries to take out an order of protection against him. Instead, impulsively, she tells a long, grotesque, and in some particulars very improbable story to Gwen in a stunning, single-shot monologue. This story explains, to an extent, Margaret’s nightmare in which she takes a still-living baby out of an oven where it’s been baking.
Hall’s intensity should surprise no one familiar with her past work, but here she seems to stretch out on the edge of an existential razor to an extent that you may worry for her as much as you do for the character.
As fierce as Margaret is in her determination to “protect” herself and her daughter from David, she is still under this man’s thrall. He requests that she do him “a kindness.” (And this is an echo of Gwen’s account of the bad boyfriend asking her to “do things” for him.) The first such thing David asks is for her to walk to work barefoot.
And Margaret does. This, and several other story points here, make trenchant (at least the filmmakers hope they’re trenchant) observations about our society’s subjugation of women, not dissimilar to those drawn in Alex Garland’s recent “Men.”
Writer-director Andrew Semans and cinematographer Wyatt Garfield shoot the story in a clean, cool direct style that’s well-suited to its aptly-placed and judicious shock scares. The Albany, N.Y., setting is both generic and unusual — frequent shots of the performance-art building known as “The Egg” add to an otherworldly feel.
But like many other contemporary psychological thrillers, “Resurrection” is far better at building up tension than it is in pulling together its narrative threads. It’s a little over-infatuated with its own perceived complexity, as if giving the audience any kind of conventionally plausible wrap-up is beneath its mission.
Hence, it’s one of those pictures that is likely to elicit confounded groans when the end credits begin to roll. “What did you want to make,” one might ask the filmmaker, “a horror picture or an allegory on civilizational ills?” “Why can’t one do both?” the filmmaker might reply.
One can. Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” was an imperfect example, albeit arguably successful where it counted. But when your allegory all but subsumes your horror picture, a good segment of the audience isn’t going to care how high you’ve tried to “elevate” the genre, or the statement you embed in that ostensible elevation.
Written and directed by Andrew Semans. Starring Rebecca Hall, Grace Kaufman, Tim Roth, Angela Wong Carbone, Michael Esper. Available on demand starting Aug. 5. 103 minutes. Not rated (the movie contains a lot of harsh language, some gore, and several shock scares).