In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on MovieJawn.
The opening of The Reckoning seems to indicate that at some point this project was supposed to be a TV show. I can’t confirm this for sure because that would involve research, and at this juncture, researching into the motivations behind this film would take more effort than it is worth. But nonetheless it feels like a lot of story has been cut out in order to deliver us a greatest hits reel of plot points, only the hits aren’t really that great. Within the opening ten minutes or so we get an aggressive amount of plot, and every lick of it is dumped upon us in the form of an artless, convoluted montage that bounces between two separate timelines, each with the same end point.
In it we follow a young couple, Grace and Joseph (Charlotte Kirk and Joe Anderson, respectively, the former of whom also co-wrote the film) during the times of the Great Plague in Europe. Everyone is on lockdown, and there is a huge mistrust held toward out-of-towners. In the first of these two adjacent narratives we watch as Grace finds her spouse hanging by his neck from the tree out front. In the second, we follow Joe as he is infected with Plague by an ill-meaning squire, and then decides to hang himself so as to spare his wife and child of potential infection. Rather than showing us all of this in a basic, straightforward fashion, we get it in the aforementioned dual montage form, which robs the sequence of just about everything that could make it compelling. By the end of the opening exposition dump (and it really is a dump), I was already checked out of the movie entirely.
After this montage wraps and the proper story can begin, things are not going well for Grace. Now a single mother in a time where women were considered property and/or staff, she’s become the target of the gross affections of powerful men, namely the squire who may have purposefully infected her husband with the disease that led him to suicide. She rebuffs the squire’s advances outright, and when he forces himself upon her, she fights back HARD. And since few things are more spiteful than a powerful man who was told he can’t have sex with any woman he wants, Grace is soon accused of witchcraft and placed on trial.
This is certainly a workable angle through which to make a story out of these shameful pages from human history, but instead of exploring what’s going in a class/gender sense, the film instead takes the shape of the most formulaic application imaginable of Diet Torture Porn (true Torture Porn taste, only one calorie). We have our heroine declaring that she will never admit to being a witch, and our torturer (Sean Pertwee) declaring that he will not stop torturing her until she admits to being a witch. Then we watch a little torture, a little cleanup, and then we do the hokey pokey, and turn ourselves around. This is what it’s all about:
–I’m not a witch and I will never admit it no matter how much you torture me!
–Yes you are and I will torture you until you admit it!
Then comes some torture. And then:
–That was awful, but I’m still not a witch!
–Then it’s more torture for ye!
Then there’s some more torture. Lather, rinse, repeat for just under two hours and then go to bed unsatisfied.
Being a Neil Marshall film (he made The Descent and Dog Soldiers, two undeniable classics of genre cinema) one can expect some decent gore effects, applied in surprising ways, and while The Reckoning does indeed try deliver on that front, it doesn’t do so in a way that’s at all comparable to his finest work. Most moments designed to scare are blink-and-you-miss-it quick, or are so cheaply rendered/conceived, that it fails to get a reaction. When it comes to the scenes of actual torture, I guess some credit is due to Marshall for making them effective without being as overtly gory as is typical in his work, but they still play as ill-conceived and borderline exploitative. What Marshall proved with his previous work is that if you’re going to go hard, the only way out is through. You need to go all the way or not at all. Otherwise you get a movie like this one, which feels simultaneously neutered and in poor taste.
It also helps if the score isn’t as bland and omnipresent as it is here. The music is endlessly busy, and it pretty much never ceases. Much like a lot of the creative decisions on display, it is applied artlessly and only as a means to functionality, with the irony being that it barely functions.
One thing to applaud here are the performances. Everyone is giving their all, and in the few moments where the desired reaction is elicited in the viewer, it’s invariably due to the commitment of the actors. All seem to get the tone of the material, and even though most individual arcs are choppy at best or incomplete at worst, there’s no denying that a stronger script (or, if my supposition is correct, a script that has more room to breathe, like in a TV show) would have afforded these performers the opportunity to NOT have to do so much heavy lifting for so little reward.
The name of the game here is “missed opportunity,” and The Reckoning is full of them. On paper, this is a great way to mix history, social commentary, and elements of horror into something special. But in execution, it’s torture.