Paul Solet, “Grace” (2009).

Oct 02 2010

Grace

Grace seems, at times, to be a cruel little film, but it’s probably one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in quite some time, its abysmal 4.5 rating on IMDB notwithstanding. The blurb (from USA Today, certainly more trustworthy than myself) compares Paul Solet’s film to “a Stephen King tale,” in contrast to a “splatter-fest horror flick,” but that’s accurate only to the extent that King has long flirted with, and succumbed to, the idea of placing children in mortal danger. In Grace, the aforementioned peril also involves the child’s pregnant mother, Madeline Matheson (played by a good Jordan Ladd), who is determined to deliver her baby through natural childbirth. I don’t really want to reveal too many details about the movie, except to write that things go very wrong, and the grieving mother makes what seems like an indefensible decision, but the screenplay is finely engineered enough so that her choice, and a subsequent miraculous plot twist, are, by horror-movie logic, utterly believable. Yes, you more or less see where the film is going after the first half hour is over, but that’s the joy of it. There’s nothing like anticipation to make you squirm.

Wait, did I just write “joy?” Thankfully, Grace isn’t wholly grim, despite its subject matter, but it’s certainly horrific in both visceral and psychological ways. The comparison in the blurb may be to Stephen King, but I’d argue instead that Roman Polanski is the more apparent cinematic inspiration. Rosemary’s Baby is the obvious comparison, and not just because they share concerns with obstetric matters. There’s a sharp, subtle wit in Solet’s observations of (for lack of a better term) the vegan community – not as keenly examined as Polanski’s Manhattan, obviously, but there’s a clear attempt in Grace to situate the repulsive events in a particular social milieu.

And speaking of “repulsive,” Grace also brings to mind Repulsion, once the film takes a dark turn into solitary, confined insanity. (At some points Ladd wears her blonde hair like a harried Catherine Deneuve.) Solet elicits disgust from slightly more ordinary things than what your average horror movie does — slabs of raw meat, rotting fruit, dead rats, breast milk, unwashed blenders, sex among the elderly — and it’s surprisingly effective. We are, instead, revolted by the mundane.

I haven’t entirely figured out whether the film is, with its implications, essentially misogynistic, or a knowing satire about the worry-filled world of American prenatal care and the subsequent tyranny of parents by their children. I tend to think it’s more of the latter, if only because there’s an undercurrent of sympathy running through all the proceedings. Take, for instance, a scene where the baby monitor is both a source of dread and tension: we hear Grace’s cooings slowly becoming more and more agitated, and see Madeline’s mounting panic in her eyes, and we understand, at that moment, this almost-literal example of how parents are reduced to years of enslavement.

Ladd’s character comes across as a woman who’s a hair’s breadth away from hysterics, but she’s less undone by bereavement than by ordinary fear. She’s not entirely lovable, maybe, but Grace isn’t necessarily a mean parody either; Madeline’s fussiness is merely symptomatic of her — and by extension, the 21st-century American parent’s — all-consuming anxiety about doing what she thinks is best for her (unborn) child.

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