#460: The Reckoning
Exploitation in the time of plague
Initial release: 2020
Directed by: Neil Marshall
CW: for discussion of sexual assault.
Sometimes I look at the kind of films today that get made amidst the towering juggernauts of superhero megafranchises and I get this distinct vibe that filmmakers are trying to bring back the 1970s, that we’re in the midst of a revival of the exploitation film, a distinctly 1960s/1970s genre of film that reflected the grim trends of an era rife with poverty, pollution, violence, warfare, corruption and the backlash to changing attitudes on race, gender and sexuality. And it would seem that we’re ripe for such a revival, in the age of late-stage capitalism, the right-wing cultural revolution of 2014 and its social and political effects in the eight years since, and the pervasive sense that somewhere along the line we’ve really gone off the rails as a society.
That these films exist amidst the ever-growing hegemony of Disney franchises and Disney-wannabes actually speaks more to their relative pessimism, not less, as while these films may not always challenge the status quo so much as cast a dark mirror image of it, the fact is that the endless Marvel and Star Wars movies, and the move towards a sort of beautiful sterility with budgets that could feed half the poorer nations of the world and casts that are more like celibate Greek gods than real people, serve as a perfect foil, something to point at and say, “whatever we got wrong in our movies, at least our characters are human.”
Which brings me to The Reckoning, a curiously-timed take on the rape-and-revenge genre (think I Spit On Your Grave.) Set in 1665 as the bubonic plague rages around England, a smart, knowledgeable young woman named Grace (the infamous Charlotte Kirk, who also co-wrote the script) finds herself a widow when her husband, infected with the plague, commits suicide, leaving her to raise their baby alone. Not long after, her landlord shows up, demanding money; she winds up giving him her and her husband’s wedding rings, but when he attempts to force a “different arrangement” she throws him out of the house at gunpoint. Before long, he has her accused of witchcraft; a renowned witchfinder (who had murdered her mother years before) is called in to torment her, but she refuses to confess; ultimately, despite the tortures she endures, she manages to find a way to escape through a few sympathetic side characters, while also getting her revenge on her landlord and the witchfinder.
While her landlord, brutish and brutal, isn’t actually successful in his attempt to rape her, I think the film still counts as a rape-and-revenge film. Grace spends much of the film alternating between being tortured in increasingly cruel ways, and increasingly disturbing hallucinations, haunted by the spectres of her dead husband and mother, and the Devil himself demanding her submission; but in the film’s third act, the plan she orchestrates with a sympathetic young boy who’s been looking after her in her cell comes to fruition as she manages to force a confrontation with her enemies, convincing the witchfinder that he’s been infected with plague (and driving him to attempt suicide as the castle burns down around him) and reducing her landlord to a sniveling wreck begging for his life before decapitating him for good, both profoundly satisfying moments in a movie full of pain and violence.
It’s that sense of satisfaction that I think is the big draw behind rape-and-revenge flicks — a desire for vengeance, or at least for some type of closure, is pretty common for trauma survivors. In a film about institutionalized misogyny, in the end it’s the men who are destroyed, one by one: Grace’s landlord decapitated, the witchfinder left to burn with his hand nailed to a table, Grace’s jailers torn in half by a blunderbuss, the faux-kindly neighbor who participated in her capture murdered by his wife. And the film has something to say about the women who threw Grace under the horse-drawn carriage as well, with the Roma woman who joined in the accusations eventually imprisoned herself, only to be gratefully freed later, and the twisted, burned thing who was once a victim of the witchfinder but now gleefully serves as an assistant eventually meeting a fiery end.
That’s not to say this is a brilliant film. The rape-and-revenge genre presents several obvious problematic aspects on its face; while it’s sometimes held up as an example of a female empowerment fantasy, of transposing the supposed defilement of the victim onto the perpetrator, the fact remains that the genre is centered around a reactive attitude to misogyny. There’s a reason it’s called exploitation film, and that’s because the heroine suffering before she can get her revenge is the whole point. The Reckoning is a film that seemingly has a lot to say, but is unwilling to let its characters do the talking; they’re largely two-dimensional, with even Sean Pertwee reduced to a moustache-twirling villain, and the film’s focus on Grace seems to neglect the other women in the film who are also affected by all this. While it’s slickly produced and edited (the opening montage in particular is brilliant, intercutting Grace burying her husband with the events that led to him needing to be buried) it’s generally unwilling to plumb any emotional depths.
There’s something absurd to me about a film that wants to make a statement about institutionalized misogyny and the women who survive it, but is simultaneously too tame and too heavy-handed about it to have any cogent message. Nevertheless, The Reckoning is a sharply produced work from the man who gave us The Descent and the woman who put Brett Ratner’s career to the torch. If nothing else, it stands as a reflection of the successes and flaws of the #MeToo era, in a world that still hates women (and is overrun by disease.)