Review Date: October 30, 2009
Released by: Anchor Bay
Release date: 9/15/2009
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
I saw Grace
earlier this year at a film festival. I didnít know what it was about; what little I knew of it was by reputation only. Iíd seen the reports online of people (mostly men) fainting during screenings and that piqued my curiosity. Were they hardcore genre addicts like myself, or were they people with weak constitutions that had stumbled into the theatre not knowing what they were in for, or was the film truly that much of an ordeal to sit through? I slunk down in the chair of a darkened theatre, ready to find out. While I was watching Grace
, I began to feel lightheaded and queasy. I tried to shake it off but when the birth scene came I couldnít take it any more, I left the theatre for the bathroom where I spent twenty minutes splashing water on my face and trying not to pass out. While I was in the bathroom of the small community theatre where the screening was taking place I heard maybe half a dozen walkouts, all echoing similar sentiments: ďI like it but I just canít take it.Ē I returned for the last half hour or so and managed to make it through, albeit a little worse for the wear. While never very graphic in terms of onscreen violence, the film is nevertheless ruthless in the oppressiveness of the atmosphere.
Madeline Matheson (Jordan Ladd
) and her husband Michael (Stephen Park
) have been trying to conceive for a long time. As the film opens they are just finishing the coital session that finally leads to the conception of their first child. Despite her insistence on using a midwife and having a natural birth Michaelís mother Vivian (Gabrielle Rose
), a domineering woman who still exerts influence over her adult son, tries to convince Madeline to use her own family doctor, Dr. Richard Sohn (Malcolm Stewart
). Vivian is barely able to contain her distain for Madelineís vegan lifestyle and her insistence on using a midwife for the delivery. However, a late night early labor scare where Dr. Sohn nearly incorrectly orders a labor induction eliminates any doubt Madeline and her husband may have had about having Patricia (Samantha Ferris
), the midwife, oversee the birth. On the way home from the hospital, Madeline and Michael are in a horrible car wreck. Michael is killed instantly and Madelineís child dies inside her womb. Still, sheís steadfast in her conviction to carry the baby to term.
Madeline does indeed carry the baby to full term and after a painful labor gives birth to Grace. Although seeming stillborn at first, Grace quickly comes to and begins suckling at her motherís breast. Madeline takes Grace home and looks forward to starting her life with her daughter. Something about her baby is not quite right, though. Graceís slumbers seem far deeper than those of a normal infant and there is a preponderance of flies continually buzzing about her crib. When she tries to groom Grace, the brush winds up full of hair and Grace has strange bedsores all over her body. The most serious problem, however, is that Grace is rejecting her motherís breast milk. A panicked Madeline doesnít know what to do; has her baby survived a car crash and seeming stillbirth only to die of starvation? Soon a chilling truth comes to light: Grace doesnít want her motherís breast milk; she wants blood. As Madeline sacrifices her own blood to feed her baby, her isolation becomes more intense and her health begins to deteriorate. When outsiders intrude and threaten to discover Graceís ghoulish secret, Madeline will go to any length to protect her child.
While itís not unusual to see roles for strong women in horror films, there is a certain novelty to having a film almost exclusively populated with them. There are essentially six roles in Grace
: three men and three women. While the women are strong and well defined characters, the men are weak and easily manipulated. Madelineís husband is a nebbish mommaís boy, distant and engaging, while Michaelís father Henry (Serge Houde
) suffers in silence in a loveless marriage with Vivian. Vivian also domineers over Dr. Sohn whom she uses as a pawn to accomplish her own ends whether itís getting Madeline to have a traditional birth in a hospital or, later in the film, having Madeline declared unfit so she can get custody of Grace and thus regain her identity and sense of purpose. The midwife Patricia shows up Dr. Sohn during the early labor scare that sets the bulk of the plot in motion. All three female leads deserve accolades. They all create strong, yet very different characters.
Both Madeline and Vivian see motherhood as a large and integral part of their personal identities and while women hold the true power, once men reach an age of maturity theyíre essentially useless for anything besides procreation. At the beginning of the film Madeline certainly wants a baby more than her husband does. Motherhood is so important to Vivian that sheís infantilized her husband and is willing to steal her granddaughter from Madelineís arms. Madeline, in turn, is willing to go even farther than that to protect her baby. Itís not too hard to imagine, had the accident never happened, that Madeline couldíve trod a path similar to Vivianís and wound up in roughly the same place.
Women have to endure such an ordeal to become mothers, whether itís carrying the baby to term, giving birth, painful breast feeding or dealing with postpartum depression. Men tend to ignore or trivialize all these aspects of motherhood. What Grace
does is shove our faces right back in them. Men who havenít become fathers think of breasts as sexual objects rather than the life sustaining organs they primarily are. Seeing a beautiful woman in pain as her breast bleeds, or pale and shaky with anemia and depression really hits home the ordeals the ďfairer sexĒ can go through to raise a baby. Jordan Ladd is required to run the gamut of these trials and act an emotional spectrum, from the elation of an expectant mother to broken woman. The entire movie is on her shoulders and she carries it off magnificently. When the film lets us down, itís not because of her.
Aiding her in her descent into despair is the wonderful cinematography. Using handheld cameras and paying close attention to the color palette of the film Solet, production designer Martina Buckley and director of photography Zoran Popovic are able to convey Madelineís deteriorating health and mental state in purely visual terms. As she sickens the environment around seems to grow cold as well, the fruit on her counter rots and the world around her loses focus. The truly stellar visuals give the film the icy creepiness of Kubrick or Cronenberg.
When the opportunity to revisit Grace
came up, I was actually very excited despite my past experience. While it certainly wasnít as grueling an experience the second time around, the film still had its palpable air of discomfort. It is such an intense experience that I over looked a lot of Grace
ís flaws the first time around (well that, and I flat out missed them in the bathroom).
Itís nice that Solet never condescends or tries to spoon-feed us; weíre never told exactly what Grace
is because heís savvy enough to realize that it doesnít matter. However, sometimes his storytelling can be a bit too obtuse: he withholds important details from us for too long and reveals crucial plots points in an offhanded, throwaway fashion. Certain story connections and character motivations could have been made clearer. Thereís a love triangle that serves no purpose other than to push the creaky plot forward. And, almost unforgivably, the final act devolves into slasher movie clichť.
ís mostly glaring problem is that it is essentially a short film drawn out to feature length. While never boring, Grace
is overstuffed with interesting subtexts that are never developed, or plot points that exist just to propel the creaky plot forward. You can almost hear the story groan as Solet overstuffs it with more ideas than it can handle. As a result Grace
feels unfocused and messy. Still, I wonít fault Solet for having ambition especially when so many filmmakers are willing to pander to the lowest common denominator. Heís the real deal and, whatever its faults, Grace
is an impressive debut.
A lot of effort obviously went into crafting Grace
ís atmospheric visuals; itís too bad that the DVD does such an uneven job of representing them. The day scenes are just fine, with rich colors and warm flesh tones. Fine object detail is generally good, and thereís thankfully very little in the way of edge enhancement. The image does tend to be a bit softer than is usual for a newer film, but thatís a stylistic choice and not an issue with the transfer. However, as the film grows dark and the colour palette shifts, the image quality worsens and becomes smeary with artifacting and noise. Itís never so bad to the point where it seriously detracts from the overall experience but itís still very disappointing. The cinematography deserves better.
The audio does a far better job of contributing to the filmís atmosphere. The sound design of the film is as stark as the visuals. The mix is pretty front heavy, as one would expect from a character driven film. Surrounds are sparingly, but effectively, used to create ambiance. Like the film itself, itís subtly enveloping, but itís a pretty quiet film so this isnít a showpiece track. Unfortunately, for the multilingual among us, only an English 5.1 track and no foreign language subtitles are included.
First we start with a feature commentary with writer-director Paul Solet and Producer Adam Green (cinematographer Zoran Popvic joins the commentary about halfway through). Green and Solet are enthusiastic and engaging but the commentary is pretty superficial. It concerns itself mainly with production anecdotes. When a film has as much beneath the surface as Grace
does, itís a bit disappointing that they donít delve a bit deeper.
Next we have a featurette Grace
at Sundance (13:12). Itís a good little piece that details Soletís efforts to get the film seen and sold at the Sundance film festival, but it covers a lot of the same ground that the commentary does. Still, itís an impressive feature for a first timer and Iím not going to begrudge Solet taking another bow when heís worked so hard on it. I just didnít find it terribly interesting.
The next few featurettes deal with different aspects of the production process. Grace
: Conception (6:47) talks more about story and theme, Grace
: Delivered (37:05) is a collection of behind the scenes footage dealing with the day-to-day making of Grace
: Family (11:59) deals with the characters and their motivations, Her Motherís Eyes: The Look of Grace
(7:04) covers the production design and cinematography and finally Lullaby: Scoring Grace
(8:52). All together they give you a good overview of Grace
from script to screen. I most enjoyed hearing Solet talk about story and theme, and it was nice to get the actorís insight into how the crafted their characterizations. If I have a niggling complaint is that while thereís a great volume of material included, theirs is quite a bit of overlap in discussion.
Finally, the red band trailer (2:27) is included, as well as a printable DVD-Rom copy of the script.
Conspicuously absent is the original short film on which this is based. There are clips of it in the featurettes and Paul Solet and Adam Green reference it constantly; it really seems like a serious oversight not to include it.
touches on a lot of provocative ideas in its short, 84 minute running time, itís disappointing that many are left undeveloped. Still, itís indicative of a filmmaker with a brain in his head and something to say. Couple that with the palpable atmosphere of discomfort he is able to achieve and maintain for so long and you have a winner in the style over substance category. Should he continue in the genre, writer-director Paul Solet has the potential for a truly great film in him. Grace
isnít that film but it is very, very good. Despite some misgivings about the video quality, Anchor Bay has put together a nice package with a good selection of supplements that explore the different aspects of Grace
from character to story to the nuts and bolts of its making. Grace
is well worth watching and this DVD is easy to recommend.
Movie - B+
Image Quality - C+
Sound - B
Supplements - B
- Running time - 1 hour 24 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- English subtitles
- Commentary with writer/director Paul Solet, producer Adam Green and DOP Zoran Popvic
- "Grace: Conception" featurette
- "Grace: Family" featurette
- "Grace: Delivered" featurette
- "His Mother's Eyes: The Look of Grace" featurette
- "Lullaby: Scoring Grace" featurette
- "Grace at Sundance" featurette