Today, the maskless among us enduring this modern incarnation of “the plague” get called all sorts of things: selfish, uncaring, dangerous, ignorant, intolerant, etc. That I’m aware, none of us have yet been accused of being in consort with the Devil. (I’d imagine that’s coming in the next wave, though Progressives hate acknowledging the Devil as that would perhaps imply that there may be a God, too.) In the not-so-distant past, those who wouldn’t toe-the-line were often disparaged by their cultural “betters” – namely the royals and the clergy – and were (gasp!) burned at the stake. They were called witches, and they suffered a grim fate.
Humanity’s flirtation with casting out demons by spiritual means is, debatably, one of the darkest chapters in all of history. For better or worse, The Reckoning tries to pull back the curtain of time and take a glance at where we were but, unfortunately, all of this feels like its intended as an indictment on today for the past having ever rolled out the way it did.
What can I do about it now?
Well, I think all involved here want me to feel bad because I’m a man. Men are, after all, the bane of existence. (Entertainers are constantly telling us this.) I can only ask, “Does that include the man who directed this? ‘Cause he’s won a lot of awards.”
See what I mean about plagues bringing out the worst?
From the product packaging: “After losing her husband during the Great Plague, Grace Haverstock is unjustly accused of being a witch and placed in the custody of England’s most ruthless witch hunter, Judge Moorcroft. Forced to endure physical and emotional torture while steadfastly maintaining her innocence, Grace must face her own inner demons as the Devil himself starts to work his way into her mind.”
Succinctly, The Reckoning is a perfunctory film.
While it flirts and toys with some very meaty ideas – life, death, family, devilry, and redemption – this Neil Marshall scripted and directed flick relies heavily on its visuals to effectively convey a sense of dread and doom instead of legitimately taking viewers on an up-close-and-personal look at the past, using history as a grim, politicized metaphor for today’s COVID-obsessed culture. Don’t get me wrong: it looks damn pretty – just as does sumptuous lead Charlotte Kirk (who also had a hand in the script) – but feels devoid of any true narrative impact. How do I know? Well, Kirk looks as grand after four days on the rack as she does before the Inquisition. What does that tell audiences about the fate of their souls? Don’t worry: at least you’ll keep your looks.
Thankfully, there is a Reckoning here, as the title promises. Grace is forced to endure Fifty Shades Of Medieval Gray as the story appears obsessed with the subversive sensuality of torture instead of its grim reality. Sequences feel staged for maximum prettiness instead of maximum effect, making me wonder if all of this might’ve worked better as the old school boddice-ripper evoked at times; exploitation be damned, it still all ends up in Rambo territory in the last reel as the young lass outsmarts Moorcroft, her captors, and the town Squire. Her closing moment – standing on a shoreline with sword in hand – is more akin to a Stallone actioner than it is any cerebral drama meant to inspire audiences to question the world around them, that’s for sure.
Kirk’s Grace doesn’t take audiences with her on much of a hero’s journey. Despite her descent into a kind of staged madness, Marshall captures her repeatedly with the delicateness of those Star Trek fuzzy shots always reserved for female guest stars. Grace spends the bulk of the picture enduring one heartbreaking loss after another but looking like she just emerged from a magazine cover shoot. If that’s meant to be a message of empowerment for today’s frail egos, it’s one delivered with absolutely no logic. Now, I’m not speaking from experience, but I suspect burying my dead spouse six feet in mud while standing in the pouring rain practically requires I get dirty. Grace does this but still looks fabulous. Go figure.
If the storyteller dares to open Pandora’s box of questions, dribbling out tiny little bits of what could’ve been or could’ve happened, then there’s also a responsibility to answer the queries raised and not leave them dangling for viewers to figure out all by their lonesome. Was Grace’s mother a witch or wasn’t she? Did mom “mark” Grace with a sigil of the dark arts or was that just some bad, unfortunate birthmark? Since Grace is seen communicating with her dead husband and mother, were these simply the visions of the tortured prisoner or something more? And how about that big, horned Devil in Grace’s cell? Real? Or imagined? If imagined, then why did Moorcroft see it, too?
Bringing these elements to life introduces a level of spirituality along with the supernatural. Ignoring that you, as the storyteller, put them there and left them unanswered much less unresolved is more than a bit irresponsible: it’s downright lazy. Think of it as cinematic trickery invoked solely to shock the audience and not truly advance the story or its ideas. Horror films do it all the time, but dramas? Well, dramas should know better.
Dare I suggest that there’s a risk involved in exploring (or exploiting) female empowerment issues against the backdrop of the supernatural? Think what you may about the moviegoing audience, but I tend to believe that folks like to keep their reality and fantasies somewhat separate, respectfully delineated between ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t’ and not weighted down (or bulked up) with politicized rhetoric. What happened five hundred years ago – while it could be analogous to things going on today – also needs to be properly contextualized in its own era: what we knew about disease and sanity back then is a far, far cry from what we know today. Using the past as a vehicle to empower women today without reminding audiences of the proper context ignores the strides we’ve made culturally and kinda/sorta does a disservice to mankind and – ahem – womankind, doesn’t it?
Still, it’s efficient. At least, there’s that. And maybe it deserves to find an audience on that level alone. As I implied above, there’s nothing wrong with a little exploitation solely when it’s at exploitation’s sake. Dabbling in escapism with political leanings can be refreshing, though methinks the actors and actresses needed a bit more scenery to chew on here.
But, by gosh, wasn’t Grace pretty to look at … even when suffering? Why, she even masturbated in her cell while she was suffering! (Don’t blame me: Marshall and Kirk wrote this thing.)
If that doesn’t smack of exploitation, then I don’t know what does.
RECOMMENDED. The Reckoning is a reasonably well-made film. It’s reasonably presented with reasonable period details, reasonable acting, and reasonably well inspired by true events. And perhaps that’s my issue with it: it’s all too reasonable from start-to-finish. A tale like this could’ve used a bit more insanity: pushing the senses to the limits might’ve helped this one rise to the occasion more strongly or, at least, more memorably. Instead, it feels like a slightly undercooked melodrama with only benign hints of the supernatural to prop up some tenuous ideas and some impressive accents. Maybe think of this as some Medieval After School special with the occasional butt shot. It’s reasonably good … but I wanted a bit more than a predictable Rambo-esque finish.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the folks at RLJE Films and Shudder provided me with a DVD of The Reckoning by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.