Neil Marshall’s latest considers the cruelty and inherent misogyny of Europe’s witch trials
In our recent political climate, “Witch hunt!” has been reduced to little more than an empty platitude for deflecting accountability. But with his latest film, Neil Marshall and company (including his fiance and cowriter Charlotte Kirk, who also stars), consider the very desperate and invariably grim struggle which waited any woman accused (which is to say, found guilty) of witchcraft during this true era of terror.
Joseph (Joe Anderson) and Grace Haverstock (Kirk) enjoy a simple family life as tenant farmers with their newborn baby. The plague is making its way through Europe, and their fragile peace is shattered when Joseph is sickened and takes his own life rather than risk exposure to his family. His death leaves Grace with both their child and responsibility for their farm and rent owed to slimy Landlord, Pendleton (Steven Waddington).
Pendleton tried to press his advantage to coerce — first by invitation, then by force — the beautiful widow into sex, and when rebuffed, he turns on her and accuses her of witchcraft — a slow, cruel, and torturous death sentence in these times.
Coming off of very a successful run on Game of Thrones, director Neil Marshall remains in a vaguely medieval setting, trading the horrors of high fantasy for those of grim history. In the US we tend to filter this understanding through our own most famous example, the Salem Witch Trials, but witch hunts ravaged Europe for centuries, beginning with the decline of the medieval era and gaining momentum in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Stripped of her child and taken prisoner, Grace is forced to stand “trial” with the witchunter Moorcroft (Marshall regular Sean Pertwee), and as his various violent tortures are inflicted, she also endures spiritual trials that oppress her soul (represented in the film as demonic visions and visitations).
About halfway or so into this film, I was just not feeling it. I was invested in Grace and her story, but the weight of the cruelty was so oppressive and bleak that I wondered whether I really wanted to watch this poor woman endure various forms of worsening physical torture for another hour.
Had that been the case, it certainly would’ve soured things for me, but the film veers into a very solid third act that turns the tables as Grace formulates a plan to make her escape, recover her child, and maybe get some revenge along the way. It’s not exactly satisfying considering all the depravity and trauma that our protagonist has endured, but when “the reckoning” occurs, it does end the film on a mostly hopeful (if ambiguous) grace note that, had it been denied, would prove the difference between a waste of time and a film that’s worth the watch — which, ultimately, I think it is.
The Reckoning is a film of a completely different stripe than Marshall’s best known films like The Descent, Dog Soldiers, or Doomsday, which are all a ton of fun, or even Hellboy, which tries to be. Its oppressive tone and depictions of deep-rooted, patriarchal misogyny make for a grueling experience that saps the viewer’s energy rather than catalyze it — at least until that third act kicks in.
Consider pairing this viewing with one of cinema’s earliest horror masterpieces, the Danish film Häxan (1922), which remains a critical modern commentary of this terrifying epoch, driven by fear and religious mania.
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