Review: She Will is awesome art house horror
Warning: spoilers ahead.
She Will charts a risky path that lures careless hikers into a morass of confusion; sharp-eyed viewers, however, can navigate the trail by ignoring the misleading signs to focus instead on the contours of the terrain, which leads through deceptively familiar territory to an unexpected destination where dark and light merge in mesmerizing ways. With a premise vaguely similar to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (sometimes called a horror film in art house drag), She Will embraces its genre trappings more overtly, using imagery to suggest an old-fashioned Gothic chiller; at the center of its dark heart, however, it is a Woman’s Picture* dressed up in horror accoutrements.
The singular achievement of She Will is that, far from a mere overlay, the horror is fundamental to the story’s concerns; it just happens to be horror of a different sort than one would anticipate, grounded as it is in the tribulations of its female protagonist instead of simply fulfilling genre expectations. As if to underline the point, when aging actress Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) tells her nurse that their situation is “like the beginning of one of those horror movies. The young ingenue, you, is brought somewhere remote to be sacrificed in an horrendous way. To feed an aging community that refuses to die,” it may sound as if the screenwriters are foreshadowing later developments; in fact, they are mocking the kind of tired clichés that She Will refuses to deliver.
She Will Review: Predictable – or Not
Like Elisabet with Alma in Persona, Veronica is an actress recuperating in a remote location with her nurse (Desi, played by Kota Eberhardt). Unlike Bergman’s mute heroine, Veronica is quite vocal about her condition (both medical and career) and about her initial dissatisfaction with Desi. Back in 1969, at the age of 13, Veronica shot to fame in a film titled Navajo Frontier. Decades later, she is a decrepit, withered husk, remembered in the press only insofar as the man responsible for launching her career (“film legend” Eric Hathbourne, nicely played by Malcolm McDowell), is looking for a new young actress to appear in a sequel or a remake (both words are used by the press). While Hathbourne is being lauded for his upcoming knighthood, the only notice Veronica receives is a tabloid cover howling about how much her appearance has deteriorated.
No wonder, then, that Veronica seeks isolation while recovering from a recent mastectomy; unfortunately, her trip to what is supposed to be a solitary Scottish retreat for women goes awry when she arrives to find that solo visits are booked only during the summer, and she must contend with quizzical guests, many of them men, including artist Arturo Tirador (an amusingly flamboyant Rupert Everett), who insists way too smarmily that Veronica need not fear him because he is “a feminist.”
What happens next – and continues to happen throughout She Will – is a gradual revelation of telling details, each small in and of itself, but adding up to a bigger picture for viewers willing to piece the puzzle together. The subtle hints of a slowly unfolding horror story are dropped into the dialogue: the retreat was the site of trials where thousands of women were burnt as witches; the cabin where Veronica and Desi take up residence away from the other guests was once the home of a mother-and-daughter among the last to be executed; and soon Veronica is experiencing visions of two women fleeing in terror or trussed up in torture devices.
We all know where this is going, right? At least we think we do. But She Will defies expectations. Tellingly, there is no specific legend about the alleged witches – no names or details, no threats of vengeance from beyond the grave. We may suspect that their spirits will possess Veronica and Desi or that the two contemporary women are their reincarnations. Expectations, however, can lead viewers astray in this film.
For one thing, She Will is cagey about the existence of witchcraft. Veronica dreams of women silhouetted against a bonfire, moving in eerie synchronization with composer Clint Mansell’s moody and dramatic Celtic-themed score (which sounds as if Enya had surrendered to the Dark Side), but are these restless spirits or simply visions of wrongly accused women framed against their method of execution? Hopefully, it is not revealing too much to say that, although the film never spells out what is happening in dialogue, it provides clever visual hints, such as a book with a sketch of the torture device from Veronica’s visions, captioned “Silence Defiant Women” – suggesting that the executed offenders were not witches at all but rather women silenced for their defiance.
Although Veronica’s dreams are paranormal, they may not be supernatural per se. Another book, “The Power of the Land” – which the actress casually peruses in her cabin – suggests a more physical explanation, related to the witch trials: rumor has it that the ashes of the executed women have infused the surrounding land with regenerative properties; the local water supply has peat in it, meaning it contains some of those ashes; and when Veronica takes a bath, a single drop from the faucet (photographed in a brilliantly evocative close up) reveals a darkened cloud of the material inside, inciting her first vision. Later, when Tirador leads an outdoor art class by extolling the retreat’s guests to feel the energy of the earth rising through their bodies, it sounds like laughably pretentious patter from someone trying too hard to sound more profound than he is, but in Veronica’s case it turns out to be literally true. Abandoning her artist’s charcoal for a lump of mud at her feet, she fills her canvas with a twisted abstract work that seems truly inspired by the surrounding environment.
Exactly what is happening is never spelled out in the dialogue, but we must presume that Veronica is being revived by her contact with the land and its soil, as evidenced by her gradually improving appearance. More than that, she is being empowered by the residue of all those unjustly taken lives, apparently able to astral-project herself to distant places. Midway through the film, a television interviewer lobbing softball questions at Hathbourne undergoes a sudden change: apparently provoked by Veronica’s spirit (visible only to us), he prods Hathbourne into tacitly admitting he had an inappropriate relationship with his 13-year-old star (one that was far from consensual, judging from the bruised face of Veronica’s younger self, seen lurking in the background like a ghostly reminder of past guilt).
That’s right: She Will is not about the fantasy horrors of witches. It’s about the real-life horrors of sexual exploitation by a privileged member of the patriarchy. If that sounds like doctrinaire sermonizing, we are doing an injustice to director Charlotte Colbert and her co-writer Kitty Percy, who avoid preaching in favor of allowing their story to speak for itself. There is really only one moment when they flash their intentions, and it’s presented as a bit of black humor. When one of the male guests claims Veronica’s painting is “phallic,” Tirador makes a (surprising for him) genuinely valid point, citing Foucault to note that the act of seeing is not neutral, prompting Veronica to spout that generations of patriarchy have infused our perceptions. The aggrieved male guest scoffs, “Patriarchy – the war cry of hysterical women!” whereupon his hand ignites in flame – as if Veronica’s latent new power has (unintentionally) erupted in anger. It’s basically the film laughing: Take that, sexist pig!
Later events will amplify this, but they will not be funny.
She Will Review: Mystical Mood
She Will presents this slowly evolving story in a luscious visual style, interspersing dramatic scenes with poetic interludes of the camera lovingly caressing the landscape, alternating between gloomy shots of the woods, sweeping vistas of the stars, and tracking shots of ash-infused soil dampened by a once-in-a-century storm. The slow dissolves, along with Veronica’s dreamy visions, suggest an overreaching attempt at mystical profundity (the sort of thing director David Lowery delivered in The Green Knight), but in She Will these visual flourishes do more than imbue the film with atmosphere. Combined with seemingly insignificant bits of action and dialogue, the stylization underlines subtle story beats cluing us into Veronica’s progress as she confronts her unfortunate situation as a forgotten has-been abused by her much-lauded mentor.
Having lost not only her youth and beauty but also her breasts, Veronica is no longer a woman in the eyes of an entertainment industry that exploits female sexuality to titillate audiences and satisfy the lusts of the men behind the camera. The horror the film traffics in is less “there’s something spooky in the woods” than “my body has betrayed me, and there’s nothing left of the woman I was.”
She Will is heartbreakingly personal in its depiction of Veronica’s pain, which extends beyond her career and personal tragedy to the fact that, by the standards of the patriarchal entertainment world she once inhabited, she has no remaining value except as a curiosity. Regarding her daily ritual of applying makeup – which we see at the beginning, intercut with bloody flashes of her mastectomy – she intones via narration: “Every mask has a function…. This mask is about preservation.”
At the beginning of the film, there is little of Veronica left to preserve, and the movie is fearless about depicting the ravages time and illness have inflicted on her, including a prosthetic makeup appliance for a topless scene showing the aftermath of her operation. What’s brilliant is that, rather than eliciting visceral disgust, the image evokes pathos – pathos but, ultimately, not despair, for She Will charts Veronica’s resurrection as she liberates herself from the debilitating effect of the patriarchal standards she has internalized.
In this regard, her relationship with Desi is key. As one would expect in this sort of onscreen pairing, the two begin at odds with each other because of Veronica’s justifiable bitterness (Desi’s attempts to offer helpful advice are abruptly dismissed with lines like “I’ve had a mastectomy, not a lobotomy”). Of course they gradually warm to each other, but like everything else in She Will, this process is handled with elegant subtlety: there is no melodramatic speech to reveal a change of heart; instead, after rebuffing another offer of help (“I’d rather have a coffee”), Veronica unexpectedly offers to fix a cup for Desi as well.
Alice Krige gives an award-worth performance in a film that might as well have been designed as a showcase for her. The character’s prickly bitchiness is a perfect defense for the wounded soul within, and Krige modulates it with astounding precision, letting just a little bit slip at a time, luring Desi and the audience into Veronica’s inner life without a hint of schmaltz. Eberhardt is almost as good in a less showy role. Rather like Brendan Fraser playing against Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, she has to carve her characterization out of reactions to the star’s more flamboyant turn, and somehow she makes Desi worthy of the respect she earns from Veronica. Working together, the two actresses illuminate the nuances buried in the script, bringing to life a relationship constructed from inklings and intimations (like Desi unexpectedly improvising a brief song about being a motherless orphan). Ultimately, this is the magic, rather than witchcraft, that imbues the film with its eerie bliss.
Horror aside, She Will is about two lost characters finding each other. Although the script never outright states what is happening, we can see that the two women are, in a sense, forming a mother-daughter relationship, which somehow embodies the mother and daughter executed centuries ago. It may sound contrived and predictable, but it’s so intricately woven into the fabric of the script that it feels organic, like something the characters earn rather than something bequeathed by a benevolent screenplay.
She Will Review: Conclusion
So, is She Will truly a horror film? The answer is yes. Though overt fright is employed sparingly, the entire film is imbued with a mystical ambiance that suggests paranormal forces impacting the mundane world. The flash-cuts of Veronica’s visions, the dreamy appearance of her younger self, her astral projection to confront her abuser – all of these are woven into the fabric of the film, evoking a wary sense of horror lurking in the dank Scottish woods. The film’s sly achievement is that true horror is not where one expects, and what would be deadly in a lesser film is here a wellspring of healing, a tool to balance scales unjustly weighed against the protagonist. The film delivers on its promise, though not in the obvious way.
Yes, there is retribution (involving a death whose aftermath is visually similar to a memorable scene in executive producer Dario Argento’s 1977 film Suspiria). But more important, there is a kind of redemption – not from sin but from the self-inflicted harm that comes from internalizing the views of the oppressors. As Robin Wood pointed out in his his essay “The American Nightmare,” horror films are typically either about protecting a repressive status quo or destroying it in despair; seldom are viable alternatives offered. She Will is a rare exception. As Veronica and Desi head home, the camera floats serenely over a vast river, swelled by the recent storm, flowing away from the isolated land of burned witches and out toward the world at large, presumably carrying with it the “power of the land” that revived Veronica. It’s the inverse of the ending of Ringu (1998): the world is about to change like a host infected by a virus, but this time the change is for the better.
- We use this potentially condescending phrase with considerable trepidation (considering what happens to the loud-mouthed sexist in the film). However, it is a recognized term that defines a particular kind of film.
Hollywood Gothique's rating of She Will
1 – Avoid
2 – Not recommended but not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Subtle and clever, She Will serves up horror elements but uses them in unexpected ways. It’s a feminist take on the genre, but don’t let that scare you. It works.
One personal note: Upon initial viewing, we found this film disappointing – too slow, to low-key. Before writing our review, we took a look at the opening scene because we wanted to accurately quote a line. To our surprise, we found ourselves engaged by the unfolding narrative in a way that would not let us turn the film off, and we sat through the entire film a second time. Perhaps the key reason is that, on second viewing, all those little hints and suggestions were now visible to us, adding up to something that we found deeply moving on an emotional level.
She Will (IFC Midnight, 2021). Directed by Charlotte Colbert. Written by Kitty Percy, Charlotte Colbert. Produced by Bob Last. Executive Producers: Dario Argento, Edward R. Pressman, Sam Pressman. Cast: Alice Krige, Kota Eberhardt, Malcolm McDowell, Rupbert Everett. 95 mins. US Release Date: July 15, 2022 (Theatrical & VOD).
She Will is screening in limited theatrical engagements, including a run at the Laemmle Glendale.
For further reading, check out this article – “Persona’ and the Legacy of the Women-Alone Horror Film” If the author ever updates it, She Will deserves a mention. (Note: the title listed her is what shows up in search engines; the actual title when you click through is “What Persona Is Still Teaching Us About Women Onscreen, 50 Years Later.” Vulture seems quite adept at switching SEO titles.)