Two Sundance Standouts Complicate the Complicated Woman

'Resurrection' and 'Emily the Criminal' follow their protagonists to the bitter end

Nicholas Russell

Resurrection begins in a glass and steel office, with a woman talking to her boss about her disappointing, possibly abusive relationship. The narrative of the film echoes the mood of this scene, vulnerable but distant, smooth, unassuming. Margaret (Rebecca Hall) is the woman’s mentor and supervisor at what appears to be a pharmaceutical company. There’s a potent whiff of Strong Female Character to Margaret — confident, witty, and calculating, elements exacerbated by the rigidity of Rebecca Hall’s performance in the first half of the film. Resurrection disguised itself this way, as a familiar depiction of a woman who exists as an island, her life perfectly in order: the picture of health and control, prepped and sharp at every meeting, exercising outside the office by sprinting like the Terminator, conducting an affair with one of her married co-workers, dedicated to her work as well as her teenage gamer daughter, who’s about to leave home for college, but possibly more dedicated to her regimented lifestyle.

All of this cracks as soon as a man named David (Tim Roth) appears, a seemingly quiet, somewhat aloof stranger at a work conference whose very presence causes Margaret to panic uncontrollably, stumbling out of the room and running in her work clothes all the way to her apartment. David’s significance to Margaret is hesitantly doled out and at first he is simply seen existing in the world, reading the paper on a park bench, shopping for clothes at the mall. Still, Margaret’s composure, as well as her illusion of control, slips immediately, to the point where she begins to trap her daughter at home for her safety, stop sleeping, and stalk David during work. Eventually we realize that David is an abuser and a sadist with a penchant for psychological manipulation, a man from Margaret’s past who crippled her sense of self so completely that even years after her escape, his mere presence is enough to pull her back into his orbit. Hall’s performance deepens as the movie goes on: unnerved, harried, haunted, obsessed, unhinged, feral. A different actress, really a different movie, would have worked to keep Margaret sympathetic or at least understandable, an avatar for how a survivor deals with trauma. However, Resurrection is a very singular movie about emotional subjectivity gone haywire. The logic of Margaret’s behavior is splintered by her own inability to accept help and the loss of control. What happened between her and David is so bizarre that even when Margaret tells someone, they think she’s playing a morbid joke on them. Fittingly, before the end of the movie, literal guts will be spilled.

In many ways, Emily the Criminal is the obverse of Resurrection, a sweaty, tense thriller where the unswerving financial stability and sleekness of Margaret’s life is replaced with the dread and exhaustion of underpaid physical labor and debt. The movie also opens in a professional setting, this time a job interview in LA. Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is questioned about her criminal record, a DUI and an assault charge, two marks she refuses to elaborate on before storming out. Emily’s criminal background means she can’t find a well-paying job, that her artistic passions have to be sidelined, that she has to find multiple ways to pay off tens of thousands of dollars of college debt, that, as an addict, she loses and regains her sobriety depending on how well life is going, which is often badly. This setting could have easily been the start of a millennial story about “figuring it out” but here acts as an introduction to the material concerns (low-wage work, lack of healthcare, mounting debt, forced criminality) that will drive Emily towards a type of danger she comes to find suits her better than anything normal society could provide for her

One day, she's given the opportunity to join a small operation that uses stolen credit cards to buy merchandise that will then be resold. Her first gig pays $200 cash, the second $2000. As she takes on larger and larger deals, while also trying to start a legitimate career, Emily the Criminal peels back the layers of its protagonist’s personality, showing her to be ruthless, pissed, determined. Aubrey Plaza has always been an actor who exudes a bristling, caustic frustration, darkness and humor bundled together. Here, with blonde highlights, a slight New York accent, and the kind of wired, stifled demeanor that comes from working constantly with little to show for it, she weaponizes her comedic timing to deliver cutting, venomous lines to anyone who tries to get in her way. Any allies she finds are short-lived and, at the end of the day, her survival is all that matters to her. Plaza’s performance has already been deemed an unexpected turn for her, probably because she's not being funny, but it's exactly in line with the characters she's played before, just with a different angle.

Several of the films featured at this year’s all-virtual Sundance Film Festival played with genre conventions and audience expectations in order to complicate the complicated woman. The handling of these projects was wildly uneven, a result that isn’t surprising, though each movie was clearly influenced by the current climate in Hollywood where the desire to see more representation in front of and behind the camera clashes with the desire to point to and comment on that representation. Of course, the trickiness of this situation, balancing good storytelling with richer opportunities for people who normally don’t or can’t take advantage of them, carries with it the potential weight of obviousness, the fear that an audience might miss the message, a tacit idea that such projects have to give some sort of clear, bald-faced revelation about culture and the political status quo, which ends up reading as overwrought and clumsy. Resurrection and Emily the Criminal both begin by playing with the expectation that they too will be vehicles for moralizing depictions of women under duress who make recognizably, but safely dismissable poor choices due to anxiety, desperation, or fear.

Emily the Criminal and Resurrection put up against, say, Master and FRESH, two less trusting Sundance entries that failed to commit to the more severe aspects of the genres they tried to emulate, struck me as indicative examples of where we are in the culture. Master takes place on a fictional Ivy League campus, a horror movie about institutional racism and gender discrimination that blends elements of New England folklore, witchcraft, and ghost story to talk about tokenism in academia, cultural appropriation amongst young white people, and how even supposedly equitable hierarchies still reify unfair, unsustainable practices. FRESH fares better by dint of its aesthetic confidence and the pleasing looseness of its first two thirds, a black comedy about the perils and humiliations of modern dating that quickly morphs into a giallo-inspired music video with cannibalism, plastic surgery, and someone’s dick being bitten off. Both turn on very modern ideas of trauma and justice, rendered with differing degrees of didacticism and style, without any of the bluntness (different from obviousness) or cynicism that Emily the Criminal and Resurrection have.

Some might find irony in the fact that the first two films are directed by men, whereas Master and FRESH are directed by women, a mismatch of artist and subject that shouldn’t work, that compelling illustrations of the lives of people other than the creator are flawed at best, impossible at worst. I’ll save that undead argument for Twitter, and just point out that both Resurrection and Emily the Criminal are produced by their lead actresses.

What these two films share goes beyond the violence or extremity of their protagonists’ actions, steely resolve and unforgiving endings notwithstanding. There is a socially conscious component, about women and discrimination, about trauma and how it recurs, about abuse both personal and societal. It’s just not belabored with signposted dialogue or narrative tidiness, but instead explored through sometimes inscrutable but always compelling behavior and character. Any revelation is interior, granted to the characters and the actors portraying them. Resurrection and Emily the Criminal may not be especially groundbreaking, but they aren’t trying to be. What is notable is how both films allow their leads to pursue their destructive paths to the bitter end, without judgment, pity, or condescension. Any notion of unlikability or messiness is overshadowed by the fact that Margaret and Emily are utterly convincing people who push against the parameters of their worlds with frightening single-mindedness, to wondrous effect.

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.