Neil Marshall has had an interesting career. While he has directed some of my favourite horror films of the past 20 years with Dog Soldiers and The Descent, he has also been at the helm of quite a few duds, including 2019’s Hellboy, so going into The Reckoning I was not sure what to expect. Starting out strong, somehow a lack of focus, an odd squandering of its Black Death setting make The Reckoning feel like an overall disappointing venture into the dark ages.
Opening for the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, The Reckoning starts out strong. It paints a brutally bleak picture of England in 1665, covered in death and pestilence. Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk) is struggling to sort her life out after her husband, Joseph (Joe Anderson) killed himself due to an infection caused by the plague. It is this section of the film that works, depicting the struggle and grief Grace faces as she not only buries her husband after cutting him down from the suicide but just the raw emotion she is going through as she faces an unfathomable sense of pain and loss.
The plague setting makes this grief ever so much more poignant in today’s world, hitting home in a way unintended when the film went into production. The spectre of suffering is ever-present in this segment of The Reckoning, people lay dying on the streets, and hope seems a thing of distant memory. If director Neil Marshall had kept with this concept, and carried this fear of pestilence throughout the movie, this would be a very different review, but sadly, this concept seems dropped abruptly as the second act takes shape.
As Grace works to build a life for her and her new-born daughter after Joseph’s passing, Squire Pendleton (Steve Waddington) decides this is the time to demand rent, and when that proves a challenge, to force himself onto the young widow. When his unwelcome advances are rebuked, he decides to use the fear of witchcraft as a tool for revenge, sparking the second segment of the film, one about torture, witchcraft and revenge.
When Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) comes into town, looking for a confession, The Reckoning devolves into a series of torture scenes with moments of defiance, as title cards count up the days since Grace was arrested. Moorcroft has a history of cruel methods of garnering confessions from young women, with countless innocent blood spilled in the name of religion in his past, including Graces’ mother. The film becomes a battle of wills, showing just how much suffering Grace is willing to endure to prove her innocence against insurmountable odds.
There is a lot to unpack in this concept, and even some notable ideas, that in the hands of a different director, could have been engaging. Alas, The Reckoning ultimately feels like a male gaze centric female power fantasy. While our lead Grace suffers though countless transgressions, some entirely too horrible to comprehend, director Neil Marshall can’t help but depict her as always runway-ready, with her hair and makeup always looking perfect, even after suffering through hours of torture and pain, and that is not taking into account the 1665 hygiene standards that would make such things nearly impossible.
If that were not enough, there is an ever-present sense of the supernatural, that is never explained or fully explored. Grace sees her dead husband throughout the story, with him guiding her through some of the more traumatic segments, giving her hope for her and her daughter. This devolves further as Grace is thrust into prison and some very odd demonic sex scenes are shown throughout her stay behind bars. These include segments that suggest to the audience that there is some truth to the Demon, with it even seen beyond what Grace would have seen, or experienced.
Technically the film has a lot going for it. The musical score by Christopher Drake is spot on and sets the tone beautiful as the film sets up a world of suffering, and fear. The set design, costuming, and overall look also feel fantastic, and up there with some of the best in the genre. But even technically, the inability by Neil Marshall to have any of the lead actors look period-accurate or anything less than photo-ready is jarring and takes the viewer out of what otherwise would be a bleak desolate slice of history.
The Reckoning as a whole feels like a collection of ideas, concepts and raw emotion, that never takes shape or solidifies into anything enjoyable or memorable. While the concepts and setting all feel filled with potential, most of this is squandered or lost as the film progresses, opting for cheap jump scares, odd design choices and oddly placed sexuality where it makes no sense in context or for the characters involved. This movie feels more a male fever dream of what a woman’s empowerment fantasy would look like than an honest exploration of Witchcraft, the Black Death, or even how toxic masculinity works to take countless women’s agency throughout history.
The Reckoning is disappointing as a festival opener, and a generally squandered concept. There are a lot of good ideas at play in this movie, and some overall great performances across the board, but with the muddled execution, lack of focus, and an uncomfortable male gaze throughout what should be a story of female suffering and eventual triumph leave a sour taste in my mouth. If you happen to catch this on a streaming service it could be worth a watch, beyond that, avoid The Reckoning like the plague.