UK (2016) Dir. Alice Lowe

Parents will do pretty much anything for their children – within reason and subject to financial capacity, naturally. Despite being the adult in the relationship and the one supposedly in control, it is the kids that dictate their actions. But what if the child hasn’t even been born yet and is giving out orders? That is a bit spooky, right?

Ruth (Alice Lowe) is seven months pregnant and resigned to being a single mum in the wake of the baby’s father Matt (Marc Bessant) having been killed in a climbing accident on the day Ruth learned of her pregnancy. It appears however that Matt’s death wasn’t quite a cut-and-dry accident and Ruth holds the other members of the climbing group accountable for this.

Guided by her unborn child, whose angry voice Ruth is convinced she can hear in her head, she goes on a brutal but carefully planned murderous rampage in the name of revenge, killing off everyone in the group one by one.

Pregnancy is one of the most difficult times for a woman, putting immense stress on their bodies, health and emotions so it is quite remarkable to note that despite writing, directing and starring in Prevenge, Alice Lowe was in fact eight months pregnant herself! Yes, that is her real baby bump and (tiny spoiler) her real baby (Della Moon Synnott) in the final act too.

One can’t imagine how much the toll of working on such a grisly film under that much professional stress and emotional and psychological apprehension could have taken on Lowe, but to her too her credit she soldiers on and doesn’t let it show on the screen. Wisely, the main shoot took place over two weeks which must have alleviated much of the pressure, not to mention making it easier to keep the continuity in check!

Back to the story and the film opens cold with the first killing, the victim being creepy pet shop owner Mr. Zabek (Dan Renton Skinner) while posing as a mother buying something unusual for her 8 year-old son. Through recurring piecemeal flashbacks we get a hint of what occurred during the accident although the specifics are never revealed, making Ruth’s motive for revenge potentially spurious.

Her next victim is uncouth 70’s music loving DJ Dan (Tom Davis), a wannabe lothario living with his dementia-suffering mother whom he treats like dirt. It is Dan’s laughable attempts at being cool that makes this the most awkwardly amusing segment of the film, but not always on the right side of being universally funny – like Dan puking into his afro wig which some might find good for a “gross out” laugh.  

This highlights a cavil with the film being labelled a black comedy – the actual comedy is practically negligible and the tone is far too bleak to raise many laughs, even in the most overt vein of gallows humour. The occasional witty, self-aware line from Ruth in hinting at her murderous deeds to unsuspecting people works but even these start to wear thin, especially as the killings manage to evade police attention.

Another plot hole is the idea that Ruth is able to flit from one victim to the next without being recognised by them. As Matt’s girlfriend, surely they must have met or seen a photo of Ruth or something but apparently not. Then later in the film when Ruth finally gets to corner the group leader Tom (Kayvan Novak) he recalls seeing Ruth before “at the inquiry” – did this mean the official one into Matt’s death? If so, all the climbers should have been there thus would know Ruth surely?

Despite the brutal murders somehow not raising widespread public and official suspicion, Ruth plays chameleon on each occasion, ranging from job candidate to charity collector, potential flatmate to new climbing student. She charms her way into the safety zones of her victims (Kate Dickie, Gemma Whelan and Tom Meetan) before letting the mask slip and sending them on their way via a particularly gruesome demise.

Yet Ruth is anything but sympathetic, which by rights she should be by virtue of being with child and robbed of her partner. The baby admits to be bitter and upset and wants those responsible for taking her daddy away to suffer and Ruth feels obliged, nay emotionally blackmailed into committing these murders. They argue but the furious foetus always has the last word.

A subtle motif is the sessions with new midwife (Jo Hartley) who basically runs off all the usual platitudes about how the baby runs Ruth’s life now and everything is being done to benefit her, which Ruth takes at face value and the baby twists to get her way. It helps the concept work on a different level and again the niggle is Ruth’s odd behaviour doesn’t set off any alarm bells in the midwife.

The undeveloped plot and logical flaws can be distracting as is the lack of moral centre, not just in Ruth but in her victims who expose themselves as loathsome individuals in need of taking down a peg or too. Some, like Dan, probably deserve to be punished but Ruth isn’t the one to make that call. The cast of partly familiar faces are clearly onboard with Rowe’s vision and cooperate fully with committed turns, regardless of how big or small they are.

Even if the film itself is flawed, this is a great achievement personally and professionally for Lowe given her physical condition at the time. She has the sullen, unhinged character down pat yet is capable of encouraging emotional investment, whilst behind the camera she shows promise as an intriguing new voice in British cinema. If being a new mum prevents acting gigs, Lowe can easily switch to directing.

Prevenge isn’t an easy film to watch for a number of reasons, and while the concept is deliciously fertile I can see how it might appal more than the graphic violence does. A bold but acquired taste.

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