REVIEW: Kindred [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 101 minutes
    Release Date: November 6th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Joe Marcantonio
    Writer(s): Joe Marcantonio & Jason McColgan

Your not you’re mom.

Right from the start of Joe Marcantonio‘s Kindred (co-written by Jason McColgan), we don’t like Margaret (Fiona Shaw). How could we when our two protagonists, Charlotte (Tamara Lawrance) and Ben (Edward Holcroft), imbue such fear during every interaction they have with her? She’s the latter’s mother and very much entrenched in the old ways of a wealthy class. She treats her large, remote estate as a living creature that’s been in their family for nine generations and thus can’t fathom why her only son and his partner would declare they’re moving to Australia. But that’s their current plan: one that doesn’t waver upon discovering Charlotte is unexpectedly pregnant. So no one should be surprised by Margaret’s rage. She feels her flesh and blood is being ripped away forever.

We never learn concrete information about why Ben’s fallen out with his inheritance. We can assume certain details once his stepbrother Thomas (Jack Lowden) elaborates on what it was like living with his father (Margaret’s second husband) before and after coming to stay with her, but even that doesn’t quite get to the heart of Ben’s revulsion. The crow motif of nightmares that Marcantonio uses throughout would have us believe there might be something supernatural afoot when coupled with a disturbed horse—dark portents of an evil that cannot be escaped. It would make sense too once Ben is tragically struck down, leaving Charlotte with nobody but Margaret to lean on. Suddenly this “family” is reduced to three without a drop of blood to bind them.

This is a fact that also never really comes into focus—a unique situation that demands a bit of a deep dive the filmmakers don’t seem interested in pursuing. That’s their prerogative. They’ve crafted Kindred as a depiction of their own anxieties upon having children themselves while writing the script rather than a document on familial connections. I bring it up, though, because having these interesting bits and ignoring them is somewhat of a pattern to the whole. It’s the same with an unknown man walking to the front door demanding money that’s never brought up again. It’s the same with mentioning Charlotte’s mother’s post partum depression and how it had always turned her off from having children of her own without truly elaborating on its present-day relevance.

The reason is simple enough to understand: Marcantonio and McColgan are operating with duplicity and ambiguity. They want us to wonder if Margaret and Thomas have something shady going on with that man even though his inclusion is only about providing an excuse for why the front gate is padlocked. They want us to know about Charlotte’s mother’s psychological history because they want us to believe that her growing paranoia towards Margaret and Thomas’ good will might be a manifestation of her mind rather than evidence of wrongdoing. The filmmakers are in effect gaslighting their audience while they gaslight their lead in a movie they’ve stated is in large part about gaslighting. While an effective way to create their stifling atmosphere, it also feels misguided.

I say this precisely because the film itself refuses to declare which is true. Maybe Margaret and Thomas are screwing with Charlotte’s mind to steal her baby. Maybe Charlotte’s mind is screwing with reality to make it seem two people who care about her and the baby’s wellbeing are embroiled in an elaborate plot to steal it anyway. You could read the film both ways—and that’s pretty cool. Where the problem comes in, however, is that both readings trade on a rather despicable reality women have faced in the past and continue to face today. Whether what Charlotte feels is real or not, her situation has left her a prisoner. Whether she believes her eyes or her thoughts, she has been labeled “hysterical.” She has been silenced.

This is a layer that goes beyond mere discomfort because it renders Charlotte a victim either way. And because we’re told to distrust Margaret and Thomas right from the start via Ben, it doesn’t matter which is true. We could never feasibly give them the benefit of the doubt even if they deserve it. Add the intentional desire to amplify Charlotte’s dreams with hallucinations of crows in a climactic moment and it’s almost as though Marcantonio and McColgan have injected their ambiguity in hindsight. So much of what they do marks her as being sick that anything calling this reality into question to create suspense inevitably lends credence to damaging philosophies attributed to women and mothers in particular. The sinister is normalized. Charlotte’s pain is dismissed as crazy.

It’s a choice that does ultimately raise a lot of questions that should be asked, but I’m not sure they’re given the complexity they need to be more than superficial window-dressing for a thriller uninterested in the effect of their use. That shallowness in thematic execution is thus difficult to ignore despite great performances, impeccable production value, and memorable cinematography. We want to care about Charlotte’s plight and yet we’re kept at arms’ length because we’re unsure what it is. All we know for certain is that she wants out and nobody is listening. But we’re unable to fully empathize with her psychological torment or vilify her oppressors because the filmmakers are constantly subverting one with the other, canceling both out instead of letting them prove mutually beneficial.

Would picking one direction above the other have solved this? Maybe. It would have at least provided clarity as far as what’s happening—perhaps even allowing the story to deal with Charlotte’s situation since she is locked in this house whether for her safety or not. If she’s suffering from a psychotic break, her “family” isn’t actually helping. If they’re drugging her, she isn’t being valued despite what they say. And it might still work if the whole was revealed as a Rosemary’s Baby type scenario. You could say it is with the Devil being replaced by lineage, but even that continues glossing over the historical relevance of the weapon wielded against Charlotte. What we see isn’t therefore scary. It’s demoralizing. Worse than being harmed, she’s rendered irrelevant.

[1] Tamara Lawrance as “Charlotte”, Fiona Shaw as “Margaret” and Jack Lowden as “Thomas” in Joe Marcantonio’s KINDRED. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[2] Tamara Lawrance as “Charlotte” in Joe Marcantonio’s KINDRED. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[3] Fiona Shaw as “Margaret” and Jack Lowden as “Thomas” in Joe Marcantonio’s KINDRED. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

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