Antichrist (2009, directed by Lars von Trier)
Most modern horror films aren't really about horror at all. Horror literally derives from the Latin word 'horror', which means "shaking and trembling", but horror films by and large aren't interested in leaving you shaking and trembling even after you leave the theater; they're interested in making you scream and jump while you're in the theater. They're focused on the thrill ride, the instantaneous terror of the physical now as opposed to the lingering dread of the existential future.
There are exceptions, of course. Wise's The Haunting is for me the classic example of a true horror film, a movie that forces you to fear what might be coming as opposed to what is actually happening. Blair Witch Project, for all its faults, managed to create the same effect in me because I saw it under absolutely ideal conditions. And the French, Goddess bless their twisted hearts, have been cranking out true horror films almost annually recently (I'm thinking here of A l'Interieur and Martyrs, and very much not Haute Tension or Calvaire).
I suspect von Trier briefly considered both options, then laughed and decided to do what he always does, namely subvert and pervert every convention he can get his hands on in service to his awesomely deranged muse.
Antichrist begins with a sequence of heartbreaking beauty and tragedy, as a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) obliviously make passionate love while their young son accidentally falls to his death. The woman's grief is shattering and bottomless; the man, a professional therapist, can't stand the thought of losing his wife as well as his son and throws aside his objectivity to try and treat her.
Madness ensues, and as the dead fox tells Dafoe later on, chaos reigns.
von Trier is almost too skilled for his own good sometimes. It does a filmmaker no good to subvert a convention if you work it in so seamlessly that no one notices the convention is there, but that's almost what happens. For instance: the film's second half is set in an isolated cabin in the woods, and a major plot point hinges on a book of occult scribblings found hidden in the attic, and yet while what von Trier is working with there is obvious in retrospect during the flow of the film itself there are no winks and nods in those references, only the sense of a trap sprung, and of inevitable doom grinding inexorably forward.
Dafoe and Gainsbourg are both beyond magnificent. It's easy to forget sometimes, what with his gleeful genre work in movies like Spider-Man and even this year's Daybreakers, that Dafoe is a goddamned incredible actor when he gets material that challenges and pushes him. He's incredible here, subtle and caring and self-aware enough to realize he's in way over his head even as his arrogance drives him to keep moving forward and to keep trying to save his wife. Great as he is though, Gainsbourg is that much greater. To say her performance is merely brave is to belittle it. She's a force of nature, abandoning herself to a role that requires her to find the darkest part of not just herself but of all humanity. von Trier is an old hand at putting his lead actresses through hell to get what he wants out of them, but there were times in Antichrist when I got the impression that even he was caught off-guard by the fury of what he'd awoken in Gainsbourg. This is normally the part of the review where I'd talk about her Oscar chances, but she has none. Her performance is too raw, too unspeakable and too dangerous to ever get the Academy's seal of approval. I hope she wears the inevitable snub like a badge of honor, because that's exactly what it will be.
What lies at the heart of Antichrist though (and for me the thing more shocking that even the grand guignol of the final act) is not the contempt for the human species I've come to expect from Lars, but rather love for it. This is a film about the corrosive, destructive power of guilt, and how evil is just despair externalized. This isn't a movie condemning the human race, it's one freakishly trying to save it from itself. It's also, perhaps, von Trier's most feminist film (if such a thing is even possible), an elegy for all the women through all the centuries who fell victim to the forces of fear and ignorance. Given the circumstances under which he wrote and conceived the film (von Trier came up with Antichrist after a divorce and a depression) that's both remarkable and understandable.
A word about that final act: it's abominable, in the best possible way. If you've already heard what happens you still know nothing, because the why is far more important than the mere what. And if you haven't heard, well, like I said it's abominable in the best possible way. Shaking and trembling afterwards are the least of your worries.
Visually beautiful beyond even the compositional abilities of a Kubrick or Lynch, and as emotionally and psychically devastating as anything he's ever done before, Antichrist is von Trier's most vulnerable work, and his most haunting. Don't call it a horror film though. Antichrist is something else entirely, and something very much more powerful.