Abandoned (2022) Movie Review: In recent years, Ari Aster has been seminal in bringing to the fore an aspect of horror films that has always been overlooked and hence, taken for granted – the lead actor’s performance. Emma Roberts’s performance in ‘Abandoned’, as the young mother, Sara, undergoing a severe bout of postpartum depression that is ruining her hopes for a happy family life, is a powerful performance that, much like Toni Colette in ‘Hereditary’ or Florence Pugh in ‘Midsommar’ is a classic case of too good to be true.
The motions she undergoes in the process of understanding her fragility and strengths is never heroic or sudden, but a gradual recognition, a strengthening of her convictions by facing adversity at every turn. Moments like when she inaudibly corrects her husband calling the ribbon she’s wearing a ‘bow’ or the peculiar discomfort she shows when her baby smiles just as she is taking her top off to breastfeed him are essential in the depiction of her struggle with her own self and the extent to which she is alone in dealing with them.
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Spencer Squire’s feature film debut tells the story of a married couple that moves into a countryside house with their newborn baby, as both a new start for them as a family and for Sara’s convalescence. The house, though, harbors a horrifying past and isn’t exactly the right choice for them yet for Sara to go ahead with the place is essential to her characterization whereby she isn’t willing to allow outward forces to defeat her when she’s already so deeply engaged in a struggle with her own self. Soon, items start to disappear, and the baby, Liam, seems to constantly be at risk while a sense of foreboding doom pervades their existence as a whole.
‘Abandoned’ is a film strengthened by the numerous little things it does really well, making it a true sum of its parts. Sara’s husband, Alex (John Gallagher Jr.), has all the superficial qualities of paternity and that of a modern husband yet he is also quite visibly unsympathetic to Sara’s state, a little too willing to point out her faults and deficiencies yet not in a manner that jeopardizes their marriage. Liam’s incessant crying is specifically made loud and thereby frustrating enough to make us empathize with Sara having to deal with it all day, without any apparent solutions.
The house itself is an extremely well-conceived space. It looks large and spacious on the outside, with its surrounding greenery making it seem like an exemplary idyll for a child to grow up in happily. Inside, it’s a totally different story. The rooms feel small and cramped and the lack of furniture strangely furthers the feeling of claustrophobia. The dull interiors are especially oppressive and when sunlight filters into the house, the loneliness it fosters is only made more prominent. It is anything but the place the couple thinks of it to be. There are two scenes – the one where Sara and Alex meet Renner and the other when Sara is forced to sit down with a psychiatrist – that are awkwardly prolonged in quite a suitable manner to convey the participants’ sense of discomfort.
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While Squire states that his central concern with the film is to portray the various manners in which people struggle with mental health problems, motherhood is just as important to the plot, if not more, than mental health issues. The many ways in which it is susceptible to failure, through no fault of the mothers themselves, echo across the film. Liam rejects being breastfed and her bottled milk has to be thrown out after maggots infest it.
The past of the house deals with a mother who committed the ultimate crime, and her becoming a mother is itself hinted at as having terrible origins. The mother pig of a litter has to be eliminated along with her piglets as they’re all diseased because of her. A cow struggles to give birth and stands to lose its calf. This is where the horror comes from, the manner in which such a fundamental relationship that is always seen as a resort for comfort and safety is turned into something noxious and to be feared, at the center of which lies Sara’s struggle, made that much more powerful by the fact that among the several mothers we encounter, she’s the only one capable of changing her plight.
The character of Renner (Michael Shannon) is a visible misfit though. Given the discovery of his back story, which can be seen from a mile away, one may assume he will be of central importance, and there was true potential for him to be that. Instead, he feels shoehorned into the plot to deliver exposition, which is the only reason why he appears every time he does and is otherwise inconsequential to the action. There’s also a fair number of jumpscares in it and while the very first one is justified, during other times, they seem like a rushed resort to incite horror in what is otherwise a film quite patient with its storytelling and having faith in being able to maintain the audience’s attention.
Anchored by Roberts’s fantastic performance and a fairly immersive atmosphere, ‘Abandoned’ is an example of a film that has good and solid fundamentals. It has a dark centre but isn’t distressingly serious. It sticks to its strengths and while there are the occasional lapses owing to a desire to be extra scary, it’s a promising debut from a director who seems to be keenly aware of what matters in a horror film.