Antichrist (2009)

Antichrist (Click for larger image)Reviewed by Gareth Jones

Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Directed by Lars Von Trier

Never one to step away from controversy, Danish director Lars Von Trier pushes the boat out farther than ever with his latest work, Antichrist.

Split into four chapters (“Grief”, “Pain (Chaos Reigns)”, “Despair (Gynocide)” and “The Three Beggars”) with an epilogue and prologue, the story itself follows He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a couple grieving in the aftermath of the accidental death of their toddler son, Nick. To save his wife from impending complete mental breakdown, psychiatrist He decides to remove her from hospital and treat her himself. This involves taking her to their woodland cabin, Eden, to face her escalating fear of nature, conquer her grief and ultimately save their relationship. Things don’t go quite so well, however, as He finds himself locked in a losing battle which escalates to extremely bloody levels.

Anyone who has previously been exposed to Von Trier’s work will know not to expect anything particularly straightforward with regards to Antichrist’s storytelling, and even those who despise his earlier works will be forgiven for expecting something special mere moments into the particularly astounding “Prologue” section of the film. The only part to include a musical soundtrack besides the “Epilogue”, the opening of Antichrist is hauntingly beautiful – a black and white, slow motion sequence set to “Lascia ch’io pianga” (from the Opera Rinaldo). Timing and cinematography here are both magnificent, chronicling the fate of young Nick as his parents engage in sexual intercourse (including a censor-busting close-up penetration shot). Unfortunately, once this has passed things move steadily downhill.

The script itself is full of nonsensical, meaningless waffle – in fact, it makes up the vast majority of it. Willem Defoe comes out shining despite this with his layered and subtle portrayal of He however Gainsbourg, almost from the beginning, becomes one of the most irritating, insufferable on-screen presences of recent years. Her actions rarely appear to occur through grief (until the climax), making her constant sniping and condescension feel like nothing more than the actions of a spiteful and unlikeable woman.

Antichrist has a very “mad at the world” (and a more than slightly misogynistic) feeling behind it, with Defoe’s character gradually discovering the corruption at the base of nature itself before finally becoming a target of it. This of course isn’t presented by anything as straightforward as an actual animal attack or anything of the sort (this is subtle art house cinema) – instead, each chapter is punctuated by an encounter with a wounded or dying animal including an unbelievably ridiculous mutilated fox mouthing “CHAOS…REIGNS!” as Defoe looks on incredulously. Lines such as “Nature is Satan’s church” also do nothing more than invite a stupefied frown.

The pacing of Antichrist is numbingly slow, almost comatose, with nothing much particularly occurring for most of the runtime. The first chapter sees not much more than He attempting to quell his wife’s panic attacks and sexual advances, and the occasional artsy shot of woodland used to break up scenes. This laborious tempo continues throughout the rest of the film and, at times, threatens to drive the audience to the same limit of insanity as Gainsbourg’s character as they wish for something, anything, of actual substance to occur. It never feels like a film with a “deliberate” pace – merely a rambling attempt to pad out a story as much as possible. Anthony Dod Mantle’s spellbinding cinematography proves to be one of the only main reasons to continue watching…well, besides the much-touted brutality which populates the final act.

The violence in Antichrist is horrifying in its sexual nature, with a later scene seeing He partially raped, smashed in the groin with a log then masturbated while unconscious until he ejaculates blood – all in loving detail. After this, his psychotic other half drills a hole though his leg and attaches a grindstone as a symbolic “ball and chain”. The climactic scene includes a revelation explaining the sexual targeting of She’s violent behaviour, spotlighting the twisted reasoning behind her actions as she (again, in graphic close up) mutilates her own genitals with a pair of scissors but ultimately it all just feels like shock for the sake of it.

If it weren’t for the overt pretentiousness and strained imagery, this may have been an involving and genuinely horrifying exploration of the depths that a crumbling relationship can be drawn to through grief. In the end, though, it’s a warbling, emotionally impenetrable mess that runs at least twice as long as it ought to. Being too artsy for the general horror crowd (even those like myself who do enjoy the more cerebral and character-based offerings of the genre will have their patience sorely tested), and simply too extreme in the depiction of sexual violence for most other audiences means that Antichrist struggles to find a place for itself. In all honesty, it probably doesn’t deserve one except for Von Trier’s private screening room, or as a show reel for the aforementioned stellar cinematography and Defoe’s performance.

Critically, the film has already received returns from both ends of the spectrum, which is representative of just how much this is going to divide audiences. It’s one of those movies whose fans will claim the naysayers just don’t “get” when, in truth, it’s not particularly hard to understand. It just isn’t very good.

2 out of 5

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  • thefyn

    Ignore this review. The movie is as beautiful as it is horrific. Perhaps the reviewer watched it on a laptop? I was fully immersed and I could almost feel the madness/evil sitting next to me.

    To give this experience 2 out of 5 is basically telling Hollywood: You have won.

    • Floydian Trip

      Look up Ebert’s wonderfully written essay. I wouldn’t say that he liked it but he did appreciate it. I will see this eventually.

    • Vanvance1

      I really wanted to like the film. I went in with a positive and patient attitude, but I don’t feel it’s any better than the DC reviewer did.

  • strangedays8

    I’m beginning to distrust Dread Central’s reviews. Dread Central has been my go-to place for intelligent horror reviews for the past few years. When Stan Helsing gets a better review than Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, it makes me think its time to go out and rent all of the movies they have called shit in the past.

    • Pestilence

      Well, Creepy reviewed Stan Helsing and I was surprised it got a half-decent turn, too. If it’s any consolation, I lasted about 20 minutes before turning that one off.

      However, opinions, everyone’s got one!

    • Uncle Creepy

      I never said Stan Helsing was better than Antichrist. Nor have I said it’s worse. For me Helsing was a real middle of the road affair. It was just kind of there and that’s exactly what I said in my review.

      But wait … You’re starting to distrust Dread Central because two different people felt two different ways about two different movies? Really? LOL

      Reaction to Antichrist has been split down the middle. Some call it a masterpiece while others call it trash. Our reviews are only meant as guidelines not gospel, and there’s a lot of us writing for the site so that means a lot of different opinions. The best review in the world for any movie is what you take from it. Not what someone else says.

      • Pestilence

        @ Creepy : Testify, brutha!

        *waves arms in air*

        EDIT: I also think it’s quite important not to simply glance at and compare the final score of a film, but to read the full review itself. The scoring factor can be difficult, so a lot of films can be taken on different levels by the reviewer and scored as such. Immediately thinking that one movie is “better” than another because it got an extra knife/half-knife could be the wrong thing to do.

        Overall, though, as our beloved Uncle says the only really important opinion is that of your own. Each of us have our own tastes, which you can gauge against your own by reading each of our reviews, and will try to point you in the best direction we can but ultimately it’s all up to you. The more movies you watch, whether we love them or not, the better. If you wanna hit the forums and talk it up or discuss them with us, then that’s even better!

      • strangedays8

        Hello, good Sir. That’s cool that you responded.

        I mentioned that I was beginning to distrust the reviews because over the last couple years the reviews here have been more accurate than any other movie review site out there(according to my tastes.) Then the Antichrist and Stan Helsing reviews made me think about all the ones I had dismissed because of low knife counts. It’s my fault for not reading the whole review.

        I check out every review you guys post. I check the knives and usually if they are below three, I don’t even bother reading the review(unless that is i have a more than average interest in the film.) That is my joy of this site, you guys wade through the sludge so we don’t have to. For that, I am very grateful.

        I did notice that the reviews were written by two different critics, but you guys still operate under the Dread Central name. I was under the assumption that after a review had been written, it was reviewed by the rest of the staff before posting it, or if you had radically different views on a film, dread central would put out more than one review.

        I imagine i was just pissed that I watched all of Stan Helsing then logged on and saw the knife similarity between the two. Red flag, red flag.

        Thanks for setting me straight.

  • Bone Daddy

    A very thorough review. I do to enjoy the cerebral horror fare (think Cronenberg) however, I’m hesitant to catch this on pay-per-view. The trailers indicated that this is indeed a ‘deliberately’ paced film and I have to be in the mood for Art-house film subtleties and contrivances.

  • Caterpillar

    I’m pretty sure this will end up being my favorite film of 2009 so obviously I disagree. We could argue about it for hours and that alone speaks for the film’s qualities. I’ve always been more creeped out by ambiguous films that leave a lot to the viewer than by your average by-the-numbers genre work.

  • Barfneck

    Just saw this and still don’t know what to make of it. There was definitely some crazy brutality which was a welcome addition to a film I wasn’t expecting to find any of it in. Willem Difoe rules as always and like the reviewer stated, the cinematography is some of the best I can recall seeing, absolutely amazing. I was left wondering if my lack of religious knowledge was the cause of me not really fully understanding what was happening at times during this. Not a bad movie to check out if you’ve got nothing to do… At least it’s good on the eyes..

    • Pixie of Bloody Eden

      I’m not sure there needs to be a religious background to help with the understanding of the movie. At least because I have near nil religious background and found trouble with only one spot in the film and that was the final scene where there’s a rush of women.

      I also don’t see this as a misogynist film (as many have claimed it is). I had a feeling when I began watching that there really was NO way explainable (besides dormant psychosis) of the mother not being aware of the kid and what he was up to. She knew – which we learn at the end – and was satisfied at her core to lose her child. She did not have that maternal nature. Mother nature – hence her fear of nature. The plot hole here that I see is why doesn’t the child always cry at home with his feet hurting, why doesn’t the father notice, or is his trust in her as a mother so complete that he doesn’t question it?

      Her study of the hatred towards women was an interesting thesis, and I’m not sure really why she gave it up. Is it because women are the cause of their own downfall over those centuries because they continued to give birth to either men who would kill them or other women who would someday be killed by men, just for the fact of being women? Like He said to She, “How many were killed just because they were women? You know that more than anybody!” I suppose in a way that could mean that She is meant to represent all women and what they have been put through by what they’ve brought into this world. She doesn’t even believe nor trust in her own grief: “A crying woman is a scheming woman.” She’s brought this upon herself, no matter what she does, as a woman – she has no way of not completing the cycle of life, or granting new life…. and if the world could ever be brought to its knees, in her mind if it’s not she, then it’ll still be Woman who brings about the end of the world.

      While I find this movie very difficult to rate – let’s just say out of five, I’m stuck between a 3 and 4, maybe a tad above a 4 for some reasons.

      But the only reason I held on watching this (almost gave up after 45minutes) was the cinematography. Wow. I don’t think I have ever seen a more beautifully lit and shot film. Just amazing. The bookends were a nice touch too – back to the black and white, the beautiful aria.

      Von Trier says that he didn’t succeed in creating a horror movie but I disagree. A horror movie doesn’t need to be to the tune of Wrong Turn or Scream. This film is rich with detail, though I don’t think I could watch it again for purely that reason of dissecting it. Another thing that makes it a “horror” feature is how beautifully it’s shot. I honestly can’t think of a film that looks THIS amazing. There’s never a bad shot.

Gareth Jones

Horror is my jam, yo.