But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Female of the Species
Released in 2012, Sightseers was a refreshingly gruesome and irreverent take on the well-trodden film formula of fugitive lovers on the run from the authorities. Five years on, Alice Lowe returns to such familiarly macabre territory when playing the lead role in her directorial debut, Prevenge.
As with this previous outing, Prevenge is a darkly comic serial killer movie that subverts typical genre expectations by way of its acutely British humour and steady stream of delightfully witty, devastatingly acerbic one liners. Focusing around Ruth, a heavily pregnant widow, clear sub textual undercurrents are at play around the horrors of pregnancy and the psychologically damaging effects of post and antenatal depression.
In fact, the film is something of an allegory for the attendant fears and paranoia that pregnancy can sometimes carry, with Ruth hearing the constant, nagging voice of her unborn baby ordering her to kill people. In the grips of some strange hypnotic state and unable to control her own thoughts and actions, Ruth goes on frenzied killing spree, all it seems for the benefit of her little darling’s well-being. This redolent pretext of a woman plagued by paranoid concerns for the safety of her still embryonic child is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and Ruth’s obsessions are similarly all-consuming.
Seeing all those around her as potential threats and co-conspirators, Ruth’s victims at first follow an ostensibly predictable pattern – in a seemingly pro-feminist counter-punch to male misogyny, the first two are both male. The manner of these early encounters seemingly enforces such an agenda; from the suitably slippery pet shop owner who shows off his ‘big snake’, to the oafish 70s DJ, who, in a horrifyingly literal act of male castration gets his disco balls sliced clean off.
It soon becomes clear however that a hatred of men is not the principle motivation for these murders. Instead an appetite for vengeance is the guiding force, and as one particularly gory scene involving an office worker shows, revenge is a dish best served raw and bloody. Playing a faceless corporate drone devoid of all personality, seasoned pro Kate Dickie appears all too briefly, however what little screen time she does occupy is used to full effect courtesy of several extreme close-ups.
For all the lingering close-ups upon the protagonists own face in the film, Ruth is something of an enigma, from the opening image of her slumped morosely on a bench, to the final shot of her looking wide-eyed and maniacal. Indeed, the true extent of Ruth’s own inner reasoning remains somewhat ambiguous and ambivalent, which is a credit to Alice Lowe, who’s oddly serene and at times inscrutable performance again brings to mind her earlier work on Sightseers.
The film’s coda, where the baby is conceived and shown to be a perfectly normal, healthy baby rather than the devil incarnate confirms any previously held suspicions that these murderous acts were in fact carried out willingly. As Ruth remarks, ‘I did some bad things’, with the emphasis here being on reclaiming a sense of individual agency and a culpability for one’s actions.
In Kipling’s poem The Female of the Species it is posited that the female is more deadly than the male since she is designed for the sole purpose of motherhood. Vulnerable yet powerful, Ruth is a real force to be reckoned with, something which also happens to be true of the film as a whole.
Joyfully perverse and quietly pulsating, this is an impressive debut feature from an exciting British talent. Watch this space.