To love someone is to graft together two lives, whether you’re joined at the hip or connected by a long digital umbilical cord spanning thousands of miles. It’s a joining of two independent beings, and with that joining comes a certain acknowledgement that you’re not only giving a part of yourself away, but allowing that part of you to move freely around the world without you. It’s a moving, beautiful thought, but in the right context it can also be a terrifying one. What do you do when a piece of your soul that exists outside your own body starts to behave in ways you can’t control or explain? What happens to you, what happens to them and how far will you go to ride out the changes?
It’s a universal dilemma, which makes it perfect fodder for horror storytelling. In Attachment, writer/director Gabriel Bier Gislason examines that dilemma with keen, incisive eyes, and allows the three performers at the heart of the story to shine for a film that’s likely to be among the most compelling horror stories of the year.
Attachment begins with attraction, the sudden collision of two women who simply seem to fit together. Leah (Ellie Kendrick), a visiting academic from London, meets Maja (Josephine Park), a Danish woman with a past as an actress, in a cute and endearing encounter in a library. They strike up a conversation, which turns into a weekend affair, which turns into a more complicated relationship when an accident leaves Leah with an injured leg and a harder road back to London. Rather than leaving her new flame to recover by herself, Maja makes the decision to follow Leah to London, where she meets her girlfriend’s overbearing mother Chana (Sofie Gråbøl), a devout Jewish woman who values her daughter’s health and safety above everything else, to an often unhealthy degree.
As the trio settles into an awkward new dynamic, Maja and Leah try their best to forge a real, lasting relationship from the strange circumstances of their togetherness, while Maja does her best to get along with the suspicious and often standoffish Chana. But within that sincere desire to forge a connection, new wrinkles emerge. Strange noises creep into Leah’s bedroom at night. Unexplained candles start to appear, burning brightly, with no indication of how exactly they got there. Leah and Chana both exhibit strange behavior, but is Chana’s overwhelming need to control her daughter behind it all, or is it something else?
Just like the film’s overarching theme of how relationships morph our emotional scaffolding, the film’s plot catalyst is something immediately and deeply relatable: Stepping into the family dynamic of the person we love, and finding it alien and difficult to grasp. We’ve all had these moments, whether at a friend’s house or a romantic partner’s, in which we find strange customs, hear strange comments, and feel that creeping “What if they don’t like me?” notion in the back of our brains. Gislason’s screenplay has an immediate, human grasp of this feeling, but it’s only the beginning—a platform on which the film can build increasingly creepy layers of dread, emotional turmoil and all-out terror.
Yes, we’ve all been in that situation where we think that someone’s mother or father or other guardian might be a little crazy, but Attachment doesn’t skim the surface of that idea for a series of amusing and creepy moments and then bounce away into something else. The script instead probes these moments, asking us to consider not just Maja’s fears, but Chana’s fears, and even Leah’s, as she’s forced to re-confront her mother’s protective and potentially dangerous nature through Maja’s eyes. The film takes its time with these ideas, unspooling them slowly and methodically as a series of potentially supernatural clues tick up the suspense notch by notch, never leaving behind the simple idea that these three people are now joined together, and whether they like it or not, their fate is mutual.
Gislason’s patient, smart writing and dread-laced, moody photography certainly help these ideas along, but they’re given crackling, remarkable form by the cast. Kendrick and Park prove remarkably adept at walking the line between romance and terror, warmly and naturally intertwining their minds and bodies while twisting those same connections into the realm of horror with ease and poise. But even if the fire of the young lovers at the heart of the story never goes out, Gråbøl emerges as its most powerful performance. Her work is both frightening and deeply relatable, never losing the bittersweet sense of longing and honest love behind the eyes even as she digs into increasingly dark territory. It’s a great performance, and might be the film’s most potent throughline.
If you’re willing to settle into Attachment’s pace and follow down all its dark and complex corners, you’ll be rewarded with a quietly upsetting, deeply affecting horror film that nails its romance and family dynamics with clarity. It’s a slow-burning gem, and a wonderful addition to an already robust 2023 horror slate.
Director: Gabriel Bier Gislason
Writer: Gabriel Bier Gislason
Starring: Josephine Park, Ellie Kendrick, Sofie Gråbøl
Release Date: February 9, 2023 (Shudder)
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.