Ben Steiner’s feature debut Matriarch continues a decade-long pop-culture fixation on Kate Dickie’s chest as a magnet for the bizarre, the uncomfortable, and the straightforwardly evil. In Game of Thrones, she plays a Lady Regent determinedly nursing her son, who is well beyond nursing years; in The Witch, she hallucinates nursing her baby, which is actually a raven pecking away at her chest; in Matriarch, well, embrace the mystery until seeing the film for yourself. But her figure is addressed directly in Steiner’s script more than once.
As Celia, the official but unelected leader of her small town England, she is styled with a sense of glamor and sophistication, the best-dressed person in the village. Celia’s daughter Laura (Jemima Rooper) is in disbelief that her mom looks as good as she does, citing her age as somewhere in her 80s, though it’s not entirely clear whether she’s joking. After all, it’s been 20 years since they last saw each other. Maybe Laura simply doesn’t recognize her mother after that long passage of time; maybe Celia simply has good genes; maybe she’s taken good care of herself over those two long decades. Or maybe the truth lies in the wilderness surrounding the village.
Guess which maybe is the right one? Matriarch’s status as a horror film is a giveaway that there’s more to Celia’s alluring preservation than yoga, a healthy diet and a healthier sex life—though given that Laura’s approach to wellness is apparently antithetical to Celia’s, she’s in no position to judge. Steiner introduces Laura carrying out her morning routine of jogging, eating, purging, drinking vodka and tactically disguising traces of bodily abuse with her sharp wardrobe. (She also does a bump before walking into her office.) This is a woman weighed down by her past, a burden she communicates to everyone around her through her harmful personal choices. Few people hear her, though, and she lashes out at the people who do, like her boss, Maxine (Franc Ashman).
Celia reaches out to her daughter, seemingly out of the blue, the day after Laura survives an overdose; a mother, she says, knows. The phone call leads to Laura returning home, which leads to strolls down memory lane, which lead to the reason Laura called in the first place. In short: Nothing good or normal. Matriarch fits snugly into the “stranger shows up at an insular, remote community and discovers it hides a terrible secret” canon of horror cinema, the same fertile ground as The Wicker Man and Village of the Damned, recently clumsily trod over by Alex Garland’s Men. Matriarch takes this trope somewhere fresh and invigorating, not “new” per se, but not necessarily where we might assume, its journey pegged to Celia and Laura’s fractious relationship.
Home in Matriarch is a somber, dismal place, in part because that’s what rural Britain looks like and in part as a reflection of what’s happening under the town’s hood. Every pop of color appears in Celia’s home, one more marker of the role she occupies in her community. The film’s title quite clearly points to her, but Steiner quietly plays with a double meaning, careful to reserve his greatest surprises for the end. Steiner gives little away upfront, but he keys into his horror elements early and lets them hang over Matriarch’s drama: There’s implicit trust that the audience will remember the black ichor that washes over Laura during the overdose scene as the narrative builds. Steiner stages that moment to burn into our consciousness, informing how we see everything that happens on screen up to the film’s climax.
Less flattering than Steiner’s gift for sustaining tension is Matriarch’s lighting. It’s a dark movie in that the subject matter sets our skin crawling, but it’s also dark in that it’s dimly lit. This isn’t a trait unique to Matriarch: A disappointing amount of contemporary horror treats muted lighting as a virtue (a la David Bruckner’s Hellraiser). Maybe that’s how the industry expects horror movies to look—gloomy. Horror isn’t always the cheeriest space, of course, but it’s much easier to appreciate scares when they’re visually comprehensible. Matriarch, to Steiner’s credit, stays far from the line where its most frightful images are rendered into murky gobbledygook. We can see enough to fill us with dread, when it counts the most. But praising a movie for properly illuminating its actors and sets means praising a movie for meeting the barest minimum.
It’s hard not to wonder what Matriarch’s caliginousness hides from the audience, and whether Steiner’s work, and the work of cinematographer Alan C. McLaughlin and the visual effects team, is worth more than what we’re able to glean in shadow. Still, the movie doesn’t want for eldritch menace. Just like the black ichor seeping into Laura, Matriarch saturates viewers’ senses until it pays off its many adumbrations with unexpected revelations.
Director: Ben Steiner
Writer: Ben Steiner
Starring: Jemima Rooper, Kate Dickie, Sarah Paul, Simon Meacock, Nick Haverson, Franc Ashman
Release Date: October 21, 2022 (Hulu)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.