“Every mask has a function…”
…Some wear masks to feel strong. Some wear them to scare others. And some of us…we wear them to conceal the torment in our souls. In director Charlotte Colbert’s debut feature, She Will, the talented filmmaker pulls the mask off of generations of women who refuse to hide the pain inflicted by men for one second longer.
Written by Colbert and Kitty Percy and executive produced by Dario Argento, She Will stars the incomparable Alice Krige as Veronica, a famous actress taking some time away from the world as she recovers from a mastectomy. Veronica and her nurse, Desi (Kota Eberhardt), travel to a retreat deep in the woods that carries with it a sordid history of so called “witch” burnings. So many women fell victim to the witch trials on the land, that the ashy soot which occasionally falls from the sky is referred to as “witch feathers”. Their history, their screams, their anger…all of it rests deep within the soil. And in that earth is a power which has focused its attention on Veronica.
In Veronica, She Will introduces an elegant woman who is used to the spotlight yet has found herself wishing to be away from peering eyes. Especially the gaze of men, which we learn from her shock at discovering that the retreat is not a woman’s retreat. Post-surgery, she doesn’t feel whole, a truth that’s never spoken out loud but expressed through a commanding performance from Krige. She snaps at Desi. She talks down to those around her. But all of it, as she hints from the beginning, is a mask to hide her pain, seen plainly through the windowpanes of her eyes. Jamie Ramsay’s gorgeous cinematography often incorporates long, wide shots to place Veronica in a realm of isolation. She’s lost a piece of herself she can’t have back. She Will is about her pursuit to become whole again.
That internal journey plays more often like a strange dream than a nightmare. The camera glides along misty lakes and over eerie forests, drifting the way we drift through life when we feel lost. Veronica is a wanderer not just of the mysterious land of the retreat, but of her own soul. She’s haunted by visions of cutting flesh and bloodied women in iron masks—the closest She Will gets to frightening the viewer—intrigued by the feeling that she shares some unspoken connection to this place. Colbert allows the audience to feel as absorbed by the allure of the land as Veronica is. Watching She Will illicits a feeling of slowly sinking into the inviting mud which beckons to her.
This is the thing about She Will: It isn’t scary. It’s empowering. The whispers of the wind surrounding the retreat. The ghosts of murdered women. The supernatural power inherent in the dirt. None of it is meant to scare the audience, but to entice. To draw sympathy. While most horror films present witchcraft as sinister, She Will is a dreamy tale of revenge that looks at womanhood and the shared anger towards a cruel male patriarchy. Colbert’s film is filled with men who are either intrusive, condescending, or worse. Leading that group is Veronica’s ex co-star Hathbourne (Malcolm McDowell) from the film that made her famous, Navajo Frontier, which is shooting a sequel without her. The horror of She Will doesn’t come from witchcraft, but from the nature of men.
Painted with a dark color palette of blacks, greys and browns—representative of the earthy presence inhabiting Veronica--She Will is a dark fantasy seen through a poetic lens. Call it arthouse horror if you like. Either way, Colbert focuses more on artistic metaphor than telling a traditional tale. “Art purifies the soul”, after all. This isn’t a suspenseful story or one that’s even all that “exciting”. Much of She Will is left up to interpretation. Colbert slaps away your hand rather than holding it, posing a ton of questions while providing few, if any, answers. That’s of course frustrating and not for everyone—I admittedly found myself dumbfounded by certain elements of She Will—but part of the intrigue with the film is in not knowing. Colbert is more interested in leaving the audience with a feeling than anything else.
That vague approach is a double-edged sword though and is where She Will loses some of its grasp on the audience. Both Krige and Eberhardt are captivating, but the film hardly gives them anything to do besides wander the strange world they’ve found themselves in. The mystery of the land and the visions haunting Krige stay as just that. Meanwhile, actors such as McDowell, Rupert Everett (as Tirador) and Olwen Fouere (as Jean) are more or less wasted, their characters remaining in a secrecy that’s never quite explored. She Will offers plenty of intriguing ideas, but the lack of indulgence in those ideas only further hampers a film struggling to hold onto viewers through its creeping pace. The poor investment in developing character relationships also leaves the finale as more of a whimper than a bang.
Though short on scares and suspense, She Will is a beautiful calling card from Colbert that has me anxious to see what she does next. Strong themes and moving performances mostly make up for any flaws in this magical approach to witchcraft which gives strength to the voices of women who have had enough. She will not be silenced. She will not be held down. She will do whatever the hell she wants. Period.
She Will comes to select theaters and VOD July 15th from IFC Midnight.
By Matt Konopka