What to Watch Verdict
'The Reckoning' is a trashy-terrible witch hunt horror flick that understands so very little about writing a female-centered revenge story beyond torture for over ninety minutes followed by a few dead bodies.
🍷 When isn't Sean Pertwee's accent a delight?
🍷 Continually rips viewers from the period aesthetic.
🍷 One-note exploitation of characters.
🍷 Emptier than the plague-infested castle grounds.
🍷 Masturbatory in its performances and length.
🍷 Never scary, nor anxiously tense, nor celebratory.
How does The Reckoning, so amateurish, come from the same creator behind everlasting favorites such as Dog Soldiers and The Descent? It appears Neil Marshall is attempting his best Dario Argento impersonation, except he’s only channeling the Italian’s most unwatchable: Dracula 3D. Marshall seems transfixed by his newest muse Charlotte Kirk, who stars, co-writes, co-produces, and co-sinks this shallow excuse for feminine empowerment through the male gaze that’s more putrid than plague stew. I don’t believe it’s even Marshall behind the scenes, given how lifeless and lethargic this commentary on medieval witch hunts becomes in mere seconds. Then the resulting almost-two-hours blunder through lurid softcore romances and tensionless tests of blasphemous titillation with aimless direction.
Ms. Kirk stars as Grace Haverstock, a 1660s widow whose husband hung himself due to impending plague fatality. Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington) arrives not long after Joseph’s (Joe Anderson) body has been buried under soil, to inform Grace she owes rent. When he suggests an alternate, fornication-forward way of repaying debts, Grace responds with defensive combat. Pendleton trots back into town, emasculated, and denied coitus, so he convinces the townsfolk Grace is a witch as an act of revenge. Thus begins Grace’s trial at the hands of London’s premiere enchantress executioner, Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee).
It’s a narrative that should concisely extend all of ninety minutes, pushing patience, but what could Marshall trim? Audiences would never comprehend Grace’s lovesick anguish without the flashback sex sequences where the camera ogles Kirk’s radiating skin. As Argento became infamous for salaciously stripping and devouring daughter Asia naked through lenses ([tugs collar]), Marshall becomes obsessed with cinematography that hugs the half-moon curves of Kirk’s cheeks because, you know, powerful depictions of femininity and all. Marshall, Kirk, and third co-writer Edward Evers-Swindell favor scripted themes that mistake bodily offerings and continual punishment of your womanly protagonist at the hands of misogynist, abusive, “righteous” males as building to a cathartic climax. On the contrary, it’s nothing but painful exploitation to the extreme of bloody genitals before five violent minutes of reductive faux-feminist-outcries envisioned like some 70s airbrushed van mural.
Worse off, production designs are laughably non-authentic outside the castle found by location scouts that took production to Budapest, Hungary. Stone architecture and pestilence-riddled dungeon quarters look the part, but elsewhere, Marshall’s attention to period detail is uncaring at-best. Wounds never fester from disease without medical attention; characters read notes on what looks like snow-white printer paper. Oh, and Kirk’s makeup? Impoverished maidens in the 1600s flaunted enough highlights and powdered blends to don the cover of Vogue at any moment, that’s right. At least we get Sean Pertwee in a novelty-sized hat that’s a knight’s answer to Abe Lincoln’s ten-gallon cylinder. Too bad out-of-place but still emphatically stitched costume patterns can't distract from abhorrent computerized pyre fires that roast “witches” or inexcusable buckshot wounds that squirt animated blood. Mr. Marshall, leave me a message in the comments if you require assistance?
When stacked against survivalist gender tales like Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale or J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart, The Reckoning is a fraud. Not only is it a witchless embarrassment that peppers in Lucifer’s winged figure for, you guessed it, molestation or intercourse, but Kirk’s performance does little to enrapture or inspire succulent revenge. Marshall’s navigation of tragic bias is predictable from the opening minutes, where we know Grace will be victimized for her resilience against sexual coercion. Yet, the charade meanders forward with Moorcroft demanding his unholy confession before “salvation” (swift death). “Day 1,” “Day 2,” “Day 3" the title cards read and inevitability lurches at a snail's pace while Grace clutches her wills and Moorcroft plays an agent of purification without any creative intrigue. Inspiration is coldly manufactured, torment is narcissistically bleak, and the whole “trial” seems crafted to deliver one payoff shot that hopes you’ll forget not a single earnest sensation of victory prevails.
Not to mention how Moorcroft’s mission of coaxing a forced confession means nothing by the third act's showdown because, well, Moorcroft himself utters dialogue that backtracks his entire purpose thus far into storytelling. Marshall beat-after-beat trips over himself to ensure Kirk looks her most non-medieval-beautiful, continuity or cohesion be damned. Cool plague doctor mob masks and torture devices, I guess? Never once is the film’s melodramatic tone matched to whipped lashings, decapitations that favor B-grade splatter (rarely), nor as Kirk’s forlorn daze wavers between mood-incapable refuelings of her constitution and scattershot voyeurism fantasies.
The Reckoning is a punishing experience that does absolutely nothing with its supernatural implications and captures Neil Marshall at his unrivaled lowest. None of the craven ferocity or genuine horror tension he’s manipulated on repeat makes its way into this showcase for Charlotte Kirk (not showing much). What you see in The Reckoning is precisely what you get. Monstrous men weaponize gender to oppress women who dare request bodily autonomy, so they get iron-blossom implements shoved into unsatisfactory orifices. A metaphor that suggests women are still left bloodied and unbelieved by societal “lashings” day in and day out, except there’s more developed character depth in fantasy RPGs where warriors don nonsense armor only around bosoms and bikini lines. From the performances to the universe to infuriatingly emotionless plotlines, The Reckoning fingers a pulse that beats about as remarkably as another three-day-old corpse tossed onto the kingdom's “Burn Later” heap.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.