The horizon is wide and bleary and flat and pale, and columns of smoke blur the sky in the distance. If you’re used to wet, green, hilly Scotland, it’s probably an existentially terrifying landscape, more like Purgatory than Australia, especially if you haven’t slept normally in months. The disoriented woman wants to know what that smell is. The man behind the wheel is tense, but nonchalant enough about the scent on the breeze; he’s used to eucalyptus wildfires, to how fast they move and how hot they burn and to the strange terpene aromatics in the smoke. The baby in the backseat is quiet for the first time in what seems like days.
They drive toward the billowing smoke, and we follow them into a very extended metaphor.
The Cry, a four-part psychological thriller from the BBC (via Sundance Now), is definitely not just for people who need re-schooling on “gaslighting,” an abnormal psychology term that’s been abused in a pathology-obsessed and relentlessly finger-pointing cultural moment, but for sure it can also do that for you. This excruciating breakdown of a toxic marriage will keep most people on the edges of their chairs.
The four hours of The Cry cut back and forth relentlessly, chopping past and present narratives into spliced, stochastic and muddled webs of connected moments. It takes a few minutes to get your footing and, while this could have been an on-the-nose flop as a technique, it’s not. It’s brilliantly done and highly evocative of the bizarre, flashback-riddled, lost-time landscape of trauma. Joanna (Jenna Coleman) is the young mother of a colicky newborn. Her husband, Alistair (Ewen Leslie), wants to go from Scotland to his childhood home, outside Melbourne, where his first wife has absconded and “stolen” his teenage daughter, Chloe (Markella Kavenagh), after their marriage fell apart. The day Alistair and Joanna arrive, after a harrowing flight with a shrieking baby and a cabin full of resentful co-passengers, they make a pit stop at a convenience store and, after leaving the car unattended for just a minute, find the baby is not in the car seat.
Aside from the obvious fact that an infant has disappeared, though—something’s wrong. The expressions on Joanna’s face are strange, dissociated. What’s Al’s ex (Asher Keddie) doing snooping around their rental property? What’s up with the teenage daughter? Why aren’t the police focusing on the red car that drove down the street just before Joanna got out of her own car and went into the convenience store? Why does Alistair seem to be advising Joanna to cry more when people are watching them?
Anyone who’s had a baby, and especially anyone who’s had a difficult birth, a difficult infant, or postpartum depression, will instantly recognize the fishbowl-of-the-mind disorientation, dislocation and time-distortion we glimpse when we appear to be in Joanna’s point of view. (If you have not, please trust me, it’s painfully realistic.) Losing a child and being in the public eye over it is something I have not personally experienced, but no one has to have been there to imagine how harrowing that would be. The editing, the script, and the photography all make very effective use of the confusion and pain and shifting guilt and blame and allegiance, the obsessive revisiting of certain moments in time, flashing back and forward in the story with certain details added or omitted. At a certain point, it becomes clear Joanna’s flashing back to those months in Melbourne from a courtroom in Glasgow, where she is a defendant facing a very nasty, aggressive prosecutor. (Does anyone sneer quite like Kate Dickie?) There’s a whole bunch of lost time between those events, which gradually fills itself in, in a cogitating, agitated style that heavily but successfully underscores the feelings of helplessness, confusion and violation the protagonist (or antagonist?) is feeling. Joanna’s story isn’t simple. She might have destroyed Alistair’s first marriage—or she might not have known he was married when he asked her out. She might have been in a psychotic state and done something to the baby, or she might be out of her gourd because the baby vanished. There’s something she isn’t being entirely honest about, something about her that’s a little off. And yet it just doesn’t seem plausible that she’s orchestrated this situation. Throw in a couple of weird police investigators (one of whom is a childhood friend of Al’s); the angry ex-wife, who has been stalking Joanna on social media for years; and a presumptuous and angry court of public opinion—plus the fact that Al’s profession happens to be “spin doctor”—and the only thing that’s still clear is that the baby is gone.
When it becomes clear what actually happened, though, you don’t feel relieved. Just more anxious.
The Cry is a deft, gripping, sophisticated anatomy of gaslighting, right down to the part where Joanna tells the court appointed psychiatric expert why Alistair has held such Svengali-like power over her: “Because I gave it to him,” she says, simply. The way the show is constructed could easily have come across as heavy-handed, but it doesn’t. It’s wonderfully disjointed, almost like watching a painting being unpainted bit by bit. Through the back-and-forth temporal leaps, the repeated scenes with their small variations, the zooming in and out, the weaving of tight close-ups with panoramas, the scenes obscured by smoke or water, and the ominously repeated snatches of music, we experience the situation from multiple perspectives. There’s never anything as simple as a hero and a villain, and we see, step by backward step, how a person’s sense of reality can, under the right circumstances, be totally eroded.
The truth is, heroes and villains are pretty thin on the ground. Most of us are a lot more complicated than that, more blinkered, more inconsistent, more capable of shifting in response to context, sometimes in ways that shock everyone, especially ourselves. Many people are manipulative; very few are true gaslighters. Anyone can be lied to and not see it, but not everyone is susceptible to deliberate and sustained psychological torture—it takes a unique set of personality traits and circumstances for someone to be destabilized enough to accept that kind of abuse. When it does happen, though, the results can be spectacular and horrible, and not just for the victim. The Cry is an intelligent psychological thriller that will focus and refocus your suspicions and loyalties, all the while evocatively demonstrating the shifting power dynamics, rotating roles and changing presumptions that characterize a marriage where something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
The Cry premieres today on Sundance Now.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.