Xavier Legrand’s French import, Custody, isn’t technically a horror movie. But it’s as harrowing and stressful as Hereditary or A Quiet Place. In a way, it’s even more terrifying because its monster is a father who, at first, seems like a tragic figure deprived of the right to see his children only to reveal himself as the unrelenting brute his wife claims he is.
We’ve all seen these sorts of domestic bogeymen before in any number of Lifetime movies. But rarely are they presented with the matter-of-fact naturalism that Legrand brings to his Venice Silver Lion winner. It’s not a pleasant film to sit through by any means – you engage with it at your own risk. Still, it is undeniably powerful. And, more than that, exquisitely acted thanks to a set of performances that don’t feel like performances at all. You feel its horror in your bones so deeply that it’s impossible to shake it off when it’s over.
The film opens in the drab bureaucratic chambers of a French civil-court judge who’s hearing both sides of a custody dispute between a warring pair of exes. Miriam (Lea Drucker) claims that she should be the sole guardian of her two children – 18-year-old Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux) and 11-year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria). Meanwhile, her brawny husband Antoine (Denis Menochet) convincingly makes the case that he should be allowed to see his son on alternate weekends. He gets his wish even though his daughter wants nothing to do with him and is old enough to get her way. That leaves poor Julien….
What seems like a simple case of Kramer vs. Kramer quickly spirals into something far bleaker as Miriam’s claims of her ex being an abusive bully become plain for everyone (except the courts) to see. A sickening sense of dread hovers over Antoine’s weekends with his son as his mask of being a new man drops. Gioria, with his tousled blonde hair and scared blue eyes makes you feel the fear of violence in the presence of this man who should be his protector. It’s one of the most realistic and heartbreaking performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen.
Controlling and explosive, Antoine talks about his love for his family, but has an odd way of showing it. The more obstacles he encounters, the more threatening he becomes. Tragedy seems inevitable. I wish I could say that he turns out to be a misunderstood gentle giant who redeems himself as a parent in the end. But there’s no such happy ending for this broken-beyond-repair family. What we’re left with is a stark nightmare of cruelty. It’s a story that’s as terrifying as it is commonplace in real life no matter the country. Look around. There are too many Antoines in this world and far too many innocent victims whose lives will be forever ruined like Julien. A-