starring Michelle Monaghan, Skeet Ulrich, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong, Skylar Morgan Jones
written by Will Honley
directed by Brad Anderson
by Walter Chaw Of the films Brad Anderson's made over the course of a long and varied career, the ones I remember best are his slow-burn haunted-asylum movie Session 9 and his portrait of progressive madness, The Machinist. Both are focused on how a person can get fixated on obsessive thoughts, and how elastic reality might become to conform itself around those fixations. He's the perfect chronicler of this fraught moment where belief has come to be as valued as fact--and more powerful, too, in the defense and inspiration of division and atrocity. His Blood is a queasy folk horror, its title referring to the thickness of it in relation to water as well as the only sustenance, the human variety, a little boy named Owen (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong) can tolerate after encountering something that lives in the hole of the dead tree in the woods behind his house. The two, family and its enervating qualities, are inextricable. In one way, Blood is about the evolutionarily proscribed madness of becoming a parent to a parasitic lifeform you love, whether or not it loves you back--that it would devastate you to lose, even as it's born with no ability to survive on its own.
Owen's mom is Jess (Michelle Monaghan), a nurse and an addict in recovery who has destroyed her family with her bad habits and is now embroiled in a custody battle with a resentful ex (Skeet Ulrich). While the kids are visiting one weekend, Owen turns strange, something his older sister Tyler (Skylar Morgan Jones) notes with an alarm not exactly shared by Jess. She knows it's bad, but as Monaghan plays it (i.e., calculating and desperate), it's clear Jess sees his illness as an opportunity to become essential to her son. She's the only person who can save him. While in hospital after the family dog attacks him, Owen wakes from unconsciousness and pulls the breathing tube out of his throat to suckle from the blood bag hanging by his bedside. Jess catches him doing it, notes how his vital signs instantly improve, and realizes her hospice skills might be helpful to more than just the elderly. When she's accused of "Munchausen by proxy" late in the film, it's worth considering that everything that's happened in the picture has been manufactured by Jess's terrible love for a boy she senses is slipping away. How Jess lies, steals, bleeds herself, and finally resorts to the unthinkable to keep her son--whose appetites only increase--close to her.
I was reminded of both Jonathan Cuartas's exceptional family/vampire drama My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To and Jim Mickle's superlative cannibal flick We Are What We Are while watching Blood. The three films share the theme of family as a sexually transmitted, and invariably fatal, disease that perverts decision-making and personalities in the fire of biological imperative. Monaghan carries the piece as an essentially unlikable heroine in an intimately disgusting situation who manages to make everything worse in the pursuit of being a good mother. It's a little bit of a noir in that sense, a crime movie with supernatural elements, or a procedural where we're sutured with the monster. I love a scene where Child Protective Services finally comes calling and Jess runs upstairs to find a knife and a bottle so she can send Owen off with something to eat until she figures out how to get him back. It's an emotionally devastating scene on its surface, made absurd by what seems normal to her now. Tyler tries to play the voice of reason: the child of a junkie forced into the position of parent. And all the while the haunted tree looms in its clearing, sitting in the middle of a quicksand flat like a metaphor for the secrets and quagmires that can seduce and attach themselves to otherwise decent people. Blood is a return to form for Anderson, a simple idea shot through with tributaries into unexamined caverns of the human heart. It's modest, but it leaves a mark.