Movie Review: ‘CUSTODY’ is a gripping, unrelenting horror film

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

CUSTODY (JUSQU’À LA GARDE)

Not Rated, 93 minutes
Directed by: Xavier Legrand
Starring: Léa DruckerDenis MénochetThomas Gioria, Mathilde Auneveux

While Writer-Director Xavier Legrand’s CUSTODY (JUSQU’À LA GARDE) isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, it brings to light a terrifying reality for those suffering at the hands of darkness. It doesn’t feature a “boogeyman” who picks off victims one by one, nor are there any blood, guts or ghouls. However, the horrors in his brilliant thriller stem from the inner demons that drive one character’s primal rage. Safety is an illusion from which there is no escape. Building on the gripping narrative he crafted in 2014’s Academy Award®-nominated short film, JUST BEFORE LOSING EVERYTHING, the auteur shows one emotionally-wracked family’s anguish and powerlessness in the face of domestic violence.

Miriam (Léa Drucker) and Anton Besson (Denis Ménochet) have divorced and are in the process of an ugly custody battle over their son Julien (Thomas Gioria). Their eldest, daughter Joséphine (Mathilde Auneveux), is a young adult exacting her independence so she doesn’t factor too heavily in the legal discussions. Miriam is fiercely trying to protect their forlorn tween from his abusive father – abuse which Anton vehemently denies. Unsure who is telling the truth, the judge orders joint custody, and drama ensues from there.

Denis Ménochet and Thomas Gioria in CUSTODY. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Legrand infuses his tightly constructed narrative with undeniable intimacy and immediacy. He cleverly bookends the piece, making a stirring social statement on the Besson’s relationship through the eyes of judgmental strangers – the arbitrators and Miriam’s elderly neighbor. The symbolic utilization of Ike and Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” isn’t lost on us. Static camera shots indicate a certain sense of passivity, but the narrative makes its sentiments regarding domestic abuse crystal clear. Though it doesn’t ask the audience to sympathize with Anton’s self-made plight, it wants us to empathize with the circumstances, proposing that the person causing the discord is incapable of stopping it. Anton’s toxicity is not only born out of anger, but also fear and insecurity. Miriam and Julien’s panic and anxiety are heartbreaking. We’re on their side the entire time.

There’s an undercurrent of discontent beneath the relationships. We see it demonstrated in the tension between wife and husband, but moreso between parent and child. Julien’s court-mandated visits with Anton show the boy – who’s far too young to be wracked with such adult levels of angst and sadness – lashing out, physically attempting to extricate himself from his father’s emotional suffocation. Anton’s own father even expresses his frustration at his son’s white-hot, quick-fire temper.

We constantly feel the gravitas of their situations thanks to the magnificent performances of the ensemble. Ménochet is a masterful actor, consistently in command of his character’s mindset and how it manifests physically. Hints of the teddy bear his character once was and the mask he’s attempting to wear are there, at least in the judge’s chambers. But as that façade fades, there’s a shift in his stature, and his physicality grows more intimidating and oppressive. His furled brow and menacing glare convey unspoken tirades. Drucker turns in a defining performance, inhabiting her character’s pain and fear with meaningful nuance and strength. But perhaps it Gioria’s work that takes center stage as he goes toe-to-toe with Ménochet for a large majority of the film. His ability to bring to light trepidation and torment minus any sort of rehearsed quality is noteworthy.

Cinematic touchstones are evident, but never oppressive. There are nods to the influential style of The Dardennes and connections to films such as NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, KRAMER VS. KRAMER and THE SHINING. Nevertheless, Legrand doesn’t let those ties strangle the story’s originality.

CUSTODY embodies the essence of harrowing drama in its pure, distilled, un-contrived form.

Grade: A

CUSTODY is now playing in New York (IFC Center) and Los Angeles (at Laemmle Monica Film Center and Playhouse 7). A slow rollout in other theaters follows. For where to find it playing near you, go here.

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