There are multiple moments throughout director Laura Moss’ brilliant new psychological horror drama Birth/Rebirth that are so abjectly brutal that the festival goers who reportedly fell ill while watching the movie at this year’s Sundance could almost be forgiven for their theatrics. Birth/Rebirth’s story of two unlikely kindred spirits finding one another in the midst of tragedy is both disturbing and moving as it reworks pieces of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into a modern-day myth about motherhood and mortality.
Between its unflinching focus on the dangers of pregnancy and its depiction of the violence hidden throughout the US healthcare system, Birth/Rebirth might leave you feeling deeply unsettled. But as macabre as the movie gets, its grimness never comes close to feeling gratuitous, which is saying something given just how increasingly dark Birth/Rebirth becomes as its story unfolds.
As an anxious woman in labor is being rushed to the hospital in one of Birth/Rebirth’s first and most arresting scenes, it’s clear to everyone in the back of that tense ambulance that the mother-to-be may very well die before her baby’s born. It’s also clear that, aside from the laboring woman herself, who explicitly asks if she’s going to live, none of the people around her seem to care about whether she’ll survive the physical trauma of giving birth.
Many of the doctors at the hospital where Celie (Judy Reyes) works as a maternity nurse are quick to dismiss the concerns of the expectant mothers they treat because Birth/Rebirth’s set in a world where far more value is placed on the lives of fetuses and babies compared to those of the people who bear them. As a mother herself, Celie understands the importance of hearing people out and letting them be active participants in their healthcare. That’s part of why she’s such a favorite with patients. But Celie’s heavy workload and personal investment in the lives of her patients also mean taking on long shifts that force her to leave her young daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) with a neighbor.
In sharp contrast to Celie and all her warmth, antisocial pathologist Rose (Marin Ireland) spends most of her days holed up in the hospital’s lower levels, where she gleans information from people’s corpses while diligently filing reports about what specifically killed them. Because the hospital’s so big and they work in such different departments, Celie and Rose don’t have much of a reason to know one another as Birth/Rebirth opens. But when Lila suddenly falls ill and subsequently dies from an aggressive meningitis infection, the two women are pulled together in a twisted series of events that reveals a number of truly monstrous truths about them both.
Though it’s very much a story about people trying to conquer death with science, the unexpected genius of Birth/Rebirth lies in the way it frames Celie and Rose not just as mad scientists but also as people whose personal experiences with grief become the core of a connection they both desperately need. There’s a pointedly sociopathic alienness to the way Ireland inhabits Rose and her mannerisms that never really goes away as she and Celie, who Reyes portrays with a blend of embittered passion and hope, become something akin to friends and accomplices in a series of depraved crimes. But Birth/Rebirth is careful to remind you how much of what they’re doing is born out of love and rooted in a belief that women should be in full control of their reproductive lives.
At a time when shows like House of the Dragon have demonstrated how Hollywood still has a fondness for spotlighting the many ways that childbirth can kill women, Birth/Rebirth stands out as an example of how that reality can be depicted on-screen in all its horror without feeling voyeuristic or devoid of any substance. That’s not to say that Birth/Rebirth isn’t at times a difficult film to sit through — it definitely is — but the disconcerting sense of dread it leaves you feeling is crafted with the deftest of hands. It’s sure to be one of Shudder’s most talked-about movies when it debuts sometime later this year.