There is nothing more horrific than uncertainty. At least once the monster steps into daylight you finally know what you're up against. But uncertainty... the tentacled eyeball salads of Lovecraft's fiction thrive on that. Things without a shape, a mist of green panic all about, quivering beneath your very fingernails. There are no Old Ones skulking about in Xavier Legrand's film Custody, which takes place plainly upon our mortal coil and deals forthrightly with the custody battle between a mother, father, and the two kids stuck in between. But the horror of the Uncertain looms, a beastly shadow cast across the smallest of daylight interactions - supper with the grandparents shot like "Saturn Devouring His Son."
Do you know what it is to be truly terrified of someone? Someone you discover to be, too late, irrational and broken - someone big as the sun, a bomb of fire and light falling out of the sky? The way you can never say the right thing but all you can do is try to say the right thing, right thing piled on right thing, all wrong, all poisoned. So you sputter, sob, retreat into yourself. Their love spills into your life like lava, scalding hot, and they hold you close, mania tipping their tongues as they whisper for you to hold on, hold on.
I remember sitting waiting for my father to come pick me up for our bi-monthly weekends together with my gut twisted into knots. He'd disappeared, reappeared, suddenly wanting a relationship out of nowhere. I never knew what horror would await each weekend - how drunk he'd get, how violently he might shake my step-mother around, the sound of footsteps and slaps and lord knows what else drumming on the other side of the door, intensifying, symphonic. The best times were when he didn't bother showing up at all.
Not that that meant I was safe - he might show up the next morning, the next afternoon; he might show up at any moment like the murderer in a slasher movie standing behind the refrigerator door, the medicine cabinet, a figure of vague limbs and shoulders in the corner when the lights go out.
And that, my friends, is the horror of uncertainty - the horror of waiting, waiting, for the inevitable, the inescapable. As a ten-year-old kid you're powerless in these situations - the adults tell you you've got to make these relationships work that are never gonna work, and the more they don't work the more convincing it becomes that it's your fault. If only you'd said the right thing. Done the right thing. And then eventually if only you could be the Man. The Protector. If only you could stop the pounding happening in the next room. Stand tall. Be strong. And listen to your father.
Anyway Legrand's film tore through me like a tornado through a trailer park. I once saw a woman run screaming out of a screening of Gregg Araki's film Mysterious Skin and I've told that story ever since with a sort of awe, as if I was jealous that somebody could be that affected by art. That traumatized. Triggered. Custody marks the closest I have ever come. I very nearly had to walk out of the film before it was over, so hard did I literally quake watching Legrand weave his pieces together, choking off the exits. It's a masterfully effective thriller, but a humanist thriller - one that feels, felt to me anyway, profoundly empathetic in its manipulation of emotional violence. This, I weep, is what it was like.