CW: abuse, infant death, animal death
You know, I’ve been worrying for some time that consuming dark, dismal films and TV could be a surefire way to feel even more miserable about our current world situation. There are quite a lot of days when the last thing I need is to see if it’s possible to expand the depression-sized pocket of my brain with an extra dose of bleakness.
However, this line of thinking has fundamentally failed to take into account the way I relate to the world. Sometimes (often), the only way I process darkness is to see it reflected in the media I consume. And while there is a fine line to walk here, the darkness can be a reminder that others see and experience similar fears and frustrations…and use that to make films about puppets, vengeance, and forest witches.
Judy & Punch
A puppeteer seeks vengeance against her husband, an abusive man who leaves her for dead after the demise of their baby.
In the village of Seaside (notably not by the sea), Judy is married to Punch, who declares himself the greatest puppeteer of all time. Once a week, the couple puts on a marionette show at a rather rowdy pub, hoping to catch the eye of a London talent scout one day.
Just like the real Punch & Judy show of old, the puppet show is violent in nature, handling themes of abuse in a hilarious(?) slapstick manner. However, the show is in good company, as its excitement finds a rival only in the periodic stoning to death of witches and heretics who have committed such reprehensible crimes as looking at the moon for a suspiciously long time. Stoning Day is essentially a public holiday, during which all of the villagers gather in their finest clothes (admittedly not all that fine) and unironically vie for the honor of casting the first stone.
Despite the violence that permeates her world and the absence of much compassion for others, Judy does her best to care for her baby daughter, aging servants, and townsfolk in need. No one makes this particularly easy, as Punch is a violent drunk who routinely promises he’ll go sober, and even the well-meaning policeman cautions Judy against entertaining the local children with magic tricks lest she be mistaken for a witch.
Now Punch is the kind of self-serving male “genius” who chalks up all of his drunken brawls and frat bro behavior to being a tortured artist. He can’t possibly be expected to have patience with his ailing servants, take care of his daughter for even an hour, or cut back on the violence in the show–not when everything he does is a matter of the creative spirit moving him.
Even with all of these drawbacks to life in the village with Punch, it beats the alternative of fleeing to the mysterious forest on the edge of town. At least, it does until Judy leaves Punch in charge of the baby for a short time. Predictably, Punch drinks to the point of passing out and reminds us all of the Parenting 101 lesson that you should never run while holding a baby.
After Judy returns and demands to know what happened, Punch callously tells her they should simply move on with their lives. When Judy has, I don’t know, a human reaction to the death of her child, Punch beats her to the point of believing she’s dead, burying her body in the creepy woods of doom.
From here on out, Punch proves he is full of nothing if not schemes. Framing his elderly servants for Judy’s murder, Punch reports his wife and child missing to the authorities. Though the local police officer argues for a thorough investigation that weighs all of the evidence, other leaders in the village dismiss this concept as radical, opting for a swift public hanging. You know, to make sure people don’t get bored.
Meanwhile, Judy’s dead body is decomposing in the forest…or is it? Obviously not. Several children who are part of a group of heretics living in the woods find Judy, delivering her to Dr. Goodtime, a woman who was barred from practicing medicine in the village. The doctor revives Judy, who remembers with a scream of rage all of the ways she has been wronged.
While Judy adjusts to life in the forest and her new adopted family, it is her anger that fuels her. Dr. Goodtime warns Judy that she will eventually have to choose either to stay with the nomadic heretics or allow vengeance to consume her…and you can guess how well that goes over.
As the date of the execution draws nearer, Punch grows increasingly paranoid even as he is determined to revitalize the puppet show that owed much of its success to Judy’s organization and skill with the marionette. Can Judy help her former servants escape a death sentence, make Punch suffer for his crimes, and hold onto her newfound sense of belonging?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
My first 4 star review of 2021 reminds us to lean into the darkness. As my incredible blog wife and I discussed in detail, upbeat, feel-good pieces aren’t the kind of antidote we need in troubling times. Finding a film that reflects a bitter view of reality brings us the comfort of connecting with a kindred spirit.
I won’t say this film is free of problems. For a film that’s driven by Judy’s quest for revenge, Punch gets a lot of screen time. In some ways, his constant presence makes us really root for his comeuppance; at other points, it feels like the amount of attention he gets reinforces the problematic dynamic between the characters. Punch gets to dominate the screen and take away time that could have been more interestingly spent exploring Judy’s character or the lifestyle and dynamics of the group of heretics.
Additionally, there are some things that are wrapped up a bit too neatly. Judy gives an impassioned speech at the end of the story that seems to radically change how the villagers perceive outsiders. Not buying it. And speaking of groups on the fringes of society, it’s a bit convenient that we hear about the challenges of the heretics’ nomadic lifestyle with perhaps 20 minutes left of the film…and manage to get a satisfying conclusion to this dilemma.
But as a whole, this was exactly the kind of film I needed at the moment. You absolutely must enjoy dark humor to appreciate this one, though it is much more of a comedy than anything else (despite the dark premise). It feels a bit like a mashup of a less violent/sweary Quentin Tarantino and Sweeney Todd with an intentionally feminist bent, more self-awareness about the nature of violence, and a huge dose of unexpected humor. There are a lot of revenge films I don’t find particularly satisfying, but I was invested in this one and absolutely dying to see a horrible fate befall Punch.
Unsurprisingly, when women have a pagan-inspired bonfire in the woods (that has nothing to do with the Klan), I’m here for it.