Custody review: Xavier Legrand’s film is a startling slow burner that expertly captures the growing tension and fear of domestic abuse and a deteriorating relationship. 

Custody review by Luke Ryan Baldock.

Custody review
Custody review

When horror films dabble in fantasy to create their atmospheric nightmares, it can be easy to forget the raw simplicity of real life terror. Xavier Legrand’s feature length debut is a startling slow burner that expertly captures the growing tension and fear of domestic abuse and a deteriorating relationship. Custody is many things, but an enjoyable watch it is not.

Starting at a custody hearing for their son, their daughter is old enough to decide for herself, we find Miriam (Lea Drucker) and Antoine (Denis Menochet), discussing with a judge about whether Antoine deserves to see his son. It’s a brilliant and ambiguous opening, with previous acts of violence and threats recounted verbally. Antoine is calm and collected, casting doubts on Miriam’s accusations, while the judge calls into question Miriam’s current living situation. With the judge agreeing to Antoine’s requests Drucker conjures up a broken performance where she realises there is nothing she can do but go along with it. Starting the film at the hearing makes Antoine seem like the reasonable and approachable character, while Miriam comes across as distant and uncompromising. Absent from this scene is Julien (Thomas Gioria), the young man whose life is currently out of his hands.

Forced to spend time with his father, Gioria presents Julien as a shy, nervous, and defeated. It is a wonderfully nuanced performance that shows Julien as being trapped while simultaneously being naive and strong. He is pulled between parents, but his actions can also fuel and partially justify the irritation of his parents. With uncomfortable scene after uncomfortable scene Legrand’s directing constantly puts us in Julien’s shoes, making the audience feel all the complex emotions of anger and hatred, while being powerless to do anything about it.

But through all this it is the overbearing presence of Menochet’s Antoine that is forever felt. Menochet brings a disconcerting power to the role, managing to be terrifying even when sat silently. His looks are enough to unsettle and make one flinch, and as events progress he gradually becomes one of cinema’s most dangerous villains. It’s a difficult role, and one where we are never sure just how much control Antoine has over himself, and how much is manipulation.

Custody, like the story it is telling, is cold and distant, with a lack of music or overstylised techniques to take us away from the uncomfortable and very events. Nowhere is this more apparent than the film’s climax, which is executed in the style of a horror film, utilising simple sound effects, to conduct one of the most powerfully terrifying films to ever exist. Not so much breathtaking, as just so engrossing you forget to breathe, Legrand works his characters and audience alike, ensuring his gradual build in tension culminates in a nerve shredding finale of pure fear. One of the most brutal and honest depictions of domestic violence.

Custody review by Luke Ryan Baldock, April 2018.

Custody is released on Friday 13th April, 2018.