‘Lucky’ (2021): Just a Part of Living in this World

Lucky is a new horror film on Shudder that comes out of SXSW 2020, and is a movie that I came away extremely impressed with. Honestly the film only grows in my esteem the more I think about it, and there’s a lot of substance in its brisk 83 minute runtime. I’ll give my initial [spoiler-free] thoughts before digging into the details of the ending.

A quick plot synopsis: May Ryer (played by Brea Grant, writer of the film) lives with her husband Ted in what seems to be a loving (if somewhat chilly) long-term relationship. One night, May awakens to a masked intruder breaking into her house. When she wakes up her husband, he informs her that “that’s the man that comes every night and tries to kill us.” Together they fight him off and “kill” him, only for the man to disappear, Michael Myers-style. I’ll leave the synopsis at that, suffice it to say that the questions and danger only begin there.

Lucky falls into the “elevated horror” genre – I know some people frown upon that label, but I think it really helps to differentiate horror movies that provide social commentary with their scares and gore rather than using them in a more “exploitive” capacity. A handful of other modern films that fall under a similar umbrella: It Follows, Us, and mother! are a few that come to mind. These movies use the horror and dread of the genre to represent a specific real-world horror and make the abstract more tangible.

What I love about Lucky is that the metaphor takes precedence over the literal plot. The film operates in a kind of “dream logic,” where the dangerous situations and character reactions are exaggerated in order to drive home a larger point. Similarly, the scares of Lucky are far less about shock or “jump scares,” and more about existential dread, eeriness and unease.

Honestly I feel comfortable recommending this film even to people who usually avoid horror films (though do know that there will be depictions of violence reminiscent of domestic abuse). It is a Shudder exclusive, and it is absolutely worth trying the service to watch it. I have a lot more to say, but doing so will require getting into [SPOILERS] starting here.

Acceptance of “The New Normal”

Lucky is a film that’s all about gaslighting, domestic abuse, and the oppression of the patriarchy. This isn’t a particularly ground-breaking observation; the metaphor is pretty heavy-handed (in a good way). It’s the specifics of the messaging that makes the film really stand out.

Perhaps the scariest aspect of Lucky is just how quickly May’s attitude towards her situation changes. In the week or so that the film spans, she goes from demanding answers and insisting that being tormented by attempts on her life is absolutely not okay, to later accepting her torment as “just how things are now.” Human beings are extremely adaptive creatures, and I think the idea of accepting a terrifying “new normal” will resonate with a lot of people. “But he is hurting you, right?” May’s sister-in-law asks her after several nights of murder attempts. “Yeah but, I’m still alive,” May responds, already resigned to the constant fight and rationalizing it with a “well, it could be worse.”

A barrage of questions (but no patience for answers) after a near-death experience.

Of course, the acceptance of her fate isn’t May’s fault; it comes from a consistent barrage of gaslighting from people she turns to for help. When first confronted by the idea of a man trying to kill her every night, May’s husband’s response is to just confirm that “that’s how things are,” and he abandons her at even the slightest pushback. The authorities are similarly useless, arriving each night after yet another attack, but treating the whole ordeal as mundane and doing basically nothing to keep May safe. One of the most effective scenes in the movie revolves around EMT workers and detectives bombarding May with a series of questions, none of them truly caring about the answer or indicating that there is any gravity to the situation.

By the end of the film, May is completely resigned to her fate, accepting that there is no changing it and barely even fighting to live. It’s a brutal and depressing end, but one that feels all too true to life.

Go It Alone

One of the most distressing aspects of May’s decisions is just how quickly the gaslighting causes her to push away the people who actually care. Rather than really talking through her situation with her assistant Edie, she gives a curt explanation and brushes things off as “not a big deal” in the same tone as the authorities. When a social worker empathizes with her situation and tries to convince her that it’s not her fault, May brushes off the advice. And of course, it’s no accident that May’s book is called Go It Alone, a self-help book that’s all about how reliance on anyone but yourself is a sign of weakness.

Unfortunately banding together is far easier said than done. Again and again, we see the personal battles each woman fights leaving her exhausted and unable to do much more than simply survive. May’s sister-in-law Sarah is clearly fighting her own battles, revealed when May notices a massive scar on her back. The fatigue leaves Sarah distracted as she tries to talk to May, and she resorts to vague platitudes of comfort rather than truly connecting.

In the linchpin scene in the film, May finds herself in a parking garage and protects Edie from a completely different attacker – one that has been tormenting Edie. As the two look around the parking garage, they see woman after woman each running from her own masked attacker. Edie proposes that the two help the other women. However, in a heartbreaking turn, a worn-down May insists that they can’t help them – “This is just how things are now! I can’t fix it for myself, so how could I possibly fix it for everyone else?” After all of the torment and realizing that so many people have similar horrors haunting them, a weary May doesn’t believe she has the capacity to help other women, and so it remains every woman for herself.

“I Don’t Know What I Did To Deserve This, Do You?”

So after all the torment, all the horror, who is the real villain here? Is “the man” a representation of Ted and domestic abuse? Is it the authorities that refuse to take her seriously? Is it the publisher that absent-mindedly downplays the work that she’s put into her own book and her own success?

Well, the ending makes it clear that it’s all of the above and so much more. When the mask is finally removed from “the man,” we see that he is an ever-shifting amalgam of all of the men in the movie. As clichĂ© as it sounds written out, the enemy is the patriarchy in all of its forms. It comes in the form of explicit abuse, physical and sexual violence, the dismissal of a woman’s valid concerns, the absent-minded refusal to acknowledge the agency of a woman’s success. It even comes from May herself at times, as she perpetuates the societal flaws by turning a cold shoulder to her assistant and fellow women in need.

In the end, I believe the message of the movie is one of solidarity, a plea for women to find the strength to relate to one another and help each other fight against oppression in every form it takes. The one positive aspect of an otherwise bleak ending is that May finally realizes that her torment is not her fault, that she has done nothing to deserve her fate. If a woman is isolated and being told repeatedly she’s overreacting to aggressions big or small because “that’s just how the world is,” eventually she may be gaslit into believing it, or internalizing it as a punishment for her own failing. But through solidarity with other women in similar circumstances, suddenly she stands a fighting chance against her oppression – even if it’s ultimately a monster that can never be truly killed.

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