Clock Ticks Amid Terrors of Coerced Motherhood

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Clock Ticks Amid Terrors of Coerced Motherhood

World-premiering at the genre-fueled Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans, Alexis Jacknow’s debut feature Clock joins a recent crop of horror films that probe cultural anxieties surrounding pregnancy, birth and motherhood. Yet even in the wake of Roe being overturned and increased legislation restricting reproductive rights, the shift toward examining coerced pregnancy as body horror hasn’t reached its peak potential in the U.S. (though international titles Titane and Huesera: The Bone Woman have plenty to offer). Among American offerings, Clock might be the first film that manages to feel genuinely engaged with the discussions women are having about the prospect of bearing a child — particularly among those who feel no natural compulsion toward mothering. A fantastically frenetic performance from Dianna Agron, a truly chilling central entity and interrogations of Jewish heritage elevate Clock (and the potential of further monstrous motherhood stories) above otherwise lackluster competition stateside.

Despite being a renowned interior designer, Ella (Agron) can’t help but feel unfulfilled. This largely has to do with her being 37 years old and staunchly opposed to the idea of starting a family with her husband Aidan (Jay Ali). While he claims no official problem with staying child-free, just about every other person in Ella’s life finds her stance objectionable. Her father (Saul Rubinek) argues that her ancestors escaped persecution during the Holocaust with the dream of fostering future generations; her baby-crazed friends fawn over bulging bellies and prospective nursery decor (all while divulging the goriest details of their own birthing experiences); even her gynecologist seems frustrated with Ella’s ambivalence toward pregnancy, brazenly stating that her biological clock might be broken altogether. In fact, the OB/GYN recommends a clinical trial set to start the following week that aims to repair the innate feminine urge which Ella mysteriously lacks. She initially scoffs at the idea — besides, she has an exciting new gig set to start on the same day the trial does — but years of pro-motherhood indoctrination inevitably win out. Without telling her husband, father or friends, she enrolls in the experimental trial with lauded Dr. Elizabeth Simmons (Melora Hardin).

As expected, things don’t go so well. Clock follows Ella during her inpatient treatment at Dr. Simmons’ facility and for several uneasy weeks afterwards, never lingering too long in any one setting. The film’s 90-minute runtime is well-utilized, a jaunty ride with plenty of thrills to sustain it. While much of Clock is concerned with Ella’s unraveling psyche, it also incorporates a tall, pale and sincerely frightening figure that manifests as a representation of her Jewish guilt. This plot point that becomes especially potent when it’s revealed that the ghostly apparition has a tangible connection to Ella’s ancestry.

Jacknow’s Jewish perspective is an enormous boon to the narrative, providing a distinct conflict that hasn’t been addressed in similar horror offerings, centering the thorny implications of “ending a bloodline” that had previously almost been snuffed out by genocide. The film offers no hard stance either way (a smart move that leaves much to masticate on post-viewing), but is still far more intellectually engaged in the child-free conversation than comparatively didactic alternatives. Even in Rosemary’s Baby, arguably the apex of American pregnancy horror, the main takeaway is that motherly love is an immutable feminine quality. Normally, the knee-jerk reaction to this errant sentiment is to simply respond, “No it’s not!” Clock instead focuses on those who may or may not feel biologically compelled to reproduce, but nonetheless have moral objections or are merely personally uninterested in the idea of birthing and/or raising a child. In other words, there are boundless murky and subjective areas to explore here, and it’s refreshing to watch a film that is unafraid of traversing controversial territory as opposed to one-note counter-arguments.

Agron’s performance is integral to the film’s success, as she embodies one woman facing a slew of obstacles (psychological, societal, medical). These intertwining narrative threads offer Agron a lot to react against, which suits her talents far more than a single nebulous adversary would. With each strained interaction, Agron appropriately recalibrates her character’s sensibility: She argues, bears her teeth, submits herself in fear, screams in terror, meekly apologizes. It’s an effective way to demonstrate the numerous forces in an individual woman’s life that promote the role of motherhood as one of the most selfless and sacred, and the countless pained responses such a narrow-minded sentiment provokes, particularly when it’s spewed ad nauseam.

Even if Clock may be just the first of several great “monster mommy” movies to anticipate on the horizon, it feels bold within the current pregnancy-horror landscape. It’s reminiscent of Laura Moss’ Sundance-premiering birth/rebirth (another feature debut, this one set to hit Shudder and theaters later this year) and exemplifies everything sour about the Ilana Glazer-starring False Positive, which dared to riff on Rosemary’s Baby without an ounce of thoughtfulness or originality. Clock, shares some attributes with that classic — cultish conspiracies, a woman’s “crazed” search for what’s really happening to her and a husband who just might be in cahoots with nefarious forces — but it also subverts these familiar beats just enough to keep things interesting. If Rosemary’s Baby posits that a mother’s love is infallible, Clock’s quietly cryptic conclusion counters that even the most peculiar creatures are worthy of awe. We do not need to create life to be bewitched by it.

Director: Alexis Jacknow
Writer: Alexis Jacknow
Stars: Dianna Agron, Jay Ali, Melora Hardin, Saul Rubinek, Rosa Gilmore, Grace Porter
Release Date: April 28, 2022 (Hulu)

Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan