It doesn’t get much worse than buying your spouse a new car for their birthday, only for them to die in a lethal crash, but Edna Mae (Ellen Burstyn) was in the car with her husband (Jeffrey DeMunn), and while there were a few minutes when she flatlined on the table, the doctors managed to save her life. The premise of Daniel Petrie’s Resurrection doesn’t exactly sell itself. It sounds miserable, but that’s because this isn’t a film where it’s safe to make assumptions. Where it’s headed will surprise.
With the odds against her that she’ll ever walk again, Edna agrees to go back home to Kansas, instead of trying to recover in LA. It’s her father (Roberts Blossom) who suggests it, though not even a long car ride together is able to help them break the ice. Luckily her family in Kansas is much more welcoming. Theater veteran, Eva Le Gallienne, plays her adorable grandmother, Pearl, while True Blood’s Louis Smith is a cool, supportive presence as Edna’s cousin, Kathy.
It’s at a family picnic that the film introduces its supernatural twist. While the rest of her family are alarmed when a young girl develops a nosebleed (apparently, she’s had them before and they’ve been quite serious), Edna doesn’t skip a beat, and seems to intuitively know that she can help her. Far from being a fluke, however, Edna starts to realize that almost dying has left her with special abilities – healing powers that she can use, not only on herself, but to help people in the community.
The closest film I can think of to compare Resurrection to is John Sayles‘ Passion Fish, in that they’re both about women who become paralyzed and how they learn to adjust. Burstyn’s Edna has a more positive outlook, but then there aren’t any miracle cures in Passion Fish.
What’s undeniable is how incredible Burstyn is in Resurrection. From portraying the physicality of Edna starting to slowly regain her mobility, to the emotional journey Edna goes on through grief, there’s not a note that feels false in a very lived-in performance.
It also helps that the film doesn’t rush Edna’s powers or make them work instantly. Technically Edna shouldn’t be able to ever walk again but, if you accept that she will, it’s not like she suddenly stands up and starts walking (‘snap, you’re cured). It’s a process that takes time, with Edna starting out wobbly and then transitioning from a wheelchair to crutches.
If there’s one storyline the film could’ve done without it’s the romance that starts to develop between Edna and one of the people she saves, Cal (Sam Shepherd). It’s not that the relationship should’ve been removed altogether. Cal’s uneasiness with their being no religious explanation for Edna’s powers is very believable, if frightening, but they could’ve been acquaintances. Even friends. The film doesn’t need a love interest.
The ending of Resurrection is extremely satisfying, and Richard Farnsworth makes a memorable appearance as a gas station attendant Edna encounters. The only thing that gives away that this film is from the 80’s is the special effects used for the film’s depiction of the afterlife. I remember these scenes disturbing me the first time I saw the film (in the same way that I always found the ghosts on the police procedural, Cold Case, upsetting), but there’s a beauty to these scenes as well (especially in how the film reveals more about them and the figures Edna keeps seeing in her dreams).
For the commentary, film historian and author, Lee Gambin, pays tribute to the contributions of everyone involved in the movie. For example, cinematographer, Mario Tosi, could’ve played up the genre or otherworldly elements, but instead the film feels very grounded in reality and its rural setting (with Texas standing in for Kansas). Gambin is also able to provide new insights on the film, thanks to having conducted interviews with the producer, Renée Missel, as well as family members of certain crew members (including Petrie’s son, and the son of animal trainer, Sam Williamson, who trained Edna’s dog, Clancy). Gambin always goes the extra mile and because he’s done so many interviews for other projects, he’s able to pull quotes from them as well, like stories from Burstyn’s costars from other movies about what it was like to work with her.
There’s also a visual essay by film historian, Kat Ellinger, who talks about how movies (like Night of the Hunter and Wise Blood) have overwhelmingly portrayed faith healers as snake oil salesman, and how Resurrection pushes against that depiction.
The crown jewel of this Blu-ray release, though, is a new, on-camera interview with Burstyn. Besides starring in the movie, it turns out Burstyn’s feedback on the original script led to major changes when the final screenplay was written by Lewis John Carlino. Burstyn also lobbied for the casting of Gallienne and shares an experience she had with a spiritual healer and her son. It’s always the seemingly simple scenes that turn out to have been the hardest to shoot, and it sounds like filming the scene where a fly lands on Edna’s toe was quite a trial. Burstyn also talks about the film’s botched marketing campaign and how Universal was preoccupied with trying to garner award attention for Sissy Spacek’s role in Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Regardless of whether you’re sceptical about faith healers or not, Burstyn’s powerhouse performance (there’s a reason she was nominated for an Oscar for this movie) makes Resurrection an easy film to recommend.
Resurrection is available on all-region Blu-Ray now from Imprint Films.
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