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Shudder Secrets: The Apology Explained

The holidays can be stressful. For those who lost loved ones, the season can be an especially painful time. This is true for Darlene Hagen (Anna Gunn), the protagonist in the Christmas thriller The Apology. An alcoholic, Darlene takes on the monumental task of hosting her family for Christmas dinner, which brings with it its own unique kind of emotional distress. All the preparation brings up memories of her daughter Sally, who’s been missing for 20 years. Since then, Darlene hasn’t exactly been in the mood to celebrate the holidays.

The situation only worsens for Darlene when her estranged brother-in-law, Jack (Linus Roache), suddenly shows up at her door with quite the secret. The Apology is a gripping and unique yuletide thriller with very human emotions at its center. Writer/director Alison Locke’s film explores grief and the consequences of revenge with powerful performances from Gunn and Roache.

The Apology Isn’t Your Typical Holiday Affair

There are plenty of Christmas horror films and thrillers, some of which, like Gremlins and Black Christmas, have become classics. And while certain movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night may start off with quite a bleak tone, they shift to add at least a few doses of humor. This isn’t the case for The Apology. This is a movie about grief, revenge, and healing through and through. The tone remains consistent.

From the get-go, the mood feels ominous, with wide, ariel shots of the snowy woods surrounding Darlene’s house. Uèle Lamore‘s musical score is equally as nerve-jangling before the camera enters the house, and we meet the protagonist and her best friend, Gretchen, played by Janeane Garofalo. The clock is ticking, and Darlene needs to get everything ready for Christmas. But this opening scene isn’t exactly one of warmth and wonder.

Darlene’s stress feels both palpable and relatable. She wonders why she even took on the task of hosting her family. It feels monumental, especially since she hasn’t done it in about 20 years. At one point, Gretchen tells her, “Have a burnt cookie. I’m sorry it’s not booze.” Rarely, if ever, have I viewed a single scene that so accurately depicts the stress of hosting a major holiday.

The Apology’s Handling of Grief

The blustery winds and inky black sky reflect Darlene’s emotional turmoil and the constant heartache she feels, not knowing what happened to her daughter 20 years ago. Even worse, she blames herself for being intoxicated on the day Sally went missing. Locke handles the weight of Darlene’s profound pain and loss well, and it’s one of the film’s true strengths.

The protagonist’s grief doesn’t feel like some abstract thing. Rather, it’s shown in very human, physical terms. Darlene watches old videos of interviews that she gave shortly after Sally went missing, interviews in which she vowed to find her and to work with other missing children organizations. All these years later, she’s a shell of that woman who vowed to stand up, fight, and find her daughter.

Additionally, Darlene clings to her daughter’s possessions, keeping many of them in storage bins, just in case she ever comes back. This includes a tape of her daughter singing. At one point, she enters Sally’s bedroom, and it’s just as she left it. By showing Sally through various flashbacks and these very real and tangible physical objects, we feel the pain that this mother is going through. There’s even one point where Sally’s old teddy bear falls of out a closet. These objects piece together a life cut short. They show a kid who had her life in front of her.

The Apology and Its Exploration Revenge Fantasy

The film adds another layer when Jack shows up. We learn that he and Darlene had a thing going on at one point, likely behind his wife’s back. Not long into the runtime, he confesses that he’s the one responsible for Sally’s death. Not only that, but he kissed her, and when she started screaming, he snapped her back, though claimed it was an accident.

So much of this film is largely a two-person show, and this back-and-forth between Jack and Darlene, especially when these details are revealed, is harrowing. Roache manages to play quite a villain, a man who refuses to accept blame for his horrible actions and also tries to pin it all on a grieving mother, due to her alcoholism. He even tries to excuse the fact Sally was 16 and his niece.

Beyond these points, The Apology raises interesting questions about revenge and its price. Before confessing his awful deeds, Jack asks Darlene what she would do if she had her daughter’s killer in her grasp. Doesn’t she have some kind of revenge fantasy? Jack muses. Instead of prolonged physical torture, however, Darlene imagines something else entirely. “I would want him to tell me everything. It would want him to tell me exactly what happened…I would then tell him everything. I would tell him who he took, that she wasn’t just some face on a poster.”

These lines are powerful in that they again reinforce Darlene’s grief and the heartbreak she feels over her deceased daughter. To add, Darlene refuses to give into Jack’s revenge fantasy, which may be a product of his own guilt. Yet, she struggles to remain human, keep her emotions intact, and not give into Jack’s pleas to punish him and thus absolve him.

Overall, The Apology is a tight thriller with emotional performances at its center, especially from Gunn. You feel her character’s ache. While some may prefer their holiday movies to have a little more cheer, The Apology is a thriller that questions what exactly it means to enact revenge. It lands on Shudder on December 16. Keep updated on the streaming service’s latest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.