Killing Life: "Hungry Hearts" deceptively unnerves and hard to shake

Hungry Hearts (2015)
118 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Child-rearing drives the horror in "Hungry Hearts," writer-director Saverio Costanzo's deceptively unnerving drama that will keep new mothers on tenterhooks and put vegans on the defensive. It follows in a list of maternity nightmares—1968's "Rosemary's Baby," 2007's "Inside," 2009's "Grace," 2013's "Proxy," 2014's "The Babadook" and a very impressive short film with Gaby Hoffmann called "Lyle"—but the film is absorbing and provocative all on its own with varied performances. A grounded, unconventional horror drama about a parent's love, control and trust, based on Marco Franzoso's novel, "Hungry Hearts" treats motherhood (and fatherhood, too) as not only a gift but a poison. Beginning with an odd meet-cute and celebratory use of Irene Cara's "What a Feeling" at the characters' wedding reception, there is no way of knowing how it will all end up.

Before having a relationship and getting married, New York City engineer Jude (Adam Driver) and Italian embassy worker Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) meet cute as strangers when they both stuck in a Chinese restaurant bathroom. When Mina gets pregnant, the small-framed vegan appears underweight to the doctor. Mina then takes a psychic reading to heart when she is told that her child is an "indigo child." At first, Jude respects his wife's wishes for a natural water birth and her decision to not feed their son meat, until the boy comes down with a fever for two weeks. Having grown overprotective to the point that she doesn't trust medical professionals, Mina has kept their son inside for seven months without anyone monitoring the child's development or consulting their son's meat-free diet. Jude thinks his own wife is being unreasonable and unconsciously starving their son, so he begins taking the child out for walks and entering a church to secretly feed him ham in order to make him grow. From there, Mina's delusions worsen once Jude's estranged mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) gets involved.

Writer-director Saverio Costanzo values the psychology of his two characters, aiming in on a grey area with equal measures of ambiguity and clarity. In what is essentially a two-characer piece before grandmother Anne enters the picture, Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher (2009's "I Am Love") do stunningly exceptional work as Jude and Mina, a married couple who don't see eye to eye with what their child needs. As he has shown outbursts of anger in both HBO's "Girls" and even a little in 2014's "This Is Where I Leave You," Driver holds in his rage for quite a while, walking on egg shells around his wife but still taking charge and doing what he sees as healthy and advantageous for his son. If that means losing Mina's trust in the process, then so be it. If Driver continues to ride the wave of indie cinema, he can fully tap into the gravitas he clearly has in him. Mina isn't exactly sympathetic from the viewer's eye, but Rohrwacher does not make her an evil villain, either. She is a mother bound by her beliefs, or perhaps delusions, clinging to her son to whom she's given life and never letting him out of her sight. Mina keeps having a dream about a deer being shot on the boardwalk of Coney Island, later turning into a counterpoint to Jude's mother's house with a deer head in the living room. Comparisons to Roman Polanski are welcome, but "Hungry Hearts" is chilling without seeming too heightened. There is a subtle use of orchestral strings that never allows Nicola Piovani's score to go hog-wild, "Psycho"-style, and Fabio Cianchetti's grainy digital cinematography uses a fish-eye lens to claustrophobic effect in Jude and Mina's apartment. In being not so easy to shake with plenty to ponder, "Hungry Hearts" is one of the best examples of telling a horror story without sensationalizing it. It's troubling and downright effective.

Grade: B +