(Note: here be heavy spoilers)
“I didn’t realize how impossible it is to move on after losing a child until I lost mine.”
Anything for Jackson opens quietly on a seemingly mundane morning in an unremarkable household shared by an unremarkable elderly couple. Their routine banter is half-argument and half-pleasantry that sounds like a conversation that has been going on as long as they’ve been together. The camera remains still, showing a modest kitchen and dining area with a hallway leading to the front door. Henry (a doctor, we soon learn) gets ready for another day at the office as they bicker about a hem that his wife, Audrey, has allegedly botched. These few casual domestic moments, riddled with folksy charm and performances that are exaggerated just enough in their Norman Rockwellesque attitude to convey that there’s likely something more going on here, soon seamlessly give way to quick references to a woman who’s “here” and a revelation that they’re “late,” as if for an important appointment.
In one of the film’s many temporally uncertain moments, they exit for a short while in-movie in a manner that leaves ambiguous the passage of time taking place. Soon they drag the aforementioned struggling young woman in through the front door and wrestle her into an elevator, then up to a child’s bedroom: Jackson’s, as we’re soon to learn. The kidnapped woman awakens, bound to a bed, when the boy touches her cheek. His expression and voice are a saccharine that matches the exaggerated pleasantness of his grandparents as he issues what sounds like a nonsensical prophecy that will indicate part of the story’s structure: “Aloha means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Pausing to put her glasses on, the elderly woman then reads the following prepared statement to their victim bound to the bed:
“Hello. My name is Audrey, and this is my husband…Henry. First and foremost, Shannon, we would like to apologize for scaring you this morning, but after much deliberation, we feel this would be the best way for you to go missing…You should know that we mean you or your unborn child no harm. While we apologize for what we must do, please make no mistake. We must do it, and we will not waver no matter how much you beg. So, please do not try, as we all have feelings…Do you understand? Do you know that we don’t want to hurt you or your baby? Can you nod?”
They plan to use Shannon to conduct a Satanic reverse-exorcism that will bring back to life their dead grandson, Jackson, who was killed in a car accident. The revelation that the boy who awakened her happens to be dead prompts a shocked Shannon to say, upon sudden sight of his fatal head wound, “Oh, Jesus!” to which Audrey humorously responds, “Oh, no. We don’t use that name in this house.” The audience is quickly introduced to the comedic beats of the film while learning that the Walshes have planned this escapade in detail, conveying clearly that grief is to be foregrounded in the film: “Believe me when I say we have thought of everything. No one has more time than a grieving family. No one.”
One of the (many, as we and they soon discover) problems with the Walshes’ plan, however, is that grief can never be adequately planned for nor planned around. It can only be endured and adapted to. In the real world, it surges to the forefront of one’s mind for little or no reason, and sometimes fades into the background even when one guiltily clings to it. Either way, there is no undoing loss despite the strongest of desires, and the viewer learns quickly that the Walshes are unlikely to achieve their stated goals.
My father was a life-long smoker, and for as long as I can remember I had in the back of mind the real but vague worry/certainty that he would one day get cancer as a result. I was likely a teenager when that notion crystallized, but it wasn’t until age 33 that I lost him after several years fighting against the disease that eventually arrived as promised. Because my youth was relatively tragedy-free in contrast to the art I tended to consume, I always held a deep fear that death would eventually catch up and start taking those ever closer to me in rapid succession to account for such a gift earlier in life.
Planning for my father’s eventual death, both when cancer was a distant expectation of a likely future and a harsh present reality, didn’t help much. When he was in remission and I felt a bit more comfortable making a difficult but necessary life decision to move for other family medical reasons, I vaguely planned to visit home as often as possible but felt some reassurance about the time available from his remission. However, after a first and only trip to visit me while in relatively good health and spirits, a symptom arose that indicated an aggressive return of the bladder cancer from which we thought we’d gotten a couple years’ respite and a return of sorts to normal life.
Grief is an experience of tunneling inward even as the usual social performances must be maintained, whether we have the darkest of thoughts in mind like the Walshes or are trying to balance the public and private for more legitimate reasons. When their plans go awry, the film gives us permission to laugh at the foolhardy Walshes because they’ve kidnapped and harmed a young pregnant woman, and a conflicting permission to empathize and hope for them to find a way out of the grief-personified horrors of their soon-to-be-crowde-with-undead house. “I don’t agree with what you’ve done,” Shannon later says when bargaining for her life. She’s offering to raise the reincarnated Jackson if they agree to change their plans and spare her. “But I understand it.”
So do most of us watching at home.
The Best-Laid Plans of Grieving Grandparents
“Let’s just say we no longer have a retirement plan.”
The swiftness with which Shannon has been abducted by these unlikely Satanists quickly unsettles the viewer as we see the chilling thoroughness they exhibit in their planning of the crime. Many of the tactics they use are all too easy to imagine anyone pulling off if these two grandparent caricatures can: a soundproofed room in the house, a dating site post to misdirect anyone who knows their victim, surveillance via a simple nanny-cam in a teddy bear that was used to monitor Jackson while he lived. The audience gets a brief moment of hope as Shannon struggles toward her phone barely within reach, seemingly an oversight affording a chance to call for help. That, too, was part of the plan, as we soon find out that Audrey has footage of her unlocking the phone a moment prior and can now access it herself. “Plan worked,” Audrey tells Henry when confirming she was able to get the phone unlocked. “I made the call and got the prize.” The Walshes calmly tell Shannon that they’re putting up a misleading post on a dating site in her name to engineer her disappearance, and if this is all as manageable as it has been for these otherwise polite and unthreatening perpetrators, perhaps such a thing could happen to anyone at any time at the hands of anyone.
They’ve soundproofed the room, but even in the first act when they’re testing this, the audience can faintly hear Shannon’s screams from inside even as Henry confirms to Audrey that he can’t. Whether the screams are meant to be construed as coming over the phone, through the walls, or merely a bleedover between cuts showing the interior and exterior of the house is impossible to know for sure, but right from this early point in the film we’ve had a subtle indication that Henry is not as precise as Audrey and therefore perhaps not as invested in the scheme. Later, as Henry tries to shake Detective Bellows off his trail, he discovers the officer already in his home, where a handcuffed Audrey tells him that she heard Shannon screaming.” Audrey always confidently asserts that she has planned this all out and is clearly more driven, but it is she who makes the biggest blunder of them all by failing to even understand the ritual, later inadvertently unleashing all manner of undead beings that will plague them.
Henry and Audrey seem to have everything frighteningly under their control within their own home for a few brief moments, but, as indicated by the scream test above, as soon as the outside world comes into play there are more cracks visible already. After securing Shannon in their suburban home, Dr. Walsh is late getting to work, disrupting his daily routine, and runs into Rory the Snow Guy, who remarks that he’s never actually seen Henry before.
Henry is usually gone for work but has been delayed by their morning plans. Rory is aggressively “charming” and solicitous as a worker, eager to please and always interested in talking, but the longer he blocks the driveway and engages Henry in nerve-wracking pleasantries, the greater the disruption to the Walshes’ plan and greater the odds that he’ll be able to recall any odd behavior later if asked. “Look at me, screwing with your day,” he says in his “aww shucks” apologetic cadence. It’s got more of the humorous, annoying, folksy charm with undertones of maliciousness that we’ve seen in the Walshes, and this contrast heightens both the horror and the humor of the film. Visibly irritating Henry, already someone has noted something out of the ordinary in life at this house, violating Audrey’s directive to maintain appearances.
Things aren’t exactly going as planned at Dr. Walsh’s office when he gets there, either. An agitated and disruptive patient is insistent on being seen ahead of appointment, messing with Henry’s day and ranting about an STD in front of everyone in the waiting room. In a much calmer flashback scene in the office, Dr. Walsh shares news of an unplanned pregnancy with a slightly younger Shannon, to whom we’re introduced as she receives the information. It turns out the Walshes have been planning to make use of just such an unplanned pregnancy in their ritual. They need a pregnant person to act as a host for Jackson, and the Walshes soon subject her to this terrifying ordeal in the movie’s present, reciting passages from an ancient book that summon a large, skeletal, lantern-bearing Grim Reaper figure that hovers over a screaming Shannon and indeed over Audrey, who issues her own cry of terror: her terror being the strongest indication that perhaps they haven’t considered every angle. This is the first appearance of the supernatural in the film, and despite everyone’s fear, Audrey continues the comedic beats by capping off the distressing scene with the line, “I’ll make some tea.”
A month and a half after my father’s visit and discovery that the cancer had aggressively returned, my father died. It was more than five years ago now, but sometimes it feels like he died just a couple days ago. Sometimes the timeline does feel as though it matches my memories and it seems like it really has been five years. Sometimes it feels like he died ten years ago, or the moment immediately following the last photograph of him I captured on that visit, or the last time I was at home and saw him well. The present reality constantly intrudes on the past reality that I’m constantly remaking in each moment I recollect him, and in this way my memories of his life collide with my memory of his death to make it feel as though it stands outside of time, just as Jackon’s and any film ghost’s presence exists outside of time.
Anything for Jackson understands these memory-distorting effects that death and grief bring with them and conveys this by simultaneously bringing the distancing effects of humor into direct contact with the intimate horror of grief. Most of the film occurs in the now, but there are flashbacks and time-lapses that present themselves mostly without the usual visual or auditory signifiers of either. On a first watch, there were scenes of which I was uncertain as to their chronology within the film until a line of dialogue eventually provides clarity. Jackson’s death is not part of the past but rather present in the room with Shannon from the beginning of the film, perpetually playing in a frozen state of youth. His greeting to her, “‘Aloha’ means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’” is a seemingly innocuous expression until we have the full context of the plot. He is stuck in a liminal existence reflected by the ostensibly paradoxical expression, and the first and last images Shannon sees during her time at the Walshes’ are of the boy who has been the impetus for her imprisonment.
Grief prompts the Walshes to be perpetrators of an abduction and violence while also being the very thing that turns them into victims as the ghostly appearances begin to specifically and cruelly target the losses they’ve undergone. It turns out the pair didn’t include in their careful planning the fact that they might not fully understand what they’ve resurrected from hell. Their local expert on Satanism, whom they meet for snacks and dark prayers at the library’s community space, is Ian, and he soon informs them they seem to have gotten a few things wrong: namely, they can’t just resurrect Jackson and only Jackson. It seems they’ve brought a plethora of random souls back from hell who are now in search of a host, terrorizing Shannon and the Walshes alike.
Audrey is soon on the wrong end of a cat-and-mouse scenario with the ostensible reappearance of her daughter, Jackson’s mother, who begins to torment her by appearing as a “ghost”: the simple old-fashioned white sheet as Halloween costume that she used to dress up in as a child, only now there’s no lively child–nothing at all–beneath the sheet. As an avatar of their loss, it quickly grows from child-sized to about ten feet tall, towering over the elderly Audrey and prompting her to run in fear, remarking upon the cruelty of such a personal and painful memory brought to the fore. Grief not only consumes the Walshes but is externalized and made larger than themselves as soon as they plan and execute the kidnapping and would-be reverse exorcism. Their grief extends beyond them when Rory and the detective kill themselves under the control of the dark forces they’ve summoned. Their grief radiates out from them as they involve themselves with the murderous Ian who becomes the final unplanned link in the chain of their own undoing, but the grief lives on in the film’s world in other forms in a presumed perpetuity. In reality, grief is externalized in all manner of ways from ritual to lashing out at people who might not realize they’ve said something to activate one’s sorrow, but here the filmmakers ask, “what if it was externalized a little more supernaturally?”.
When expert Satanist Ian informs the Walshes that they’ve only done the first part of the ritual and consequently summoned a host of undead houseguests, he agrees to assist them in completing it so that it can specifically return Jackson to life via Shannon’s womb as intended. However, he frequently makes it quite clear that he doesn’t care about the Walshes’ grief and is single-minded in vague pursuit of other goals, humorously asking “who?” when they say the boy’s name out of desperate need to refocus the ritual. Ian is a devout Satanist who has been preparing his whole life to summon either Satan, the demon the Walshes invoke (Surgat), or another that he never reveals. Regardless, it’s definitely not what the Walshes’ want, which presents another major weakness in their plan: someone as driven and ruthless as they are but with a very different motivation. The second part of the ritual goes even further sideways (at least, for them) than the first, hammering home the theme that planned violence leads to unplanned violence and further tragedy. In the midst of the second part, a brief image cut into the mayhem shows Ian accidentally kicking apart a salt barrier that had been protecting the living from the dead in the house, despite the fact that he has been preparing for this his whole life. Another oopsie.
Despite the fact that they’ve summoned a bunch of demonic forces by accident after the first part of the ritual, the Walshes are clearly trying to reassure themselves that this is all still going to work somehow as long as Ian can salvage everything, and the house makes sure to mock them for it. Rory, pausing for a moment in his use of the snowblower, eerily reassures them that they did everything right and that Jackson is coming back to them according to plan, that they’ll get what they wanted after all: a solution to their grief. But the Walshes weren’t also planning for the fact that this charming, pitiful man would be compelled by those same forces to shove his head into a snowblower right before their eyes, emitting a ridiculous spray of bloody snow into their yard. Given the tonal balance and comedic style of the film, I like to hope this was at least partly inspired by Fargo, because at the film’s most intense moments there is a remarkably similar effect generated by the combination of dark, rapid-fire, overlapping gags, the bumbling ineptitude of characters both sympathetic and vile, stakes that become much more violent from seemingly trivial details and miscalculations, and the folksy obstinacy of supporting characters messing everything up for the principals without knowing anything much about what’s going on.
Screwball Satanism and Suburban Snowblowers
“Henry told me that you would try to use my emotions against me. Shame on you.”
Most horror-comedies are more firmly planted on the comedy side, using absurd violence as a backdrop for gags and ridiculous behavior that couldn’t be done in a more realistic or “serious” setting. Horror and comedy have always been closely entwined by the shared manner in which they seek catharsis in dealing with unavoidable realities, but Anything for Jackson is more effective at striking a balance between the two modes than most of the popular examples of the subgenre, such as Evil Dead 2, Zombieland, and Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil. Because grief and its intimate effects are so thoroughly foregrounded in this film’s premise, it avoids becoming overly weighted toward the humor as usually happens, which preserves the ability to have an emotional impact that resonates as much as one would more commonly find in a straightforward horror film. This ultimately creates a more genuinely unsettling effect for the movie as a whole.
Most early scenes follow a pattern roughly following the order of “mundane events” + “intrusion/escalation of social or supernatural threat” + “temporary resolution with a laugh line before cutting to the next scene.” There is a temptation to diminish the importance of comedy as merely being comic relief within a movie solidly in horror territory, but the consistency of the humor and its structural significance produce a more even balance that I think requires us to think of it as a horror-comedy. As the stakes and tension escalate, so too do the film’s screwball sensibilities because they are deeply entwined with the horror and catharsis of grief. After establishing the balanced tone early on, we then have sustained, overlapping intrusions of characters and forces that were previously just minor nuisances, obnoxiously disrupting and threatening the principal characters from a plethora of angles both funny and frightening.
Understanding this relationship is crucial also for interpreting the film’s ending, which on a first watch struck me (and many others) as weak and abrupt, perhaps a bit of a cop-out. However, this perception is altered significantly on subsequent viewings with a more careful attention to the comedy, because what we get isn’t just a brief glimpse of cosmic horror apparently overtaking the world along with the indication that Shannon is now pregnant with something probably demonic. She has previously been pleading with the Walshes to let her be the reborn-Jackson’s parent in exchange for letting her live, but her desire to be a parent to the child appears at least partly genuine as perhaps a coping mechanism for the seeming loss of her own pregnancy. In the final frames of the film, upon looking at her belly and seeing a heartbeat that likely couldn’t be human, her reaction is less revulsion and horror than a confused but curious “what the fuck?”, which lines up perfectly with the film’s tendency to wrap a scene on an awkward laugh that reflects the cruel ironies that characterize the world of the movie. Earlier, after she summons a terrifying, skeletal grim reaper figure into the room and it eventually leaves, Audrey confidently (but apparently incorrectly, we find out) announces that she hears Jackson’s heartbeat in Shannon’s womb, followed by a casual “I’ll put on some tea.”
Many scenes are structured to build multiple rising lines of tension that either begin as an apparent joke but gain terrifying import through repetition and recontextualization, or conversely begin as a horrifying moment but become laughably absurd through repetition and recontextualization. As with grief, the same feelings arise again and again but find their emotional catharsis dependent upon the social/plot context. Early in Anything for Jackson, when we see Audrey and Henry standing over a dead bird as she issues an invocation from an ancient text, the most dramatic and revelatory moment is punctuated with a brief exchange that would be perfectly at home as banter in a screwball comedy, underscored by the folksy, relatable naivete mismatching the seriousness of the situation and conveyed in the strong, unsettling performances:
Henry: “We can’t be bringing dead things back to life.”
Audrey: “Well, I can. I’ve been doing it all morning.”
Apart from the humor of the moment, we’re also reminded that Henry has so far been the crack in most of the plans, and his skepticism here foreshadows the revelation later that he wasn’t primarily doing any of this for Jackson but rather for Audrey, who herself expresses no doubts for most of the film despite having made some grievous miscalculations of her own with the ritual they’re attempting.
In true screwball form, eventually the Walshes must simultaneously juggle problems posed by their adversarial and scheming kidnapping victim, Rory the contractor with his deluge of personal problems, Detective Bellows and her characterization as a cosmic inevitability closing in, Ian the quiet but murderous Satanist, and Talia the receptionist with an unfortunately good memory, all while hiding different information from different people, misspeaking, forgetting to lie, and other staples of the classic comedy of errors. Not even death can stop Rory from constant unwanted commentary or the detective from issuing humorously stern directives when their most annoying behaviors are put into an automated, bloody, impossible cycle by the forces now present in the house. The sense of relentless absurdities, misunderstandings, and wordplay operating with dramatic irony feels perfectly at home in a screwball comedy while cohering with the relentless social and cosmic threats coming for the Walshes, increasing the depth of the horror-comedy relationship.
The effect is strongly reminiscent of the manner in which the Coen brothers incorporate screwball characteristics into their neo-noir work (often itself containing hints of cosmic horror), producing a unique but compelling sense of looming dread, discomfort, and awkward authenticity. In the real world, most people would quickly find themselves out of their element were they to try to pull off anything like the Walshes here. Eventually, even they realize this. Audrey (quite calmly, considering the terrifying scenes that have recently occurred) tells Henry: “You know, I think we’re in over our heads.” “Well, we can’t Google this,” Henry says. It turns out the expert planners didn’t even take the time to fully understand the invocation, and by this time, if not before, it really hits home that these are Coen-level inept criminals with an occult flavor, and we’ve learned enough about their loss to empathize with them to at least some degree despite the abduction and demon stuff.
The entities and forces inadvertently summoned by the ritual have a physicality to them that aids in the use of body horror while having a parallel use as physical comedy. Teeth clatter loudly and sickeningly to the floor in the midst of extreme dental hygiene. An asphyxiated, impossibly contorted humanoid figure from hell tries to chew its way into Shannon’s womb to use her as a host before Jackson can be placed there. The pushy contractor Rory casually pushes his head into the snowblower in the middle of a conversation, producing a sudden geyser of blood. Detective Bellows, taken over by the dark forces of the house, abruptly shoots herself through the head just before her would-be rescue of Shannon, later returning and acting as though she’s on a behavior loop that has her approaching the characters and blowing her brains out again and again while other occult hijinx ensue. The casual suddenness with which these deaths strike in the film is a jolt to both Walshes and viewer even in the midst of other violent tumult.
A few weeks before starting this essay and in the midst of numerous serious life difficulties that had me particularly worried about other loved ones, my aunt died of a sudden cardiac event. Circumstances of life have had me living more than a thousand miles away from her and most family for many years, but I always planned to see her again at the next family event, and if not that one then likely the next. I did not plan for a pandemic to make it difficult to be present for services and to comfort and be comforted by other grieving members of my family.
There is a particular quality to a nervous laugh that occurs at the place where the deeply private nature of grief must confront the external world and perform according to expected occasions of communal grief, and this is the emotional space the movie seeks to inhabit: not just the sorrow but the absurdity of grief and the absurd ways in which it restructures our relationships with the world and others, the jokes that have to be told if we’re to get through the funeral and post-funeral luncheon and all the uncertain moments that characterize such reunions oriented around a person no longer among us. It’s the same space as the awkward silence when someone you haven’t heard from in years asks, “is there anything I can do?” and most of you feels unable to parse an appropriate response in light of the absurd fact that the deceased should still be here anyway and none of this should be happening, the world isn’t supposed to have been altered in this way, but the fact of its alteration is already in the past as we’re thrust into the uncertain future still processing it all. The emotional phantom limb of loss renders all these social interactions that hinge on how the living knew the dead an uncomfortable but unavoidable series of minor obstacles to negotiate, often punctuated with a nervous, forced laugh, even as they provide their own needed consolation at times.
We understand the Walshes’ private grief while finding repugnant the ways they’ve enacted it socially. Most of us can likely see ourselves pursuing the hopeful return of a loved one at just about any cost and understand that the reality of undertaking such a pursuit as a solution to grief would backfire and go awry in just as many ways as it does for the Walshes. In the film, this puts them in a complex role that begins and remains as perpetrator while gradually becoming victims of their own hubris and ignorance in the face of vast cosmic forces beyond their comprehension. For all the bravery some of their actions might have taken, ultimately they are sympathetic because they’re too afraid, like most of us, to carry the burden of outliving the beloved dead. In the real world, we don’t get a choice in the matter, but the movie has the space to ask an effective “what if?” that for all its outlandishness feels relatable.
Even as the tables turn on the Walshes, we are forced to maintain this awkward balancing act of empathizing with their grief and condemning them for what they’ve done to Shannon, and this plays perfectly into the blend of screwball and horror. When Detective Bellows blows her brains out, it’s a horrifying shock, but as the house further controls her physically and sets her on a constant behavior loop with a now-undead version of her, the repetition becomes absurd and laughable as it reiterates in different contexts. Shannon, still a victim of the Walshes, states that she hopes Dr. Bellows’s abrupt and disturbing suicide happens perpetually and that they have to witness it right in front of themselves every day for the rest of their lives, as indeed witnessing any death must sometimes replay in memory for the rest of one’s own life.
In 2010, early in our relationship, my wife, Cassandra, and I welcomed into our house a cat, Pakpao. She was two years-old, had chronic but manageable medical conditions, and had been disabled by a complete declawing that altered her behavior in ways clearly visible her whole life. She quite distinctly spoke to us at the adoption event, and that was that, but she had been returned by two families already and it still feels like a purposeful twist of the cosmos that she had not been put down at a kill shelter at some point before we met her. Over the years, some of my wife’s own medical conditions became more acute, and she became progressively more disabled and housebound. There was a unique and deep bond there, too, as Pakpao quickly became adept at warning of impending seizures and providing comfort in all manner of distressing situations. It wasn’t long before she was thought of as not just a pet but a support animal. In the midst of the constant explanations of their existence that people with chronic illnesses must give to everyone outside their household, the simple fact that there was a living being that could observe and to some degree relate to the same basic category of experiences felt like a miracle. In time, we improved some of Pakpao’s symptoms even as my partner’s worsened in various ways.
In late 2017, however, Pakpao began having occasional seizures of her own, along with other acute problems, despite the preceding symptom improvements and expectations that she’d be with us for quite a while yet. It was her turn to be the focus of care again, and we administered fluids at home to help her declining kidneys, along with everything else we could do at the vet’s instruction. But the seizures soon became too frequent and her suffering too great with no available remedy, and on January 1, 2018, we had to hold her and watch her go still in our arms from the vet’s injection. I had never been present at the moment of a death of a person or pet, and I don’t know if it will ever stop repeating in my memory like the Walshes witnessing the cruelly repetitive death loop in their home. I want it to stop and I don’t want it to stop. It feels like the present and past locked together in a confused struggle.
Years later, when the image of Pakpao’s body changing from violent seizure to painful stillness comes back unexpectedly and one of us can’t hold back tears, it takes a few minutes for us to comfort one another, and these moments often end with an awkward laugh about a more pleasant memory or connection to the present. We carry the grief back out into the world for another day as best we can and try to use it to love others better (rather than turning to Satan).
The ambiguity of the closing moments in Anything for Jackson carries along with it not just the apparent physical incarnation of Satan or somesuch in Shannon’s womb but also the more abstract suggestion that she is carrying the Walshes’ grief on into the world alongside the demons that have been reborn into it. One family’s hell becomes the world’s hell, and grief to that family must surely have felt like the entirety of their world. Grief never truly resolves, it is simply passed on in an altered form, breathed into the world by an anxious and uncertain laugh that is perhaps later recalled by the other aggrieved party. We can’t help but remember Shannon’s earlier statement in Dr. Walsh’s office that she “doesn’t believe in the option” (abortion) and consider how this belief has been recast in light of the final beating heart detail and what it implies in terms of how one conceptualizes new life. Anything for Jackson understands that grief is an eternal chain that never fully disappears, even as families welcome new life born to them. “I just want to be part of the baby’s life,” Shannon told Audrey earlier while bargaining for her own, and it feels just as sincere as her relatable desire to say anything at all to secure her escape.
Also like grief, nothing ever moves ahead in a straightforward manner with the Walshes’ plans. It doesn’t obey a narrative, linear or otherwise, or expectations they’ve laid out in advance. It will conspire with the absurdities of the real world to force laughter and tears simultaneously. It twists and turns and doubles back on itself, rendering significant something you thought you’d forgotten about in Act 1 of your life or the movie, its import magnified in light of the loss. In one of the flashback scenes inconspicuously cut into the present-day narrative, Shannon tells Dr. Walsh she’s gotten used to the life inside her “calling the shots,” as new life must by necessity. Whether we’re to assume the visible heartbeat in her belly at the conclusion is an incubating Satan, Surgat, or some other demonic force at a plot level, the grief that heartbeat represents has been calling the shots all along. She has been planning to have a human baby, but as Ian says, “A mother’s a mother.” Maybe there is another “option” the doctor hadn’t discussed with her after all.
Today, a different cat insistently jockeys for the space the laptop is taking up while I write, something Pakpao never did despite her affectionate nature. When I think about such minor contrasts, it brings some of the grief and loss back to the forefront, but I usually let out a snort of laughter too at River’s stubbornness even as I miss Pakpao’s own mannerisms. It reminds me that when reality forces a reconfiguration in our social arrangements, this in turn reshapes our relationship with reality and self. New life or social relations aren’t enough in the face of grief, but at the same time the burden we inherit by continuing to live after our loved ones is that we have no choice but to let it be enough whenever possible. This is a new, different household relationship with a different life, to be sure, and the laptop isn’t alive so the laptop will have to wait while I make room for her to sit. I plan to get back to what I’m writing here and add a bit more still, someday, before I go.
Text © Christopher Burke, 2021
Anything for Jackson © Vortex Productions, 2020