Lesbian Thriller “Jagged Mind” Is a Haunting Portrayal of Abuse

Author’s Note: The following review of Jagged Mind contains some spoilers.

There’s something so fucking scary about a time loop. The Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler movie 50 First Dates, I’m told, is a romantic comedy, but to me, it views like horror. One of my favorite works of time-looping art from recent years is “The Altar of the Dead,” the fifth episode of Mike Flanagan’s domestic horror series The Haunting of Bly Manor. A stellar installment nestled in an uneven series, “The Altar of the Dead” drives home the horror of fractured, repetitive, unstable time. A time loop is a haunting. It is inescapable, relentless, unnatural. The ghost is time itself. Or maybe it makes the living into ghosts by untethering them from reality.

I found myself thinking of the time looping elements in Bly Manor while watching Jagged Mind, the new Hulu horror film written by Allyson Morgan and directed by Kelley Kali. There aren’t many direct, obvious parallels between the two; they belong to distinct subgenres of horror, Bly Manor more of the haunted house/gothic romance world and Jagged Mind more of an erotic thriller. But my favorite works of queer horror aren’t so easily bound by genre descriptions, and Jagged Mind views to me much like a haunted house story — without the actual haunted house. The haunted house, instead, is a relationship. Like those who haunt the halls of Bly Manor, the inhabitants of this “house,” this relationship, are trapped. They are cursed. And just like Bly Manor deftly employs a time loop device as a metaphor for and refraction of trauma, grief, and death, Jagged Mind uses its time loop to represent domestic abuse, trauma, and extreme gaslighting. It’s a straightforward, on-the-nose allegory, and sometimes those work so well in horror.

Jagged Mind opens the way all lesbian erotic thrillers should: with a lesbian sex scene. Billy (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) hooks up with her ex-girlfriend Christine (Rosaline Elbay), and in the morning, Christine is gone. It’s made clear that Billy has been struggling in the dating and self-esteem department, calling herself damaged goods to her best friend Kim (Kate Szekely). She also has anxiety around potential memory problems, exacerbated by the fact that her mother passed away from a degenerative neurological condition. We learn Billy has been experiencing blackouts, lapses in memory, and confusing visions that may or may not be real. Soon, we also meet her new love interest Alex (Shannon Woodward), and something seems almost instantly off.

Billy is stuck in a strange time loop that at first hinges on the first night she met Alex. As we watch their relationship develop, Billy’s reality is intermittently corrupted. There are the blackouts, yes. The sudden dizziness, displacement, and discomfort Billy experiences. In a particularly striking sequence, she’s in the shower minding her business when she’s suddenly hit with the sensation and sight of being violently drowned by an unseen assailant — is it a memory? A dream? A premonition? A hallucination? Some combination? But even more disturbing than some of these lapses are the scenes between Billy and Alex that take a sudden sharp turn into Alex becoming verbally vicious, sometimes directed at Billy and sometimes at others, like an unassuming waiter. Then it’s almost like it never happened at all, the scene replaying with a softer, kinder Alex.

Because I don’t see this as the movie’s central twist — or even a “twist” at all — I’ll “spoil” the detail of who exactly the monster is in this psychological mayhem: It’s Alex. Jagged Mind asks: What if an abusive partner quite literally had the ability to erase and reconfigure someone’s mind? We watch in horror as Alex engages in total manipulation and control of Billy’s reality. She uses Billy’s medical history against her, causing the very symptoms she claims she wants to help Billy fix, a claim that only sutures her more to Billy, gives her power over her. When the relationship starts to go a way Alex doesn’t like, all she has to do is use a mystic crystal to undo it, rewinding time to a point of her choosing. To make it even more evil and violating, she has to use Billy’s blood to make it work. When Kim notices abrasions on Billy’s body, Billy can’t explain them.

One of the most unnerving instances of Alex’s abuse though occurs without supernatural intervention. At the birthday party for Kim’s young son, Alex ends up having separate conversations with Kim and Billy in order to turn them against one another. It’s classic abuser behavior, Alex intentionally driving a wedge between the two best friends to further isolate Billy and shrink down her world. No crystal needed here. But even when there’s supernatural intervention, the ways Alex violates and controls Billy aren’t far-fetched; they’re familiar behaviors.

As tends to be my gripe with certain works of horror that employ elements of the fantastic, when Jagged Mind focuses a little too much on its mythology, it fumbles. It doesn’t take up a tremendous amount of real estate, and yet it feels still too much; does anyone really care about how the time loop and mind control works? I think we’re really all here for the why. Sure, there needs to be some form of mythology and a way for a curse to be undone or perpetuated in order for there to be narrative stakes, but I still think some of the embellishments here aren’t totally needed to make the story work, and Jimmy Jean-Louis’s Papa Juste as a blind, wise Haitian man who only speaks in unsubtitled Creole throughout the movie plays into too many tired tropes of the genre with little by way of subversion.

While imperfect in some of its plotting, Jagged Mind is delicious in its thematic underpinnings, execution of horror (with evocative editing and directing on this front), and performances. Richardson-Sellers and Woodward (both queer IRL btw) are electric scene partners, and Woodward makes an extremely compelling villain. The script could have easily tilted into Lifetime original movie territory if not for the direction and these performances.

A time-looping lesbian erotic thriller that hinges on what I call “relationship horror” set in Miami (where I used to live) is certainly catnip for me personally, but I was still surprised by how much Jagged Mind surprised me in its depth and depravity. It’s not a complicated movie by any means, but it’s one that inspires rich discussion about relationships, abuse, agency, manipulation, and yes, love — or at least a perversion of it. It’s more twisted than it is twisty. I feel haunted by its intimate violence.

There’s something so fucking scary about a time loop. If you can’t even count on time to follow rules, what else do you have? Jagged Mind reaches deep into the crevices of obsession masked as love, with an ending more complicated and subject to multiple readings than I anticipated.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 843 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. I liked this movie, but I can’t stand that so many people are labeling it an “erotic thriller” just because it’s a lesbian movie. There was like one sex scene in it, and it was brief and not even graphic at all. This just speaks to the way queer women are hypersexualized constantly. The movie was less sexual than most HBO series about straight people, and nobody puts those shows into erotic genre categories.

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