Review: A woman looks for answers after an acid attack in fearless British drama ‘Dirty God’

Vicky Knight in the movie "Dirty God."
(Dark Star Pictures)

“Dirty God,” which premiered at Sundance in January, is the third narrative feature by Dutch filmmaker Sacha Polak. It has a fascinating extra-textual layer of verité in its story of a young British woman recovering from an acid attack, an incident of domestic violence that has left her body and face irreparably scarred. Jade is portrayed by Vicky Knight, a young nurse from Essex who suffered burns over 30% of her body in a fire at age 7, in her first film role. Many of the scars are, in fact, her own (though enhanced with special effects makeup).

Jade struggles to get back to who she was before, but her lifestyle of clubbing and carefree flirtation isn’t what it used to be. She struggles to parent her toddler, Rae, the product of her abusive relationship, while working through her trauma and trying to get her life together with a new job and old friends. Googling her worries away, she’s sucked into sexual experimentation and empty plastic surgery promises online, and she spirals out of control while trying to reckon with the cards she’s been dealt by what she terms a “dirty God.”

Polak situates this story within Jade’s subjective experience, alternating between a naturalistic style to capture the realities of her everyday life, and a more impressionistic look for the moments of escapism that Jade searches for in nightclubs, fraught with hallucinations of her attacker. Cinematographer Ruben Impens (“Raw,” “The Mustang”) crafts indelible images, cast in red and blue light, with an electronic soundtrack by Rutger Reinders providing the heartbeat.

Polak’s film is an unflinching exploration of beauty, identity, sex and self in the wake of a life-changing event, as Jade tries to discover who she can be now, which might even be someone stronger and wiser than before. Knight, having struggled with these very questions in her own life, brings a raw vulnerability that Polak captures with a clear-eyed respect and intimacy.

‘Dirty God’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Available Nov. 13 via virtual cinemas, including Laemmle Theatres