Throughout the hour-long duration of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power — the film experience created to accompany the release of Halsey’s fourth studio album of the same name (out Friday, Aug. 27) — few lines are exchanged among the characters. The film stars Halsey as the fiery Queen Lila, the target of dark lashing outs courtesy of an abusive king, a vengeful aristocrat and a distrustful matriarch, among others who exchange whispers within the royal court. In writing the film, the singer minimized the amount of included dialogue to allow the music to shape the film’s narrative –– a decision justified in the weight put into the words that are spoken. “This woman will not go quietly,” the aristocrat worriedly declares to the court early in the film. “She’s already made that clear.”
Much like their character, Halsey has never really been one to approach their art in any quiet, subtle way. From the dystopia of her debut album Badlands (2015) to the Shakespearean tragedies reimagined in Hopeless Fountain Kingdom (2017) and the introspective outpour found on Manic (2020), building elaborate worlds on a foundation of theatrics is nothing new to them. But the Tudor period narrative created within the visuals of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power to depict the physical and mental entanglement of sexuality and bodily autonomy with pregnancy and birth centers Halsey in their most exhilarating creative pocket yet, able to communicate the most ghastly of emotions with just a look before they’ve uttered a single word.
Directed by Colin Tilley, who previously helmed the visuals for Manic singles “Without Me” and “You Should Be Sad,” If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power follows Queen Lila through the death of her husband, the king, as she “wrestles with the manipulative chokehold of love to ultimately discover that the ability to create life (and end it) unlocks the paranormal power within her,” the film’s synopsis reads. Power premiered in limited IMAX theaters throughout North America on Wednesday (Aug. 25), with additional viewings scheduled in European theaters on Thursday (Aug. 26) and internationally on Saturday (Aug. 28). The film marks the singer’s technical acting debut, ahead of her appearance alongside Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney in the developing TV series The Player’s Table.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is distinctly an accompanying film experience, rather than a complete visual album. Halsey shared that the album is a concept project about “the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth” while the film is about “the lifelong social labyrinth of sexuality and birth.” Portions of the album are weaved throughout the film, with four tracks left out entirely, easily becoming the centerpiece of the visual event in the midst of the film’s precarious plot. Produced by Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the music works overtime to fill in the gaps of flashbacks, unnamed characters and a general lack of clear explanations in the sometimes hard-to-follow film. Rather than the scenes of If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power being structured as a progression of music videos, the music of the album lends itself as an emotion-evoking guide.
While If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power might have come across as horror in its trailer, in reality, the film fits more into the genre of suspenseful drama — the only true jumpscare comes courtesy of an owl. The real fear is hidden in the plot’s deception. Foreshadowing is the film’s greatest strength, though it may take more than one viewing to fully grasp its subtleties.
“Bells In Santa Fe” is the first track from the album to appear in the movie and arrives with a message: “Don’t wait for me, it’s not a happy ending.” It toys with the idea of an illusion of power, as we see Halsey’s character being pampered and gloved at the beginning of the film while seated on a throne. As the plot develops, the importance of context and perspective shifts the tone from an undertaking of power and control to prophesied corruption and dread. The throne is ultimately revealed to be more of a preliminary holding cell than a seat for a ruler.
If the two options available are love or power, there also exists the possibility that the protagonist will receive neither. Halsey created If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power with the dichotomy of the Madonna–Whore complex in mind, exploring the existence of the body as a vessel for childbirth and also a sexual commodity. In an understated moment, a stealthy, reflective figure envelopes Queen Lila in a jarring scene that shifts from orgasmic to horrific, like day turning to night. In another, the shattering of a glass disrupts a stale space of silence.
“I am disruptive, I been corrupted,” Halsey sings matter-of-factly on “Lilith,” which appears during a bathhouse scene in the film where they appear stark naked while an assembly of attendants cleanses them. The next time we see this balance of power presented, Halsey’s character no longer seems as in control. She has been knocked down from her illusion of power by those who will determine her fate and whether that future will exist with her newborn child.
If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is predisposed to being a cinematic soundtrack to the film, with Reznor and Ross as producers, drenching Halsey in the sound of skittering beats on “Girl is a Gun” and building an eerie, industrial soundscape around her with “The Lighthouse.” The music is at its most commanding in the film when Halsey taps into their most innate connection to the subject matter. The singer, who recently birthed their first child with screenwriter Alev Aydin, a baby boy named Ender Ridley Aydin, has long expressed their yearning for motherhood, even going so far as to document their experience with endometriosis and having a misscariage both in and out of the recording studio. When Queen Lila’s shrieks of pain and anguish ring through the halls of the desolate castle she resides in, it feels as though the agony stems from a source much deeper than acting.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Halsey’s character seems happy for once. She’s no longer being looked down upon or called a common widow by gossiping townsfolk and skeptical court aristocrats who suspect she had a hand in her husband’s death, or stumbling up the castle stairs with a bottle in tow. Instead, we find her lounging and laughing at a picnic in a warm, green clearing. The lullaby-like album cut “Darling” spills out over the standout scene in glimmering acoustics, “Darling don’t you weep / There’s a place for me / Somewhere we can sleep / ‘Cause only you have shown how to love being alive.” They warned us from the beginning that there would be no happy ending, yet they sought serenity in the deepest parts of their own mind and found it. If she can’t have love, or power, maybe it’s enough to have peace.