Friday, July 10

Relic Review

Dir: Natalie Erika James
Starring: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote

My mother, a career nurse, spent the majority of her life working with patients dealing with dementia and memory loss, many of them taken care of in assisted living facilities. She loved her job and working with the clients on a prolonged daily basis but hated how dementia would steal the people she fondly cared for. She would share stories with me, many of them about the trauma of watching someone lose grasp of their memory. The ones I recall concerned how a lifetime of memories would be scattered around on sticky notes, on the bathroom mirror, on the bedside lampshade, or in a book that remained at their side in bed. Remembering a loved one when they can no longer remember is devastating. 

Director and writer Natalie Erika James, along with Christian White who shares writing credit, use the topic of dementia and memory loss to craft a disturbing genre film that functions as a metaphor for the terrible and terrifying loss that accompanies severe dementia in the film “Relic”. 

Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a phone call concerning the unknown whereabouts of her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly woman who lives in a small town in a large house by herself. Kay and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) immediately travel together, once they arrive they encounter a home that feels lost amongst boxes, dust, rotting plants, and a peculiar black substance that stains the walls. But Edna is missing, nowhere to be found. They ask neighbors, contact the police, and even search the nearby forest to find her. Then one day, without announcement, Edna returns, leisurely making tea in her kitchen. But something is wrong, she has violent mood swings, talks to herself, and is reluctant to share where she disappeared to. Kay and Sam begin to notice strange bruises on Edna and the house walls begin to creak and bang as if something is trying to get out.

Director Natalie Erika James has crafted something very unique and emotional, taking the physical structure of a horror film to examine dementia and craft chilling metaphors for the traumatic experience of losing the essence of a loved one, of watching a person you once knew change into something you don’t remember them as. The depth of character development throughout the film is excellent. The film revolves around Kay, played reservedly by Emily Mortimor, as she delves into the process of understanding her mother and the extent of memory loss she is experiencing. It’s heartbreaking at times to watch the little things, such as flipping through old photographs, finding notes with messages written on them strewed around the house, and cleaning messes left unattended for long stretches of time. With every discovery about the extent of her mother’s ailing health, Kay’s journey becomes the real horror of the film.

Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin have some of the best scenes of the entire film. Their relationship as grandmother and granddaughter is played to great effect, with Ms. Heathcote’s character Sam constantly supporting the independence and freedom of her grandmother. When their relationship shifts, after an angry encounter involving a gifted piece of jewelry that Edna doesn’t remember giving, the pain and sadness in Sam’s eyes and the realization that her grandmother isn’t the same person brings reality back into the framing of the horror film being built. This foundation of reality assists the film in shifting through the supernatural tonal narrative diversions that take full grasp in the third act, which turns into a complete horror show that highlights the metaphors being explored and the experiential qualities being analyzed through the vessel of a familiar-looking monster stalking someone down a hallway. 

Once the horror takes over completely, the narrative becomes less about subtle analysis and instead goes for complete extravagance. It’s never bad that this happens but it sometimes feels unnecessary, especially when the subdued narrative design does such an excellent job of creatively establishing the metaphor, monster, and emotional terror of the situation.

Director Natalie Erika James has created a very good first feature, one that will put her on the radar for future projects. “Relic” is a great conversation horror piece for adults, one that displays why the genre of horror can be so fluid in how it tackles subject matter both simple and difficult, using monsters and scares to portray an understanding of real-life trauma.

Monte’s Rating
4.00 out of 5.00

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