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AMULET, A DARK SONG & The Power to Forgive

*Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for both A Dark Song (2016) and Amulet (released earlier this month). If you would like to see either of these films knowing as little as possible, bookmark this article for another time.

Forgiveness is hard. A common rejoinder to any act of forgiveness goes something along the lines of, “Really? You’re going to forgive {insert bad person here} just like that?” Truthfully, though, forgiveness is never “just like that”. Instead, forgiveness is a mercurial, almost primordially powerful act, and to forgive genuinely is among one of the most difficult things a person can do. Acceptance that sin might go unpunished, the pain uncured, is congenital to the decision to forgive, and that notion, particularly in the West, is oppugnant to contemporary conceptions of justice, of crime and punishment.

Both A Dark Song (directed by Liam Gavin and released in 2016) and Amulet (directed by Romola Garai, released earlier this month) grapple with the nature of forgiveness– with its messy, theological history– in the context of a supernatural, religiously-stepped chamber piece. A Dark Song and Amulet feature leads (Catherine Walker and Alec Secareanu respectively) saturated with grief and a burgeoning desire to find some semblance of peace– their own spiritual serenity– in the midst of insidious supernatural happenings. They both move along languidly, tempting the audience with bits and pieces of their whole narrative truths, before pivoting into finales charged with monsters both literal and figurative, blood and guts, and ostensible catharsis. In fact, while watching Amulet this weekend, I spent the first two-thirds liking it a great deal, drawing favorable comparisons to A Dark Song, my second favorite horror film of 2016.

Related Article: Exclusive: Director Romola Garai Wants Her Wild Debut AMULET to Confuse You

Where they dovetail, however, is in that final act of catharsis. In A Dark Song, through all the pain and grief, Sophia finally understands that forgiving the man responsible for the death of her son, rather than seeking revenge, is the only way to break both the ritual’s infernal hold and the cycle of despair she’s found herself trapped in since his death. Conversely, Amulet validates that infernal hold, averring that pre-Christian punishment and torture is the only way to keep evil at bay. In effect, A Dark Song argues for forgiveness– Amulet argues for punishment. Both philosophically and narratively, A Dark Song’s argument is far more convincing and worthwhile.

You can watch the trailers for A Dark Song and Amulet below.

Sophia has rented a house in the middle of nowhere, and she has paid extra money so that no questions are asked. Her only companion will be Michael Solomon, an occultist who must help Sophia contact her deceased son.

Terror strikes when a former soldier takes a job to help a young woman and her housebound mother.

Amulet, about a homeless ex-soldier who accepts lodging with an enigmatic young woman and her ailing mother, starts off strong, though in its filmic thesis that justice is punishment, the entire enterprise collapses faster than its (admittedly fantastic) setting. Amulet, while noble in its intentions, is still bound by the narrative paradigm, or, in other words, the constraints of the filmic medium. Audiences by default are conditioned to empathize with the ostensible protagonist by mere dint of the time spent with them. When a movie positions any given character as the lead, regardless of how good or bad they truly are, there remains a degree of empathy unmatched by secondary or bit characters. Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) is the character audiences get to know best, and despite the third-act revelation that he exploited his military post to assault and rape several women, too little time is spent developing his worst impulses to render the finale as impactful as it could have been.

Moreover, it should be noted that writer/director Romola Garai has unfettered control of her narrative, yet a great deal of time is spent (inexplicably, given the finale) portraying Tomaz as a troubled, but exceptionally well-meaning, young man. Garai is not bound by the nuances, the veritable truth of real-life and real persons, and this irreconcilable characterization feels less organic than it does painfully contrived. The ending insinuates that Tomaz demands forgiveness for forgiveness’s sake, whether he’s earned it or not, yet every character beat that precedes the quasi-twist concedes that Tomaz really is a genuinely repentant man. In those raw, unvarnished character moments, Tomaz appears desperate to atone for an unknown sin. Amulet, however, asks audiences to disregard all of that with only twenty minutes remaining. Resultantly, Tomaz is transformed into a demon, forced to repeatedly give birth to a winged, bat-like demon until his death and, thus, his eventual forgiveness by an unknown, Neolithic God.

Where A Dark Song recognized that anger and violence only beget further anger and violence, Amulet celebrates the cycle of violence, benighted by its own lack of foresight, by its own contention, whether on purpose or not, that its titular amulet and the otherworldly women who serve it are just as responsible for the propagation of evil as Tomaz and the many, many men just like him. Tomaz by no means deserves sympathy, but when violence is met with further violence– when the filmic world is unreservedly full of evil people and evil deeds– the narrative weight of those sins is diluted, and Tomaz’s demise is less cathartic than it is dispiriting. To paraphrase Thomas Moore, the world of Amulet first births sinners and then punishes them for the only life to which they have been exposed.

It’s certainly a strange position to argue and, make no mistake, Tomaz is not a good man. The vagaries of justice in Amulet’s world, however, are just too cruel and removed from the fundamental, curative properties of forgiveness to make it feel anything less than, well, ugly. When judged against A Dark Song, Sophia’s forgiveness ends the evil– in Amulet, revenge just perpetuates it.

All things considered, both films grapple with the nature of forgiveness in an occult setting, though A Dark Song does so comparatively better. Not only is the message more palatable– that the power to forgive is the greatest gift of all– but it is also considerably more consistent with the preceding narrative beats. Sophia is a troubled woman whose quite-literal descent into Hell results in her asking the beatific angel for the power to forgive while Tomaz is a good man arbitrarily rendered monstrous to legitimize a giallo-esque final act replete with punishment and violence. Amulet, nonetheless, is still worth a look. Garai shows promise as both a writer and director, and the atmosphere, set design, and acting are enough to warrant a rental, but don’t go in expecting anything profound or genuinely provocative. Amulet is designed to push buttons, whether it really deserves to or not.

Perhaps my desire to forgive is rooted in my own spiritual upbringing, and I certainly don’t hold the answer as to whether some people and some deeds are truly beyond forgiveness. I am, however, content to admit that it’s not my answer to know and not my judgment to make. Whether bound by scripture or spiritualism or not, there are some things best left beyond the foibles and fallibility of humankind, and whether someone merits forgiveness or not is one such thing. If nothing else, Amulet raises some curious questions about atonement and the nature of evil, I just wish the movie– unlike A Dark Song– left me more interested in trying to answer them.

Both A Dark Song and Amulet are available to rent on Amazon today.

Written by Chad Collins

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