Starring Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote
Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White
Directed by Natalie Erika James
Let’s be honest, you never walk out of a film like A Walk to Remember and feel like you understand life and death and loss better than you did, prior to experiencing it. You never come out of The Hangover III and think, “I now understand my grief regarding my grandmother experiencing dementia when I was a young adult…”
While those types of films are made for specific reasons and are just as valid as any other, what makes the horror genre so compelling to me, is how it’s one of the few genres that allows its viewer to consider their feelings on death and mortality, while also scaring the hell out of you. Films like The Babadook and Hereditary touch on loss and grief and how to live or be consumed by them. Like those films, the Natalie Erika James-helmed Relic is a great example of taking a genre-heavy story and making it lasting and full of rich metaphorical storytelling, allowing you as a viewer to really think about what it takes to accept the change in the ones we love when they’re fighting dementia and losing their identities.
Relic follows three generations of women. Edna (a great performance by Robyn Nevin) is a woman living on her own following the passing of her husband and is fighting the early onset of dementia. Leaving Post-It notes around the house to help her understand the world, Edna exists in a confused state, wandering off into the night, witnessing something dark in her house.
Scared by the disappearance of her mother, Edna’s daughter, Kay (Emily Mortimer) reluctantly takes time off from work to stay in her mother’s house and search for her, with the help of her own daughter, Sam (The Neon Demon’s Bella Heathcote), who is somewhat estranged from Kay as well. Already going into the film, we see that there are three generations of estrangement and unresolved issues, which allows us to see the cracks in the façade almost right from the get-go. Kay’s angry that she’s having to take time off to try to find her mother, while Sam just wants to be there for her grandmother and resents the fact that Edna is made to feel like a burden by Kay. Edna returns, but when she does, the film ventures into a combination of seemingly haunted-like entities in the house, all while Edna slowly becomes something else.
Using the transformation of the grandmother as a metaphor for Edna losing who she was because of dementia, James’ direction does such a great job of making you feel gutted by the resentment found within the film’s three leads. Sam wants to understand her grandmother and has a devotion to her that is admirable, even with Edna’s moods fluctuating (being loving to her granddaughter one moment, then being violent and angry the next). Sam sees shades of her grandmother still there and holds out hope, a hope that Kay simply does not share. Kay is angry at the fact that her mother is not who she once was and does her best to ignore the need for understanding and love that her mother is asking for, all while dealing with slowly becoming a shell of who she once was.
The way Relic takes such deep and heartbreakingly real afflictions we can fade-in life and injects them into a horror-based story is such a wonderful thing to watch. The tension grows with every moment and you never quite know where the film is going, in the best of ways. To call Relic a slow burn horror film feels wrong because it’s not going up a ramp of intensity, little by little; instead, it lives and breathes under your skin, until you’re uncomfortable, not at where the story is going, but with the fact that you know there is no going back from the direction all three women are facing.
Heathcote is so good as Sam and there’s a connection between her performance and Nevin’s that feels like an authentic relationship. It’s not to say that Mortimer doesn’t have that connection (she does) but what makes her performance so great, is how it’s intentionally played as if she doesn’t belong. Kay pushes Sam away while also always keeping her mother at arm’s length the entire time, afraid of coming to terms with and confronting the pain of knowing her mother is slowly being lost to her disease. The house becomes claustrophobic and a dark presence begins to take over, almost similar to that of “The Nothing” in The Neverending Story, a void that eats those it comes in contact with.
The tone Relic puts out is an eerie one and it’s a perfect combination of tension and storytelling, working alongside each other effortlessly.
A film that takes the pain three characters feel and allows its viewer to experience that pain and loss alongside them, Relic is a film that will stand on its own, as a perfect example of how profound horror can be.