In the age of the coronavirus, movie lovers have mostly two choices: watch stuff you’ve already seen, or take a shot on new movies (that may or may not be of the best quality) through streaming services. I say “may not be of the best quality” because many films being released right now are either projects that have been sitting on the shelf for some time, or movies that the studios weren’t thinking of as potential hits. Basically, there are a lot of leftovers out there.
Relic is not a leftover.
Not since The Babadook—another Aussie horror film—has a movie used metaphor and allegory so well to showcase a character breaking with reality. In The Babadook, the character cracking up is a bereaved and beleaguered single mom. In Relic, it’s an older woman losing her mind to dementia.
Director Natalie Erika James makes a remarkable full-length feature debut with Relic. Her hand and her vision are steady from the opening sequence, when we see an old woman, Edna (played in a truly extraordinary performance by Robyn Nevin), standing partially nude in front of a Christmas tree, oblivious to the overflowing second-level tub depositing water at her feet.
We learn that Edna has gone missing when her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter (Bella Heathcote) take a trip out to her relatively secluded home to look for her. It’s clear she has not been home for some days. A search party is assembled. Days go by. Until one evening, Edna reappears in the kitchen.
But is Edna still Edna?
That is the question Relic asks, and it does so with both economy and patience. While I wouldn’t call Relic Hitchcock-inspired, exactly, there is a bit of the master of suspense found in the way that James slowly tightens the rope over the film’s austere 89-minute run time. While Relic is unsettling from its opening scene, the true horror of the scenario creeps into the film like a thief. If you took out all the seemingly supernatural elements, the film’s spare, haunting score, and the things that go bump in the night, you would be left with a sturdy family drama about three generations of women: a mother and daughter trying to figure out what to do with their matriarch, who is clearly unwell.
However, Sam (Heathcote) and Kay have their own issues between them. These are illustrated early on in their conversations (Sam calls her mother by her first name—that is, until the movie’s climax when she desperately calls out for her “mom”). This discontent between the mother and daughter characters could have played out in a cliched manner, but James (who co-wrote the script) isn’t interested in any of that. Sam and Kay have clearly reached an uneasy truce. And while they may have different ideas about what’s best for Edna (Sam wants to move in with her “gran” and Kay wants to move her mother into a home), both recognize that it’s a complicated situation to manage. As much as their brittle relationship will allow, they are together in the understanding that Edna needs help.
And does she ever.
As Edna becomes less and less like herself, she develops what looks like black mold under her skin. When she first returns home it’s diagnosed as a bad bruise, but we soon learn it is something more sinister. I suppose there will be those who will watch Relic and interpret the film literally—I’m not here to dissuade them. But in my viewing, I found the mold to represent Edna’s advancing dementia. Even when all becomes madness in the film’s final half hour (and man, is it madness), I never bought that there was an actual boogeyman.
The monster is in Edna’s mind.
James does a brilliant job of playing between two extremes: does all that you see really happen, or is it all a metaphor for the horror of losing your mind? If you choose metaphor, it does not lessen the disturbing, frightening aspects of the film—but it does make the film more heartbreaking. As the house closes in on the three women, and as Edna becomes more unhinged, Kay and Sam are left with an awful decision: Do they leave Edna in her madness, alone, or do they stay?
No fair telling what comes next, but let me just say, the conclusion of Relic is one of the most moving sequences I’ve seen on film in years. And in the final reveal, which for me was the moment that sold me on the allegory, we are reminded that whenever this monster wreaks havoc in the mind of a loved one, its ravages can reach across generations.