movie review

Relic Is a Wrenching, Frustrating Horror Story of Dementia

The performances in writer-director Natalie Erika James’s debut film are haunting, but the movie seems hesitant to push its genre’s potential. Photo: Jackson Finter/IFC

For the past several years, I have watched the grandmother who had a firm hand in raising me dissolve into a person I no longer recognize. It was five years ago when my mother and I rushed down to the small Louisiana town my grandma resides in to care for her in the wake of a stroke. This stroke was only the first in a long line of health issues, including dementia, that turned my grandmother from an independent, kind woman into someone curt and often confused. When I hear her voice over the phone in the brief, intermittent conversations we have now, it takes all my strength not to cry, not to mourn for the woman I wish was still here. As my mother has acted as her primary caretaker over these years, I have begun to think about the things we carry from generation to generation and what will happen when my mother herself needs similar care.

In her debut film, director and co-writer Natalie Erika James charts a similar familial rupture. Kay (Emily Mortimer), alongside her grown daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), drive from Melbourne to the more rural enclave of her mother Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) home when news of her going missing comes to light. What Kay and Sam find at Edna’s only makes her disappearance more alarming. Rotten fruit on the kitchen counter. Post-it notes littering the home with reminders to take her pills or to flush the toilet. One room shows the beginnings of hoarding. Another has mold on the walls. Just as swiftly as Edna disappeared, she returns. Kay wakes one morning to find her mother absentmindedly making tea as if nothing ever happened. As if a search party wasn’t sent to look for her, as if she didn’t disappear at all. Edna’s sudden return only brings more questions that Kay struggles to find answers to. Her mother is reticent to explain where she was or what exactly happened.

From its ominous opening — Edna watching the dimming lights of her Christmas ornaments as a bath overflows and a shadowed figure looms in the corner of the frame — Relic proves successful, even wrenching, in how it considers dementia as a bedrock of horror. What is more horrifying than losing your own sense of self, or watching a loved one on such a depressing journey? James demonstrates a strong handle on tone as she carefully charts the emotions of generations of women, with tension going unsaid but remaining evident in the moving performances. But when it comes to the dimensions of horror within the film, Relic is lacking. It instills dread from the very beginning, but the promise of this mood is never fully realized. Instead, Relic is emblematic of much of the modern horror landscape that seems reticent to explore the possibilities the genre allows.

Relic is perhaps at its best when it operates as a trenchant, heartbreaking portrait of a family, and the various ways Kay and Sam react to what they’re witnessing. There is a strain between the two from the very beginning: Sam refers to her mother by her first name, but never her grandmother. Sam didn’t feel it necessary to tell her mother about leaving her job at a gallery, or the state of her life. Sam continuously sides with her grandmother, until Edna’s issues take on shades of violence. Heathcote and Mortimer lucidly and physically explore the grooves in their relationship. Nevin is a crucial anchor. She effortlessly demonstrates the ways Edna is becoming a stranger, even to herself, staring blankly in a triptych mirror at a bruise blooming on her chest. But it’s Mortimer’s performance that haunts me. The desperation in her face when she witnesses her mother eating photographs or stabbing herself in the bathtub is stark. She’s gimlet-eyed in her understanding of how to follow the shifting tides of these relationships, clearly communicating the ways in which this family is fraying under the weight of Edna’s foreign choices.

Dementia as the bedrock for a horror film is an intriguing idea given the ways it’s primed to explore dramatically shifting moods, the loss of self, and the heartbreak of witnessing someone you love become a stranger. James — alongside her collaborators, co-writer Christian White, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, and editors Denise Haratzis and Sean Lahiff — are cunning in their ability to craft the dread that is instilled from the very beginning. The horror of the film relies mostly on dim lighting, hallways that twist on their axes, and shadowy figures seen in the edges of the frame — never fully explained or explored. But the resolution or climax of this dread, which drags on through the course of the film, is never delivered. Part of the problem is in the storytelling. Relic roots its attempt at horrifying imagery, shown in Kay’s recurring dreams, within familial folklore that is hinted at but never properly framed in order to give us a greater understanding of Edna’s violent changes. Is something taking over her? Is it a familial curse they must reckon with? Even after watching the film, I’m unsure. There is a worthwhile sequence that posits the home is a living thing, as Sam gets lost in its labyrinthine nature, where doors and corridors fester with decay. The deeper she goes the more the tighter you feel. The walls start to close in. Corrosion is everywhere.

But when the film finally makes overtures of outright horror, it flounders, falling short of the depth and perception of its dramatic stakes. In many ways, Relic feels emblematic of much of the modern horror landscape that eschews genuine thrills. (It especially echoes works like Hereditary and The Babadook.) It isn’t that there is a problem with a horror film relying primarily on dread, or choosing to be a more quiet exploration of what the genre can do. What makes this movie so frustrating is that it ends on an intriguing message about what we inherit, what we’re bound to through our families. But without the heft of sincere horror behind it, Relic falls short of its potential and we’re left wondering how terrifying this message actually is.

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Relic Is a Wrenching, Frustrating Horror Story of Dementia