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On VOD: RELIC (2020)

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RELIC
(US/Australia - 2020)

Directed by Natalie Erika James. Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White. Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, Jeremy Stanford. (R, 90 mins)

It's easy to take a cursory glance at the poster for RELIC and assume it's a HEREDITARY knockoff. Indeed, it does belong in the same sort of "familial slow burn horror" subgenre, along with something like THE BABADOOK. But RELIC has more similarities to the minor cult film THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN, which used demonic possession as a metaphor for dementia with its aging title character. DEBORAH LOGAN had some interesting ideas and a couple of genuinely scary moments in its early-going, but once the focus shifted to the usual rote possession histrionics, it lost the thread and completely fell apart. RELIC manages its metaphorical implications with much more assurance, so much so that after all hell breaks loose in a third act that's unrelenting in intensity with its increasing sense of anxiety and claustrophobia, it ends with unexpected poignancy in a haunting final shot. It's a remarkably confident feature debut for US-born, Australia-based director/co-writer Natalie Erika James, who found some serious support for the project with backing from AGBO, the production company of the Marvel sibling team of Joe & Anthony Russo, along with Jake Gyllenhaal, who's credited as one of the producers.






Kay (Emily Mortimer) arrives from Melbourne with her university dropout daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) at the suburban home of her elderly mother Edna (Australian theater legend Robyn Nevin, probably best known to American audiences as Councillor Dillard in the MATRIX sequels), whose neighbors haven't seen her in several days. Widowed Edna is in her 80s and lives alone, and busy Kay hasn't spoken to her on the phone in several weeks. Kay and Sam arrive and immediately see things don't look right around the house. They're fully expecting to find her dead, bracing themselves as they check each room, but she's nowhere in the house. The house shows signs of disarray: fruit has rotted, Edna is putting food in a dish for a dog that died some time ago, a chair is facing the wrong way, and there are hastily-installed makeshift locks on all the doors. But she seems to be managing to a certain extent, even having the cognizance to leave Post-It notes with simple reminders like "Take pills." There appears to be some degree of hoarding, there's a concerning amount of black mold as a result of a flooding a year earlier when Edna left the bath water running, and there's an occasional, unexplained pounding in the walls. Sam puts on her grandmother's sweater and finds a scribbled note in the pocket reading "Don't follow it." After three days, Kay and Sam awake to the sound of a whistling tea kettle, and Edna is in the kitchen, showing some minor bruising on her chest and her legs and feet dirty, as if she's been outside the whole time. She insists nothing is wrong, but her mood is erratic, she resents Kay butting into her business, and she says she installed extra locks because "people have been in the house." She has moments where she's her old self and she's crystal clear, smiling and dancing with Sam, but that changes out of nowhere with rapidly increasing frequency, whether it's a cruel remark about Kay's divorce or when she sees Sam wearing a ring she'd given her a day earlier, but now angrily accuses her of stealing it and violently yanks it from her finger.


Anyone who's watched the decline of an aging loved one due to dementia will know first-hand the tragic horror of RELIC all too well, and James and co-writer Christian White nail the alternating feelings of anger, sadness, helplessness, and guilt that gradually begin to overwhelm Kay. The third act takes an unexpected turn that can't really be too extensively discussed without spoilers--the house becomes a tangible symbol of Edna's dementia, intent on keeping Kay and Sam from leaving--and it's something that could've easily been disastrous if not handled the right way. James does maybe pound the metaphor into your head one or two times more than is necessary to get the point, but her handling of the finale, the discovery of one final and heartbreaking Post-It note, the last moment of clarity when the inevitable is accepted, and what Sam sees in that moment, is an emotional wrecking ball and devastatingly real to anyone who knows that pain. When you think about the symbolism when the movie's over, you realize RELIC shouldn't work as well as it does, but it speaks to James' discipline and control--and the excellent work of the three stars--that it stays focused and doesn't fly off the rails. There's a mounting sense of dread throughout, with a subtle, omnipresent rumble in the sound design, and on a few fleeting occasions, you catch a quick glimpse of something, a dark figure deep in the background, lingering at the very edge of the frame. There is something in the house, and James wisely avoids the tired genre tropes, as when Edna insists there's something under her bed and tells a dismissive, annoyed Kay to look. She does and what's there is presented in a far more unsettling fashion than any jump scare.


Bella Heathcote, director/co-writer Natalie Erika James,
Robyn Nevin and Emily Mortimer at Sundance in January 2020


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