Tuesday, November 17, 2020

RELIC (2020) Blu-ray Review

Relic (2020) d. Natalie Erika James (Australia/USA) (89 min)

When Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives word that her aging mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has not been seen for several days, she reluctantly extracts herself from her manic work-obsessed lifestyle and heads out to the countryside with recently dropped out of college daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to investigate. Upon arrival, they find a few things amiss (Post-it notes adorning the walls, chairs facing windows, food bowls set out for pets long gone) and no sign of Edna… at first. Our missing matriarch magically reappears one morning, behaving as though nothing has happened and dismissing her absence (and slight bruising on her chest) as nothing of consequence. Despite their casual estrangement, both Kay and Sam recognize that something is different and, as the days pass, they are witness to numerous troubling episodes that beg the question: are these are simply classic symptoms of dementia or is there something more sinister and supernatural at work?

Director James’ debut feature masterfully weaves myriad haunted house tropes into a thoughtful and devastating examination of Alzheimer’s, a journey that dances and sways into vivid metaphor such that by the final act, the viewer knows not what is “real” and what is merely illusion/delusion. More importantly, however, this dream state seems absolutely appropriate to the circumstances and the topic at hand, where we are as confused and disoriented as the characters themselves. It’s a brave and disturbing tack, one that reaps estimable dramatic rewards even as it raises neck and arm hairs.

The script by James and co-writer Christian White is deceptively spare, with subtle clues about the history of these three generations of women dropped for the observant viewer to ponder, speaking volumes with a single throwaway line or a sigh-filled gaze upon a family portrait. This is not a close family – Kay remarks to the police that she has not spoken to her mother in weeks (with a belated flood of internal shame washing over Mortimer’s features when the officer glances up from his report) – but there is no denying that they remain connected with deep emotional ties.

The social commentary about how the elderly can slowly lose their faculties, their memories, and eventually their identities is not necessarily subtle, yet James cultivates such a thick atmosphere of dread and mystery that we are transported along with Kay and Sam into Edna’s shifting, slippery reality. We feel the geography of a once-familiar home transforming into a moldering nightmare abode, where walls literally close in and hallways lead to doors that lead to identical hallways. Huge kudos are due to production designer Steven Jones-Evans, as well as cinematographer Charlie Saroff and sound designer Robert Mackenzie, expertly transforming the banal interiors of the country cottage to a sprawling insane funhouse that plays by its own rules.

The three lead performances are all exceptionally nuanced, with an array of showcase moments scattered liberally throughout. Nevin, in particular, is a wonder, flickering from confused helplessness to blistering violence in an instant.

Like fellow Aussie Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Relic approaches well-trodden material with a fresh perspective and, with the help of a deeply skilled and empathetic cast, elevates it to a work of art that resonates on both an emotional and intellectual level. Powerful and melancholy, haunting and heartbreaking, terrifying and tender, James has announced herself as a bold new face on the horror landscape and I eagerly await her next move.

Relic is available now on Blu-ray from IFC Midnight and Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:



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