By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Robyn Nevin
Directed by Natalie Erika James
Written by Natalie Erika James and Christian White
IFC Midnight may have another THE BABADOOK on its hands with RELIC, a similarly female-led Australian production that finds resonant metaphorical ways to merge deeply unsettling horror with relatable psychological traumas. Quiet and measured in the way it generates fear, the movie is built on a base of acutely observed character that gives the scary stuff impact and meaning.
Opening in select drive-ins today and expanding to more theaters and VOD next Friday (go here to order tickets), RELIC opens within a suburban house late at night. It’s eerily lit only by Christmas lights as a bathtub overflows to the lower floor–familiar sights for this genre, yet they work, due in no small part to the unnerving audioscape crafted by sound designer Robert Mackenzie and composer Brian Reitzell (HANNIBAL, AMERICAN GODS). Elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin) stands transfixed in the middle of this tableau, and some time later, her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) come to check on her, since no one has seen or heard from Edna in a while. Kay and Sam search the empty, cluttered house to no avail, then join others looking for Edna in a rainy forest, and from these opening scenes, director Natalie Erika James, working from a script she wrote with Christian White, elicits a sense of being transported to a slightly off-kilter variation of our reality. And that’s before the strange noises behind the wall and other hints that something unnatural is going on.
It’s not giving much away and necessary for further discussion to say that Edna reappears a little past the film’s 20-minute mark and three days after Kay and Sam arrived. She’s in no mood to answer questions about where she’s been and doesn’t seem to know anyway, though a large bruise on her chest suggests it wasn’t somewhere healthy. She begins acting addled, erratic and hostile, and Kay soon feels she wants to put Edna in a nursing home, while Sam–too young to feel the same sense of responsibility–initially takes her grandmother’s side. For a good deal of its running time, RELIC could be a drama about dealing with an elderly relative who’s mentally wasting away and suffering from dementia, with James and her actresses developing a fully felt dynamic between the three generations. Issues of parental and familial duty and obligation become key to the story and its emotional grip on the viewer, and James stages scenes that are distressing in ways that have nothing to do with the supernatural, as when Kay visits a care facility that looks like the last place in the world you’d want to send a loved one.
And yet the supernatural is present, and slowly creeps into the story until it begins to overwhelm the three women and the audience. Demonstrating remarkable control over the material for a feature first-timer, James eases us into the unearthly areas so gradually and inexorably that it feels like it happens without us noticing. She has also come up with imaginative ways to tie the emotional and paranormal themes together; in the last half hour, as the movie goes full-on nightmare, James, cinematographer Charlie Sarroff and production designer Steven Jones-Evans play with the geography of the house in ways mirroring Edna’s mental confusion and collapse. Nevin fully rises to the challenge of a role that could have been a collection of crazy-old-lady tics, and she and James approach her with a compassion that makes her descent a tragedy. Mortimer and Heathcote respond and react to Edna and each other in ways that suggest all kinds of family backstory, with just the right amount of exposition to clarify their relationships.
Indeed, there’s not a wasted scene or character in RELIC; the ensemble also includes Chris Bunton as Jamie, a mentally challenged 18-year-old who lives next door and turns out to have a key part in Edna’s recent history. This well-timed revelation is part of a finely woven dramatic texture, rich with telling detail (like the Post-It notes Edna leaves for herself), that’s gradual in its pacing yet consistently engrossing, leading to a final act that combines horror and heartbreak, as when one of Kay’s attempts to help Edna only hastens her disintegration. It all culminates in a final scene that may seem ambiguous at first glance, yet perfectly exemplifies and wraps up RELIC’s thematic points.