Movie Review: Amulet (2020)

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So notorious for taking notes during film screenings that a man in my life jokingly dubbed me a court reporter, by the time a movie ends, I'm usually left with several pages of notes to keep me company as I write. Mostly done involuntarily, from memorable lines of dialogue I've jotted down to random observations or rudimentary drawings of shot composition, while sometimes I can't make sense of everything I've captured on paper in the dark – and often only 5 to 10% of my work winds up in the finished review – it's an intriguing look at my unfiltered reaction to a film.

With this in mind, it came as a total surprise to find that when I hit stop on “Amulet,” I was faced not with four pages of thoughts but four terse sentences, all circling back to one common theme, namely just how much I loathed this movie.

The type of ambitious art film I saw far too often in film school which aimed to distill highly complicated philosophical ideas about sex, gender, power, violence, war, and politics down to their essence and filter them through the lens of abstract horror, talented actress turned writer-director Romola Garai's feature filmmaking debut is as subtle as a staple gun to the forehead.

A true disappointment considering how much I respect Garai as one of her generation's greatest actresses (her “Emma” is a treasure), although it's technically well made with impressive old-school visual effects as her interrogation of gender roles masquerades as a play on “Exorcist” like horror, it's an altogether uninvolving slog of a movie.

In the film, Alec Secareanu stars as Tomaz, a veteran of an unnamed foreign war who now finds himself haunted by what he's done and homeless on the streets of London. Taken under the wing of Imelda Staunton's nun Sister Claire, Tomaz is given a place to live in an eerie, falling-down home inhabited by a sheltered young woman and her bedridden, violently demanding, dying mother, in exchange for him helping out around the house with badly needed repairs.

Positioning Tomaz as a male savior while simultaneously dismantling this role in flashbacks, Garai telegraphs exactly what's going to happen in her film from start to finish. Zooming in on certain props and lingering a precious few seconds too long on the film's talented ensemble cast (including Carla Juri and Angeliki Papoulia) as they deliver lines laced with double-meaning, nothing about “Amulet” comes as a surprise. And this is even the case when Garai takes her thesis about sex and gender to ludicrously over-the-top extremes in a graphic sex-as-horror payoff during the film's – pun intended, I'm sure – climax.

Adding salt to the wound that is the film itself, the action is punctuated by a gratingly insistent score from Sarah Angliss filled with xylophones, bells, and tribal singing so annoying that it was actually the first note I made during the very first ten minutes of “Amulet.” Although I admire Garai's intent to query gender roles and raise questions about sex and violence – all while hiring a 70% female crew where every head of a department (save for editing) was a woman – there is absolutely nothing in this film to recommend it.

So painfully protracted that even I, the opposite of a horror buff, knew how things would eventually play out, after “Relic,” “Amulet” is the second independent work of horror made by a woman to be released in the summer of 2020 that was inspired by Jennifer Kent's brilliant 2014 grief-as-horror treatise “The Babadook.” A cool source of female-directed inspiration to other female filmmakers, although I do urge you to check out “Relic” from Natalie Erika James, when it comes to “Amulet,” trust the fourth and final sentence I wrote down when I watched it, which summed up the film in one word: no.

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