Movie Review: Relic (2020)

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The decision to volunteer “x” number of hours at a location of our choosing first started out as just a mandatory part of my high school curriculum. Ignoring all of the trendy businesses that the more popular kids flocked to like birds of a feather, I opted to work at a local nursing home instead. Initially helping out during weekend bingo games and screenings of classic movies on VHS, almost as soon as I started, I was given a new task.

Told I was good at making people laugh and smile, I was instructed to visit what the home referred to as the “shut-ins,” namely, the harder cases including the shy or withdrawn individuals who seldom left their room or those who had relatives or family members who rarely stopped by. Nervously, I made the rounds, hitting it off with certain residents and discovering after a few attempts with others that some people really didn't want anything more than perhaps somebody to just watch “Wheel of Fortune” with from time to time.

The cases that broke my heart the most, though, were the ones who no longer had the mental stamina they'd previously exuded due to worsening dementia. Given a sheet with a brief one or two-sentence bio of each resident and/or their likes and dislikes as provided by their families, I'll never forget seeing one resident who'd been described as a former mathematics professor and leading figure in his field who was now suspicious anytime someone told him that it was time to leave his room for meals or recommended that he put on shoes.

A shocking revelation at fourteen, yet rather than let it deter me, I soon found myself maxing out my required volunteer hours and coming back again and again, mostly to stop and visit with one resident I was particularly close to as well as others, like this gentleman with whom I mostly sat and watched TV in silence.

And while this all took place roughly twenty-five years ago, I found myself flooded by these memories throughout the slow burn shocker “Relic,” which, although heavily influenced by Gothic and Asian psychological horror, doubles as a treatise on aging with dementia. A multi-generational Australian family saga anchored by three powerful women, the feature filmmaking debut from writer-director Natalie Erika James – who wrote the film alongside Christian White – centers on an Edna (Robyn Nevin), an elderly matriarch who suddenly vanishes without a trace.

Traveling to the family's increasingly decrepit country estate, which, in a film that's loaded with symbolism is degrading the exact same way that Edna's mental capacity seems to be, Edna's adult daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) arrives with her adult daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) in tow.

After reporting her mother missing to the local authorities, Kay is shocked when Edna returns – reappearing just as enigmatically out of the blue as she'd somehow left. Riddled with dementia, which becomes obvious when the women take inventory of the state of her home and see signs of a forgetful or overwhelmed mind everywhere, Edna is disinterested or evasive regarding all questions about what happened or where she's been.

Differing on what to do now that they're faced with the fact that she can't live alone, while Kay looks into senior care, the excited Sam begins toying with the idea of living with her grandmother so that she can look after her. However, both women are in for a rude wake-up call when Edna's aberrant behavior begins to escalate into violence. Soon, they begin to question just what it is that has taken over the family matriarch and whether that thing is dementia after all or perhaps something far more devious and evil.

An ambitious, largely successful work that features a dynamic turn by the always empathetic Emily Mortimer (who's long been one of my favorite actresses), “Relic” loses a bit of its novelty when, instead of ambiguity, it pays off far too literally with regard to its demonic symbolism in the film's shocking conclusion.

Still, overall, the film is reminiscent of another strong female written and directed work of Australian horror in the form of 2014's “The Babadook,” which used similarly supernatural, haunted elements to deal with questions of grief.

A somber family drama about aging and the way that parents and children's roles change over time before it eventually eases into genre territory, “Relic” might stand on its own as a feminist work of horror in that the three actresses at the heart of the film drive the narrative forward, but its themes are universally relatable.

Body horror that is as alarming as it is tragic, “Relic” calls up all sorts of memories, guilt, and fears in us concerning the seniors we've known over the years whom, as James notes in her director's statement, we've had to grieve for while still alive. An emotionally disturbing film that is bound to resonate with some viewers more than others, while on the one hand I was completely terrified and caught up in the proceedings, at the same time, I do have mixed feelings about its morality in turning a beloved relative into a vehicle of full-fledged horror.

Perhaps trying to temper that with a more sensitive yet deeply unsettling ending that I appreciate even though it didn't quite work for me, “Relic” is a thinking person's horror tale that will undoubtedly play very differently to each viewer given their experiences. It's a truism befitting of all art, of course. Yet in my case, this flawed yet undoubtedly mesmerizing, finely crafted horror tale from Oz immediately took me back to 1995 when I walked around a nursing home with a list, hoping to see some semblance of the people described on a sheet of paper in those before me just looking for someone to sit alongside them and watch TV.

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