I’m just overjoyed that we’re getting new films. The fact that a lot of them are incredible is just helping. Natalie Erika James’s film Relic is one of these special films.
The film revolves around Edna (Robyn Nevin), her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), and her granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). Edna goes missing in the woods, an older woman in the beginning stages of dementia, and her family comes to help the town look for her. The woman shows back up, unwilling to discuss where she’s been but panicking about the state of her home. See, something or someone has been attempting to break in and there’s weird noises in the walls of the house. That’s it, that’s the plot.
James isn’t interested in easy scares or making the audience jump. Instead she focuses on the way dementia is meant to feel, the ways your mind ekes away and begins to struggle for focus and grounding. Edna is an absolute master at portraying someone suffering this affliction. This specific issue is something that I’ve got familiarity with, having watched multiple family members go through it and degrade slowly over the years.
This is almost more of a character drama than it is a horror film, which is part of the modern “elevated horror” push that’s come in the last decade or so in an attempt to convince those uncomfortable with the genre to accept it as a legitimate art form. In that lies performance over plot, and this is definitely a film without a plot. That’s not to its detriment, but rather a strength that it uses to allow the characters to work within the space of the film and create an atmosphere of dread and make the theme of dementia an issue we have to deal with. Like Hereditary, James’s film is more concerned with the genetic issue than it is the overall plot. Running with this, a script of this caliber takes the time to slowly build up to the physical manifestation of what it’s dealing with. Demons and ghouls don’t factor into these proceedings, instead spending time to help us lose ourselves in a narrative focused on the labyrinth of something so simple as a home.
It helps to have a film scored by someone like Brian Reitzell, a composer I know from the television show “Hannibal.” The man’s ability to create an atmosphere out of things like dripping, tapping, and banging is a perfect match to what Relic is trying to say. You are audibly forced to deal with Edna’s issues like her family, uncomfortable and jumping at things hidden in the sound design. You’re never certain if you’re dealing with diagetic sound (sound from within the world of the film) or non-diagetic sound (sound from the score and outside forces). This creates a confusion and an unsettling feeling that runs deep within Sam and Kay, forcing them to worry and dragging you along with them. You’re never certain if you’re hearing something that comes from the house or something that comes from Reitzell, but it blends into a perfect bit of sound design.
In a world that is seeing very few films we’re lucky to have something like this. I don’t know when we’ll start seeing new blockbusters, but little independent works like Relic should be treasured and I’m excited that the current climate is at least going to appeal to those that are desperate for a new film to watch. Relic is a near-perfect horror film, one that asks us to talk about the genetics of family and where we’re going while we deal with where we’re at. It’s a great little film, and while it’s only available for rent and purchase I urge you to give it a shot. I thought it was worth my time and I definitely think it’s worth yours.