REVIEW: Relic [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 89 minutes
    Release Date: July 10th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Natalie Erika James
    Writer(s): Natalie Erika James & Christian White

Don’t follow it.

The horror trope is ubiquitous: “the call is coming from inside the house.” Whereas slashers use this now comical notion as a way to preempt the abrupt reveal that a solitary victim onscreen is about to be murdered by someone they didn’t know was standing right behind them, Relic director and co-writer Natalie Erika James (with Christian White) has a much scarier and tragically authentic way to utilize the trend. Because what is dementia but a disease that devours one’s sense of identity from the inside out? As people and places become less recognizable to a patient as they’re absorbed by the abject fear of complete isolation, they have nowhere to turn for help. Their mind is the enemy and there’s no way to stop it.

This truth means that Edna (Robyn Nevin) has already been lost before we even discover her physical absence. Her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) may not have known how bad things have gotten, but they knew enough not to be surprised. That the two live too far away to simply pop by and check on her whenever it’s convenient means that Edna’s final tether to reality was severed the moment her husband passed. Now there’s no one left to remind her on a regular basis that she exists. And those neighbors who did (Chris Bunton‘s Down Syndrome teen Jamie) no longer can once their ability to help becomes outweighed by the risk of endangering themselves in her company. Edna’s only witness now is herself.

Well, herself and her house. Just like her brain, however, the house also begins to lose its familiarity. Edna has to leave Post-it notes everywhere to remind her of things she used to know without thinking. Photographs become both a godsend to cherish on good days and a curse to forsake thanks to their unfamiliarity on bad ones. And the window upon her front door becomes a constant reminder of what’s yet in store—its stained glass less about the serene picture it presents and more about the suffering it has already experienced two generations ago. So rather than be the beacon that could bring Edna home when she loses her way, it serves as a harbinger for the darkness that approaches to consume her whole.

It’s this darkness that provides our antagonist rather than some embodiment of evil. It’s this atmosphere of confusion, neglect, and uncertainty looming large above anyone who finds him/herself inside Edna’s house while her grip upon the present slowly unravels. This is why the first portion of Relic unfolds as a straight drama (albeit with some attempts at alluding to scares courtesy of Kay and Sam’s frayed nerves) instead of as a haunting. Without Edna present to further fuel the darkness manifesting as black mold, there’s nothing onscreen that can hurt the other two besides their own fear. Only when she inexplicably returns to supply them the visible evidence of her deterioration do they understand the situation’s futility. Edna is in total control and yet she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

We can’t stop ourselves from investing as a result since we truly cannot begin imagining where things will go. To James’ credit, she never falls prey to a Hollywood desire of needing something tangible at which to point our anxiety. There are nightmares of sick bodies falling to the floor as ashen husks of their former selves, but there are no ghosts or ghouls arriving at the door to wreak havoc. Everything that occurs during the second half of the film is conversely orchestrated by the environment’s ever-shifting topography in concert with Edna’s constant state of distress. As she calls Kay and Sam by the wrong names only to brush off the error with ease, the terror of accepting that helplessness bleeds into the very walls around them.

The climax is therefore a tense and wild ride as these three women try to find each other in what’s become an impossibly enlarged floor plan due to the complexity of their emotions as recognition of their guilt renders impermanent that which should be permanent. The house becomes a physical projection of Edna’s labyrinthine mind—expanding and contracting to warp itself into something wholly new and forever in flux like the woman herself. That which used to ground her has now become elusive. Those who love her now are seen as strangers. And she too becomes a stranger to them. Fugue states, self-harm, and fits of rage ignite randomly until Kay and Sam are confronted with a choice most genre work refuses to present with sufficient nuance.

How they will answer hinges on who they are and how they’ve reacted thus far. Heathcote gives Sam a rebellious streak wherein her charity towards Edna always seems more about sticking it to her mother than legitimately caring about what her grandmother needs. Mortimer plays Kay with a palpable sense of frustration stemming from a desire for control that neither Edna nor Sam has ever allowed her to wield over them. So it’s no surprise that the knee-jerk response is to dismiss their matriarch as a monster once she begins her transformation into something none of them can recognize. “That’s not grandma anymore.” Edna has now become “other” and these women react to her as mankind has reacted to the “other” for centuries. They treat her as disposable.

There’s no response more heartbreaking. There’s no more damning proof of our selfishness as a species when it comes to elder care or our penchant to devalue their lives. And it doesn’t have to be intentional or malicious. The fact Kay hasn’t checked in on her mother in so long that neighbors who saw Edna a week ago are better gauges for a timeline of her disappearance doesn’t have to be read into further than the reality that we all have busy schedules. But that doesn’t lessen the anguish in realizing the importance your presence has on a loved one’s state of mind. If you weren’t there to help them recognize themself, how can you damn them for being unrecognizable to you? Appearances shouldn’t be able to deceive love.

[1] Robyn Nevin as “Edna,” Emily Mortimer as “Kay,” and Bella Heathcote as “Sam” in Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[2] Robyn Nevin as “Edna” in Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[3] Bella Heathcote as “Sam” in Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

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