Australian horror continues to dominate with Relic, a movie that will make every viewer want to appreciate their family a bit more. Disguised as a ghostly tale, the film is a grim examination of what it is like to watch someone you love deteriorate after their mind has seemingly been taken over by an invisible enemy. Relic is a very heavy depiction of abandonment, familial duties, and generational guilt that will sit with you afterward for quite some time.
Similar to The Babadook and Hereditary, Relic doesn’t go for cheap scares that will make you jump out of your seat. Instead, we get a slow burn that spends time with its characters trying to navigate and understand what is after them. Directed and co-written by Natalie Erika James, the film stars Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, and Bella Heathcote. Relic follows Edna (Nevin), an elderly woman who returns home after going missing for a few days to find her daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) waiting there to help her. After spending time pondering on the presence of something supernatural, Kay and Sam find evidence around the house that suggests Edna is rotting away mentally.
James is on record admitting she endured this with her own grandmother in pursuit of the career she has now. She had pondered for a long time whether or not to visit her grandmother. Finally, James did venture out to see her while she suffered from Alzheimer’s only to find that her grandmother didn’t recognize her anymore. Relic is James’ directional debut and she absolutely nails it. Many would argue that horror is at its best when there are no ghosts or demons and the terror comes from unfortunate life realities. The tension is always present, the film is well-paced and James understands the importance of creating an atmosphere.
Due to her personal experiences, James took her sad reality and turned it into a film that portrays dementia as a demonic force that ruins families. Her direction helps bring to life the visual representation of what it feels like to lose someone to dementia. The subject matter is uncomfortable and will undoubtedly be familiar territory for many viewers like it was for me. Writing Relic must have been a cathartic experience for James because the film’s final moments are horrifying and sad all at once. This was a special watch for me because I got to experience how dementia can slowly take a loved one from you early last year with my grandmother. When witnessing the slow decline of a loved one you can find yourself frustrated, sad and Relic effectively brings out all of those emotions.
James co-wrote the script alongside Christian White. Relic centers on three generations of women and it’s implied that dementia has long been an issue for this family. Throughout the film, Kay is haunted by nightmares of her great grandfather being left alone and rotting away from the same issue that is eating away at her mother now. It’s clear that this disease has been plaguing this family for many years and Edna is the latest victim. James and White have a script that addresses a plethora of tough decisions many family members juggle when dealing with this situation. Kay spends the film wondering if her mother should be put in a home, and Sam just wants to take Edna back home with them so they can be together. Kay is written to be very distant from her mom and she views her as a distraction or inconvenience to her life. There’s almost a sense of longing in her eyes throughout the movie as if she wants to see her mother, but she doesn’t recognize her anymore and wants nothing to do with her.
Each leading woman is developed enough to see the situation from their perspective and we learn what we need to know about their relationships with Edna to sympathize with them as the movie takes you on its slow-burn of a journey. Kay’s response to her mother’s declining health is very familiar to me because I felt the same way about my grandmother. Prior to her decline, I’d wake up at night and find her leaving the water running throughout the house and performing other acts that just weren’t like her. I believed she had already departed because I didn’t recognize her and I couldn’t bring myself to be around her sometimes. This wasn’t my grandmother, this was someone else entirely but I learned to accept her as she was so that I could help take care of her. One major aspect of life this script highlights is the inevitable role switches between parents and children. Parents take care of their children and the children should return to take care of their parents in the future if necessary.
The actresses involved deliver some memorable performances, but of course, Nevin steals the show with her gut-wrenching portrayal of Edna. Between the vacant expressions, sudden outbursts, and emotional mood swings, she makes Edna very sympathetic and sometimes hard to watch as her mind is stolen by the invisible enemy. Nevin’s delivery is surely going to make you uneasy, sad, confused, and want to show compassion all at once. Spoilers ahead for those wanting to watch the film, Edna’s dementia completely takes over at the end of Relic. James’ methodical direction brings us to a high-tension, unsettling, but an emotional conclusion. The presence of mold in the house begins to make all three ladies hallucinate. After running from an almost unrecognizable Edna, Kay and Sam decide to abandon her until Kay remembers her grandfather one last time. What happens afterward is one of the best scenes in a film this year. Kay accepts what’s left of her mother and the message of the film is brought home.
James’ directional debut is an emotional rollercoaster with a lot to say about mental illness, generational guilt, and acceptance. Relic is a gripping story that will require multiple viewings in order to catch all of the hidden meanings because there is very little spoonfeeding to the audience. James and White wrote a screenplay that will remind viewers to appreciate their loved ones and to not abandon them when they are at their weakest. Also, it features some superb cinematography from Charlie Sarrof built up by a chilling score from Brian Reitzell.
Despite a few minor issues like lighting and an ending that could have been a bit better in terms of pacing and the end result. This film is surprisingly very heartfelt and it’s great to have a horror film that will remind me of my grandmother even if the subject matter is heavy because the ending is a reminder to me that I didn’t fail her. Relic is a beautiful allegory for what it means to live with dementia.