'Relic': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Home is where the hurt is.

Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin and Bella Heathcote play three generations of women whose family home is ruled by a sinister presence in Natalie Erika James' unsettling debut.

A slow-burn haunted house movie becomes a disturbingly effective allegory for the ravages of dementia, which spreads like insidious rot from the afflicted into the family members witnessing her deterioration in Relic. Natalie Erika James' assured first feature demonstrates bracing command of atmospherics, from its tenebrous visuals and labyrinthine production design to its nerve-jangling use of music and a thick soundscape stew of bumps, creaks, thuds and groans. Driven by compelling performances from Emily Mortimer, Bella Heathcote and Australian stage veteran Robyn Nevin that balance love with the relentless onset of fear, the film should find a responsive audience among fans of elevated horror.

Japanese Australian director James shows real skill at putting an original stamp on the genre staple of the domestic gothic, with an emphasis on practical effects over digital trickery in a female-driven story of familial bonds put through the wringer. All of this will likely draw comparison to Jennifer Kent's The Babadook. That fellow Sundance discovery revved up into full-tilt scares, whereas Relic is more about sustained dread and shivers that inch under the skin with their grounding in a reality relatable to anyone who has experienced the heartbreaking mental decline of an aged loved one.

The presence among producers of Jake Gyllenhaal and the Russo brothers also should help put the filmmaker on the map, stoking expectations for her future projects.

Rarely has the pulsing rainbow glow of Christmas tree lights in a dark house seemed so sinister as in the prologue here, those colors bouncing off an urn on the mantel that signals the presence of death from the start. Upstairs in the stately old home in a wooded area of regional Victoria, octogenarian Edna (Nevin) sits in a trance-like state in an overflowing bathtub, before next being seen naked downstairs, as if drawn by voices.

Arriving from Melbourne on a gloomy, rainy night, her daughter Kay (Mortimer, doing a convincing, understated Australian accent) mentions that incident in her police report after Edna goes missing, along with the elderly woman's increasing lapses in memory. Kay's college-age daughter Sam (Heathcote) stays behind at the house, where her mother's old bedroom has become a hoarder's den, stuffed with remnants of family history. A police search through the surrounding pine forest turns up no trace of Edna, and the evasive answers of a neighbor kid with Down syndrome (Chris Bunton) suggest that his once affectionate friendship with Edna has deteriorated for reasons later made clear in a chilling revelation. Meanwhile, Post-it notes in Edna's handwriting turn up all over the house with odd instructions, like, "Don't follow it."

Edna shows up again as suddenly as she disappeared, but is vague or defensive when questioned about where she's been. A doctor reveals no major cognitive damage or physical issues beyond a large black bruise on her chest, for which she has no explanation. But the medic insists that Edna not be left alone in the house for a few days.

James and co-writer Christian White plant subtle hints of strain in Kay's relationship with her mother, who gives the impression of a once proud and still quite physically and emotionally formidable woman in Nevin's layered performance, while Sam clearly feels the purer, less burdened fondness of a granddaughter. The various gradations of intergenerational bonds among the three women are astutely observed both in the writing and in the nuanced work of the three leads.

Kay's return to the house brings queasy nightmares about a dilapidated cottage on the grounds. It's here that the first signs of vintage David Cronenberg-style body horror are stirred into the mix, in addition to James drawing from the Japanese side of her cultural background with ugly evidence of mold, damp and decomposition that seem to spread through the walls and floors like disease, evoking familiar J-horror tropes. The film was inspired by the director's experience with a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer's, and that personal investment adds a poignant dimension, even when things turn completely gruesome.

It emerges that the cottage still stood on the estate when the family inherited it from a supposedly unhinged great-grandfather and has long since been demolished, though a stained-glass window was saved and built into the main house's front door, another portent of a malevolent past clawing at the present.

While Edna at times is scared and vulnerable, saying that the house has seemed unfamiliar and somehow larger since her husband's death — feelings true to the experience of many widows — her moods become more erratic, turning suddenly hostile or even violent without warning. The house, too, takes on a more malignant life of its own as Edna steadily becomes a stranger to Kay and Sam.

In plot terms, Relic is probably a little thin on incident to satisfy the hard-core horror contingent, but the control with which James teases out lurking physical menace, mounting claustrophobia and growing psychological unease in her characters is impressive indeed.

The director has superb backup from her crafts team, especially DP Charlie Sarroff, whose camera stalks the shadowy corridors, corners, closets and stairs of the big old house like a prowling beast; and production designer Steven Jones-Evans, who builds secret rooms and passages within the walls that become a terrifying maze, echoing the disorienting chambers of an unraveling mind. Composer Brian Reitzell and sound designer Robert Mackenzie also make invaluable contributions, and there's brilliantly creepy prosthetics work in the latter half as family drama cedes the way with grim finality to horror.

Relic takes its time, but exerts an ever-tightening hold on the imagination.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: Carver Films, Nine Stories

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Chris Bunton, Jeremy Stanford, Steve Rodgers
Director: Natalie Erika James
Screenwriters: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Producers: Anna McLeish, Sarah Shaw, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker
Executive producers: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, Mika Larocca, Todd Makurath, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Hu Junyi
Director of photography: Charlie Sarroff
Production designer: Steven Jones-Evans
Costume designer: Louise McCarthy
Music: Brian Reitzell
Editors: Denise Haratzis, Sean Lahiff
Sound designer: Robert Mackenzie
Casting: Avy Kaufman, Allison Meadows
Sales: Endeavor Content

106 minutes