The horror genre has, in some deserved cases, earned a stigma of delivering audiences nothing more than broad and reductive characters and storylines to appeal to the lowest common denominator of audiences. As with all generalizations, there are a number of outliers, as the world of horror has often found ways to offer commentary not only on cultural struggles but also emotional introspection. Thanks to films like The Babadook, Get Out, and Hereditary in recent years, audiences have been given more existential and challenging fare and have helped expand the landscape of the genre. Relic is the latest film to take horrifying, real-world emotional struggles and explore them in visceral ways, resulting in an unsettling allegory for coping with the acceptance of no longer recognizing the people you once held closest to you.
In response to neighbors not having seen her elderly mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) in a few days, Kay (Emily Mortimer) heads out to her mother's remote home with her own daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) in tow. As the pair tidy up Edna's home while waiting for her to reappear, it becomes evident that Edna's dementia is only getting worse, as confirmed by her surprise reappearance with no recollection of where she had been. The more time Kay and Sam spend watching the family's matriarch lose touch with reality, the more they question whether it's due to her mental deterioration or evidence of a real-world threat, which also forces them to make drastic decisions about coping with the situation.
The opening scene of the film establishes that a malevolence will fester throughout the narrative, keeping the audience on edge as we witness a number of mundane encounters. While all of the women in the film seem to have a relatively healthy relationship with one another, it only takes a specific trigger to ignite arguments about incidents everyone is doing their best to ignore. The theme of ignoring underlying rot is explored in both figurative and literal ways, whether it be Kay and Sam arguing about Sam's educational future or uncovering mold in various corners of Edna's house. This theme is most evident with the discovery of an old shed on the sprawling property in which Kay's grandfather spent his final years, remaining just close enough to claim he was being watched after, but just far enough away to forget he existed.
These tragic struggles are what we have to face more often than we would like. Whether it be dementia, cancer, or another terminal illness, children are often faced with watching their parents decay on an unknown timeline. Kay ultimately wants what's best for her mother, but does that mean sending her to a retirement home where she will be someone else's problem, making her life more convenient or does that mean asking her mother to move in with her to spend her final days, months, or years in a loving home, despite its impact on Kay's normal life? We all know that our loved ones are living on borrowed time, no matter how much we want to think they'll be with us forever.
This isn't to say that Relic is only effective on this philosophical issue, as it offers a number of creepy images and startling noises to sporadically alleviate the building tension, though it's ultimately these misdirects that somewhat distract viewers from the core concept being explored. It's not until the film's final scenes that things become more evident that everything has been building towards being confronted by the thing you fear the most and whether you embrace this inevitability with loving arms, regardless of the pain it will cause, or if you run from it and try to ignore the reality that a similar fate awaits you.
It might seem reductive to compare Relic to films like Babadook, Get Out, and Hereditary based on their subject matter or tone, but another running theme between all of these films is they are the directorial debuts of their directors. Relic director Natalie Erika James proves with her film that, much like Jennifer Kent, Jordan Peele, and Ari Aster before her, that personal stories are the ones most worth telling, even if such a specific story might alienate viewers. From a narrative perspective, James' film (which she co-wrote with Christian White) doesn't dumb down the narrative to cater to the masses, as we're led down a cerebral path, even if some of the jump scares feel more like they were included to keep the audience's attention and the film could have been equally effective without them. Despite the chaos of the film mounting in the third act, James manages to keep the film quiet and intimate, with only a few edits required to be considered a straightforward interpersonal drama about three generations of women attempting to cope with their futures.
Relic deservedly earns a right to stand alongside the films it will undoubtedly be compared to, but with those comparisons being some of the best horror films of the past decade, there are worse comparisons to be made. The film helps remind audiences that, while some horror efforts hope to help you escape the horrors of everyday life, others are happy to remind you how inescapable those horrors truly are and that it's up to you to face those fears in any hope of moving forward. Relic will get under your skin in more ways than one and we can't wait to see what Natalie Erika James comes up with next.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Relic will be available on VOD on July 10th.
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