Religion has a complicated place in the realm of horror, as it is often incorporated into narratives to help drive a plot forward. In most cases, audiences see figures representing a religion attempting to be the salvation of victims, such as in The Exorcist, The Possession, or The Sentinal. Other films, such as The Wicker Man or The Sacrament, introduce audiences to organizations that feel more like cults than traditional organized religions, depicting the dangers of outlying beliefs. Saint Maud is an entirely horrifying experience whose merits rest solely on its incorporation of religion, yet it feels entirely original in its depictions of not just the actual practices and mythology of any established belief system, but rather the consequences faced by someone so desperate and lonely that their devotion to a higher power takes them on a harrowing and unsettling descent into darkness.
In her latest job as a personal nurse, Maud (Morfydd Clark) becomes the caretaker of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer whose cancer has seen her questioning her mortality. While Amanda might want to make the most of her days as she reconnects with old partners to drink and have romantic trysts, as she also confesses to Maud that the nurse's devout faith has seen her reevaluate her own beliefs. Despite Amanda's potential salvation, Maud goes to extreme lengths to feel witnessed and validated by God, even if it means committing sinful acts.
Most religious horror movies aren't known for their nuance, as they often just pit abject good vs. obvious evils. What makes Saint Maud far more fascinating is that, regardless of what her beliefs might be, audiences are taken on a journey that depicts the dangers of becoming so invested in hypothetical salvation that the protagonist becomes entirely detached from reality, to the point of endangering the people who surround them, all while writer/director Rose Glass shows the restraint to keep audiences guessing. These subtleties make it a difficult watch for anyone expecting to see Maud confronting angels or demons, as the film is a deliberately paced character study of what happens when infatuation can become misguided as opposed to coveting religious iconography. The film could just as easily depict a fanatic who becomes devoted to celebrity or piece of pop culture and embarks on a dangerous journey, but Glass manages to both tackle the broad topic of religion while also depicting the precise perspective of one character in all her troubles.
Clark fully embodies Maud in all her pain and all her glories, in all her triumphs and all her setbacks. A necessity in conveying Maud is that she ultimately comes from a place of good and an attempt to live a good life, displaying not only vulnerability but also an unassuming nature. Maud doesn't stand out from the crowd, yet she clearly connects with people as soon as she begins to engage with them. This isn't to say that Clark gives an entirely subdued execution of the character, as both her mania and her anguish allow her to give a tour-de-force performance, inspiring anger and empathy towards Maud. Ultimately, Maud's desires in the film are the same as anyone else, which is to live a life where she doesn't feel alone. It's this fierce determination to be accepted by unseen entities, at the cost of sacrificing real-world connections, that makes her story so tragic.
Glass and Clark are two sides of the same coin, for the highs and lows of Maud are mirrored in Glass' staging, script, and direction. While it could have been easy for the story to descend into the territory of being critical of a specific set of beliefs, Glass never deviates from the specificity of Maud's journey. Much like Clark's necessary restraint in her performance, Glass keeps the story focused on Maud with her direction, depicting mundane encounters and experiences from rudimentary perspectives, yet still finding ways to make everything feel slightly off. A number of sequences invert the camera to disorient audiences or embrace magical realism, forcing audiences to question the validity of everything we're seeing.
What truly makes Saint Maud so impressive, especially from a filmmaker's debut, is the commitment to denying audiences what could be perceived as "crowd-pleasing" moments in favor of adhering to the ambiguity of the story. It's not important how much of what Maud believes to be experiencing is a transcendental experience or merely her own imagination clouding her reality. The outright denial of moments that would clearly appeal to more casual audiences who are merely hoping to see Maud kick ass for the Lord will surely feel disappointed, while those who are willing to commit to the journey will be rewarded with Saint Maud's final moments.
Saint Maud is surely not an experience for everyone, not only due to its inaccessibility compared to similar fare, but also due to how it challenges the viewer with its concept and execution. Those audiences who are willing to suffer the path of Maud, however, will be given a disturbingly familiar account of unchecked obsessions, which will surely go down as one of the year's best.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Saint Maud hits select theaters on January 29th.