Relic: Disorientation Has Never Been So Scary
Watching an older relative lose themselves is a singular experience. It’s a terrifying glimpse into the future; a melancholy loss of the past. It can cause disgust, followed by the guilt that comes with revulsion toward loved ones. But more than anything it’s unsettling, like the ground shifting slightly beneath your feet, it unmoors you from reality, the anchor of time and memory lifted. Relic succeeds by twisting this experience through the kaleidoscope of a horror film, effectively recreating these feelings in a gripping descent into the unfamiliar.
When Kay (Emily Mortimer) returns to her mother’s house, accompanied by her daughter Sam after the older woman goes missing, she doesn’t expect the real horrors to come after her mother wanders back into the house as if nothing was amiss. But like the experience of watching the clouds of a degenerative disease slowly overtake a loved one, Relic’s scares are slow until suddenly they’re not. It’s confusing and paranoia-inducing one minute, with moments that instill lingering doubt even when they have rational explanations, and the next minute completely disorienting.
The last 40 minutes of Relic are as good as anything on the big screen this year. They will leave you antsy but intrigued, grossed out but engrossed, terrified but glued to the screen. Slow camera movements turn jerky and dim lighting fades even darker. Kay struggles to find both her mother, Edna, and her daughter, and the audience is abandoned, forced to flounder in search of anything recognizable to anchor us during the maelstrom. It culminates in an ending so moving yet so unexpected, it would be a shame to spoil it here.
Natalie Erika James should be one of the great directorial discoveries of 2020. James easily balances unsettling horror with the subtle generational rifts between mother, daughter, and grandmother. Mortimer carries the perfect combination of weariness, insecurity, and affection, but Bella Heathcote is a revelation as the youngest generation of woman, peeling back layers with her performance far beyond what could have been expected.
How do we look the horrors of an unidentifiable loved one in the face? How do we say “I love you” when we can no longer say “I know you”? Relic forces us to watch as it scratches and claws for an answer.