Relic, the debut feature of director Natalie Erika James, is a low-key, high-gloss Australian drama/horror film. It should not be confused with The Relic, a fun, dumb 1997 creature feature. It should also not be confused with either Hereditary or It Comes At Night, two films it clearly owes a debt to. Like the former, it’s a slow-moving examination of hereditary mental illness through the lens of horror cinema. Like the latter, it’s set almost entirely in one location and isn’t nearly as scary as its trailers make it out to be. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all bad.
The story of Relic revolves around three generations of women: grandmother Edna (Robyn Nevin), mother Kay (Emily Mortimer), and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote). When Edna goes missing, Kay and Sam head to Edna’s home to look for her. Edna mysteriously reappears shortly afterward, in good health but sporting an ominous black bruise on her chest. She is also clearly suffering from dementia, and as the days go on her condition seems to worsen while inexplicable and terrifying things happen around the house.
There isn’t much real horror happening in this ostensible horror film, however. It really comes off much more as a dark family drama with supernatural elements attached to it. In fact, by about the 45 minute mark, I was desperate for a cheap jump scare just so that something — anything — would finally happen. The film doesn’t really fulfill the horror part of itself until the last 20 minutes or so, and at that point it does become genuinely frightening in its own unique way. But until then, it’s content just to lay down some ominous atmosphere.
That atmosphere is pretty nice in its own right, however. The film looks gorgeous, whether the camera is looking at the cramped and chaotic contents of a walk-in closet or slowly sweeping through a fog-laden forest during Kay and Sam’s search for Edna. The camera has a languid, deliberate flow that draws the viewer in easily, even if there’s very little actually happening on screen. It’s underscored by light, ambient drones that are just loud enough to be heard. It raises the reality by just the slightest amount, adding an intangible level of tension that’s felt on a subconscious level.
But the film is almost all atmosphere until the climax, and even as gorgeous as it is, it can’t always elevate the bare-bones narrative. The plot is thin, with a short but very conscious story arc. Similarly, dialogue tends to be minimal but perfectly organic. It really feels like we’re watching three real people and not fictional characters here. The film is often too grounded for its own good, except for the final act when James and co-writer Christian White turn up the supernatural terror, like flipping a genre switch.
Even those aspects of the film are exceedingly down-to-earth, though. The most heart-pounding scenes in the film involve a character who becomes lost inside the house after entering a closet and finding themselves trapped in a labyrinth of rooms covered in black mold where physics and logic mean nothing. It’s effective, and the actor’s panic is infectiously genuine.
Those scenes are part of an extended metaphor about mental illness, and the film’s thesis revolves around painting Edna’s dementia in an otherworldly hue. As someone who lost both their mother and grandmother to Alzheimer’s, I will say that the depiction of Edna’s behavior is a bit too accurate for comfort, but James always portrays it in a compassionate way. It’s not just a cheap device to hang the film on. Becoming lost in a house you thought you knew is a very on-the-nose (if a bit too much so) metaphor for the confusion and lack of history that dementia and Alzheimer’s brings.
James and White become a bit too self-indulgent in this comparison, though, especially during the film’s final scenes. While the first hour of the film is heavy, it isn’t blunt. The final act becomes a kind of hammer with which the filmmaker’s swing at the audience, just in case they haven’t gotten the point by then. It’s understandable; there are too many people who literally need a film’s message spelled out for them in a very supertextual way. But it also feels like they’re trying just a bit too hard to make their point.
Despite the film lacking in genuine scares for the most part, it doesn’t lack for drama thanks to the remarkable performances of all three leads. Robyn Nevin does a fantastic job with making Edna’s condition sympathetic but also terrifying, both because of Edna’s violent mood swings and through showing how easily dementia can alter the people we love. Emily Mortimer has the most dynamic character arc of the three, coming off initially as slightly cold to her mother’s condition and coming to realize what she has to do to both honor her mother and confront a family history of mental illness. Bella Heathcote perhaps has the shallowest of the three characters, but she does quite a bit with Sam, making her instantly appealing without sacrificing the organic energy required to make her work with her co-stars. All three women give low-key but highly-committed performances that just about make the movie worth watching all on their own.
What ultimately undoes the film, however, is the fact that at 89 minutes (which includes at least 5 minutes of credits), it feels way, way, way too long. There are large stretches of the film where little happens and scenes seem unnecessarily stretched out. And since there isn’t much happening over the course of the film, a lot of it comes off as padding. Very pretty, hypnotic padding, but padding all the same. This is James’ first feature-length film, as she’d previously directed several short films. As it turns out, Relic could have probably been much more effective as a 25-minute short film. If anything else, it would have greatly increased the horror-to-drama ratio, energizing the narrative and its grip on the audience.
However, what we have here is still a fascinating if sometimes frustrating examination of how something like dementia can make life seem like a horror film, how it can rob us of loved ones and of the reality we thought we knew. A tighter narrative and a little more actual horror probably would have fulfilled more of the film’s potential, but Natalie Erika James has a keen eye and firm grasp as a director. Even if it isn’t as scary as it could have — nay, should have — been, the compelling performances of its lead actors are worth the time. It’s equally fascinating in both what it does and doesn’t do.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
Relic can be streamed through Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.