There’s a rule in creative writing: a story shouldn’t start with a character waking up. Writer/director Romola Garai breaks it twice in Amulet and the film is better for it. Her confidence and strong social commentary in her feature-length directorial debut make Amulet a must watch movie.
As previously noted, Amulet opens with Tomas (Alec Secareanu) waking up in a cabin in the woods. He’s on what looks like an air mattress with an assault rifle leaning on the wall behind him. He’s a soldier in an unnamed war, stationed far from the action because his mother did some free dental work for his commanding officer. It’s peaceful until Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia) charges down the dirt road toward his cabin. He’s supposed to shoot her, but when she passes out, he carries her back to his cabin instead.
Tomas wakes again in London, sleeping feet away from other homeless people. His wrists are duct taped together, and he uses a knife to cut them free. He does day labor until a fire hospitalizes him. Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) offers him a place to stay with Magda (Carla Juri), who’s taking care of her mother (Anah Ruddin) as she dies. At first Tomas isn’t comfortable, saying, “I will not go where I’m not welcome,” but soon he’s convinced. He should see that when Magda says, “We don’t need your money” that they’ll be taking something else from him, but only the audience makes that connection.
Amulet is, as A.A. Dowd described The Lighthouse, horror “in the key of A24.” The first act is understated and atmospheric. Something strange is going on. Tomas discovered an amulet shaped like a woman with a sea-shell on her head in the soldier scenes, and that shell symbol is all over Magda’s house. Tomas, who’s working on a dissertation in philosophy, says, “In the old times it was painted on the side of houses as a ward against evil.” The most foreboding details come from Magda’s mother, who Garai hides from the audience until nearly halfway through the film. Instead, Garai shows the damage that Magda’s mother is doing to her as Mother wails, unseen, in the background.
Once it gets into the second and third acts, Amulet speeds up considerably. Without spoiling anything, it’s difficult to say more than this: Amulet is both terrifying and satisfying.
Thematically, it’s a film about forgiveness. Tomas tells Sister Claire that, “Before your God, the ancients didn’t believe you could forgive yourself. It wasn’t yours to give.” Who needs to be forgiven, or for what, is one of the film’s central mysteries. Amulet feels apropos to this moment because of how often celebrities have been apologizing for their past misdeeds the last five years or so. Whether it’s sexual misconduct or biggoted jokes, the celeb in question trots out the same non-apology about how long ago it was and how they’re a different person now. To have a film interrogate what it means to earn forgiveness is absolutely vital.
In addition to having a relevant social message, Amulet is also well-made. While Garai hasn’t directed a feature before, she’s starred in many, most notably the similarly themed Atonement. Like many actors turned directors, she coaxes great performances out of her leads. Alec Secareanu carries a great burden of guilt as he brings Tomas to life. Carla Juri and Imelda Staunton both do excellent work tap dancing on the line between benevolent and malevolent.
The performers are aided by the excellent set designs. Amulet feels dirty throughout it’s hour and thirty-nine minute runtime. Tomas’s cabin, deep in the woods, is sparsely decorated. Magda’s house feels abandoned despite the people living there. All of that contributes to the creepy atmosphere, and also creates a sense that the story is happening outside of time. It’s set in the present day, but it feels like if it were set 50 years ago, it wouldn’t look any different. And all of that is before the ending.
The creature design is also fantastic, though there’s not much more to say about that without giving away some things that Garai chooses to play close to the vest. But rest-assured, the creatures are worth the wait.
Amulet is a rare film that successfully comments on what’s happening today in a way that feels timeless. It’s well-made, building a creepy atmosphere, ratcheting up the tension until it explodes. Garai’s directorial debut is simply must-watch.
Amulet will be available on DVD and On-Demand from Magnolia Pictures on October 20th.