I was lucky enough to be born with all four grandparents still alive. I got to know them all, but by the time I reached my teens, old age was ravaging their bodies. Parkinsons. Dementia. Diabetes (along with two below the knee amputations for one grandparent). Macular Degeneration leading to blindness. At times, it was terrifying. It’s that fear—not of the death of a loved one, but of losing the pieces of them that make them who they are—that Natalie Erika James taps into in Relic.
James’s first feature-length film opens with water spilling over the edge of a bathtub. The camera follows the water downstairs. Rather than a face, James shows a close shot of someone’s bare feet. The music is tense, wringing every bit of suspense out of revealing who it is the audience is looking at. There’s a Christmas tree, lights shining, in front of the person. Slowly, the camera goes up their naked back. As they’re about to turn around, the title card takes over.
Relic’s greatest strength is the way it reveals these details without commentary. It’s a challenging film that opens with a meticulous, slow pace. The characters are frightened, but no one asks the audience’s questions out loud. The characters don’t know they’re in a horror movie. Instead Kay and Sam focus on the more practical aspects of their situation: Where is Edna? Can Edna live alone again if they find her?
James and co-writer Christian White (who previously collaborated with James on the short “Creswick”) pace the story slowly, giving viewers time to think. There are a number of extremely wide shots that serve the same purpose. The result is a growing sense of dread. It feels very much like an A24 horror film, bringing to mind Ari Aster’s incredible Hereditary, though the ending of Relic is more hushed. In some ways it’s tender.
The script also does excellent work of developing the characters. Throughout the film, there are quiet, intimate moments that reveal so much about each of these women. When Kay sees the family piano, she begins to pick out Beethoven’s “Für Elise.” Sam comes over to listen. Kay explains, “I could never get the curl of the fingers right.” It’s a human, poetic moment that makes it hard not to root for her when things start going wrong.
The humanity of each character in Relic is brought out more by a trio of excellent performances. They’re all understated, naturalistic portrayals of people trying to find their way through a family emergency.
Because the characters feel so real, the dread becomes nearly palpable. Beyond the missing grandmother, the ominous sticky notes, and the mysterious locks, the house is creepy. Edna has scattered a lifetime full of belongings across it. There are long hallways that don’t seem to lead anywhere, and like the home in House of Leaves, Edna’s house seems to be bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside. Like the Overlook in The Shining, the layout of this house doesn’t make sense. It’s not clear where the attic is, or which walls touch one another. In other words, the set design is excellent, contributing to the sense of unease that pervades this film.
Relic is one of the rare films that dips its toes into drama and horror and succeeds at both. It’s a thoroughly impressive debut for James. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Wicked Rating – 9/10
Director: Natalie Erika James
Writers: Natalie Erika James, Christian White
Stars: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote
Release date: July 10, 2020 (In theaters, On Demand)
Studio/Production Company: AGBO, Carver Films, Nine Stories Production
Run Time: 89 minutes