Both of my grandfathers died before my grandmothers (one of whom, my mother’s mother, is still with us), and what remained following their deaths was a peculiar phenomenon that I had never considered before. As women of the 1940s, they existed as wives at their husbands’ sides. My maternal grandmother worked jobs here-and-there, but the job of homemaker was paramount in the time in which they both came of age, doing the cooking, cleaning, and raising of the children while the husbands handled everything else. Then, suddenly, in a brand-new world of technology and independence, they were left to fend for themselves without their husbands. My grandmothers, both being incredibly strong-willed women, insisted they live on their own, hours away from their children, as if to prove they’ve always possessed the capability to do so, therein birthing a sort of shame in asking for help when they desperately need it.
The cleanup process of fixing a mistake they’ve made, for my parents and the current generation of grandchildren I find myself in, often exceeds the effort needed to fix the problem to begin with, had they simply asked for help. Everyone knows that their parents and grandparents are going to age and eventually pass on to the great hereafter, but when the days finally come to reckon with that fact, we tend to shut down in pure fear. This isn’t a kind of fear one gets at the top of a roller coaster, or during a jump-scare of a slasher film, but a crippling, paralyzing fear of not being adequate enough to help the people you love most, the same people who helped you develop into the person you are today. Conversely, those needing help soon find themselves feeling unable to provide the support and care for those whom they feel it is their duty to protect. We always know that one day, the shoe will always end up on the other foot, but no one ever tells you how to walk with switched shoes, and the prospect of falling down from that is scarier than anything you’ve ever felt before.
Relic, the debut feature film of Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James (produced by Jake Gyllenhaal and executive produced by the Russo Brothers), takes both the paralyzing fear of being inadequate to care for ailing relatives, as well as the fear of surrendering control to the natural process of aging, and materializes them into something far more tangible in the form of a horror film. However, there’s the case to be made that Relic might be one of the kindest, most emotionally devastating horror films to be made in decades. This is not a brutally unforgiving film, but rather an oddly loving ode to the lives we lead and the unfortunate nature of what the end will look like for each of us.
Relic follows Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote), as they travel from Melbourne to the small town of Creswick, where Kay’s mother, Edna (Robyn Niven), lives. Having been notified by police that Edna has not been seen for days, the women find her house empty and Edna’s whereabouts remain unknown. The quiet recesses of Edna’s cluttered house speak to years of loneliness and confusion as she lives in her own solitary world of forgetfulness and paranoia. The terror of not knowing anything pervades the house until one night, without explanation, Edna returns. Refusing to give details about where she’s been, Kay and Sam stay to monitor Edna as she readjusts to life following her disappearance. Soon, they discover that Edna, both physically and mentally, has traveled to places beyond their comprehension, and must soon face up to the demons that manifest with her ever-worsening condition.
It would be so incredibly easy to liken Relic to that of Hereditary or The Babadook, but much like those films, there’s something so incredibly singular about Relic that makes it incomparable to other horror films of its supposed “type.” James, while creating a very beautifully bleak, tense and uneasy horror film, has brought forth a film first and foremost about the acceptance of the aging process in our loved ones. The journey that Relic takes you on in its swift, 89-minute runtime is one that feels like the five stages of grief you go through before going through the five stages of actual grief. It conquers the question of “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” with tough family decisions with a precision and grace that other films would merely exploit for tear-jerking clout. It does this by explicitly taking you through the heartbreak of trying so incredibly hard to help someone you love only to receive pushback and hostility when it’s viewed as pity. I felt the struggle of the character of Sam’s blind optimism deep within the reaches of my soul in wanting nothing but the best for her grandmother in her golden years, and the soul-crushing conceit in coming to the realization that, perhaps, the help needed is beyond what our own compassion can provide.
There are no “gotcha” moments in Relic, as all of its moments of terror and unease stem from something far more emotionally involved. Those who have never experienced that crushing anxiety might not view the film in the same way as viewers who have, and might even walk away thinking Relic didn’t do much on its horror front. Yet, as it is with so many things, the elements of the film grounded in reality are so much more horrifying than any supernatural entity could ever be.
Relic also grapples with the lose-lose act of trying to decide when you just can’t care enough for someone, and when is the right time to surrender control to a more qualified power, as Kay does in touring a retirement village for Edna. The questions surrounding quality-of-life at home versus that of a facility with highly-skilled strangers who might be able to do your own self-delegated job better than you can form an impossible game to win. It’s an answer you will never know until you make that jump to do so, and what happens when you can’t reverse it? Do you take your chances? Or do you play it safe? But then again, what is “safe” anymore? These are the questions and journeys that Relic takes you on, providing that tight, incapacitating atmosphere of the entire film. They constrict you until you feel helpless.
Relic also takes on the brief moments of lucidity in our family members that bring a useless optimism that might indicate that things will be okay. These are perhaps the most heartbreaking moments of dealing with this process, with the hopes that maybe time has reversed itself and the world will soon go back to the way it once was, when said world has already faded away. There is a scene between Mortimer and Nevin illustrating this moment that, in a reasonable world, would bring Nevin an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress with no contest.
The discovery of the “actual” horror of the film finally brings to a head the realization of the futility of fighting time. Whatever you’ve considered as a form of help, whether it be therapy, a better diet, exercise, home care, Life Alert®, botox, etc., there is simply nothing that will ever stop the objective passage of time, and the eventual decay that comes as a part of it. These are undeniably ugly things to deal with, and they often will be the worst times in a person’s life, but they are the inevitable price we pay for living in such an unforgiving world. We all come to grips with it sooner or later, as our kids will, too, and their kids, ad infinitum.
But nihilistic, Relic is not. Rather, it finds catharsis in learning to not fear what we cannot avoid, and to embrace it by working with the forces-that-be to give our loved ones the final years that they deserve. I expected a lot from Natalie Erika James’s feature debut, having seen the stunning short film she directed, Drum Wave, at the Final Girls Berlin Film Festival. I just did not expect it to resonate with me on an emotional level that I’ve never experienced with horror before. It’s an arresting film that, despite it being made as a horror film, brought me to actual ugly tears by the film’s finale. It’s a touching, intimate film that, after two viewings, has brought me an immense amount of comfort in approaching the ugly part of growing up with more assuredness, and with less debilitating fear. You slowly begin to feel the futility of aging fade away in lieu of providing those around you with the only thing that matters in the end: love. No amount of terror, frustration or confusion can ever take that away.
In theaters and VOD July 10th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Relic website.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.