Relic from first time director Natalie Erika James is a psychological thriller about dementia trapped inside a haunted house tale. Its early stages are the most frightening before its own genre trappings become clearer. That’s not to say there aren’t creepy moments as the walls close in at its setting. There are and James and cowriter Christian White have fashioned a worthwhile chiller about life slipping away.
When the widowed Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been heard from in days, Kay (Emily Mortimer) and daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) travel to her countryside home to locate her. A police report is filed but by morning the matriarch is back. She’s disheveled and seemingly unaware of the ruckus she’s caused. Displaying troubling memory lapses, the first act of Relic deals with the difficult questions many families have faced. Is putting their mom and grandmother in a retirement facility the answer? Should she stay with Kay or should the underemployed Sam serve as caretaker? There’s hopeful moments when Edna’s mind seems intact. Maybe it’s not so bad after all.
Those thoughts are fleeting as something is increasingly disturbing in Edna’s behavior and the mind of its own actions of her quarters. The walls creak. Shadowy figures appear in the nooks and crannies. A mysterious black mold and an abandoned shack on the property are potential keys to unlock the mystery.
Yet the most effective pieces of Relic are the ones most familiar to many a viewer. Mortimer finely conveys the sense of dread in witnessing a loved one losing their grip on reality. Two generations removed, Heathcote’s part is just as well defined. She wants to help but is helpless to the downward spiral. Nevin may have the most challenging role. The veteran Australian stage actress never goes overboard. A bewildered look after a jewelry exchange or a firm instruction for her daughter to check under the bed convey the scary situation with a subtle dread.
By its third act, the screenplay’s metaphors become more literal and it earns the horror pic designation. There may be no truly satisfying way to end it. That’s in part due to the disease that haunts Edna. The finality is dark by its nature. The acceptance of its victim and others that suffer is complex. Relic conveys that in a unique and frequently engrossing manner.
*** (out of four)