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Film Review: “Relic” Is a Disturbing, Depressing Metaphorical Horror Film That Tackles Dementia and Hits Us Where It Hurts

Written by: Matt Patti | July 9th, 2020

Film poster: “Relic”

Relic (Natalie Erika James, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

If you’ve ever known someone with dementia, you know the horrors it brings to a family. Those suffering from dementia experience extreme memory loss, often have trouble speaking or finding words, have problems reasoning, and often get lost – both physically by location and mentally – in addition to many other unfortunate symptoms. It is quite difficult and horrible to deal with, not only for the one suffering, but for their family and loved ones who have to see the person this way. I personally experienced these horrors when my grandmother, who was always so happy to see me, couldn’t even remember who I was shortly before her passing. Having a loved one with dementia is something that many families struggle with, and this struggle is brought to horrific light in the new horror thriller Relic.

Relic centers around Edna, an elderly woman suffering from dementia, played wonderfully by Robyn Nevin (The Matrix Reloaded). In the beginning of the film, she goes missing. After neighbors report her disappearance, Edna’s daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer, Write When You Get Work) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, The Neon Demon) rush to Edna’s old, decaying house in search of answers. Edna mysteriously returns shortly thereafter, but while at the house Kay and Sam find disturbing signs of Edna’s increasing dementia. The two stay with Edna for awhile to supervise her and begin to witness firsthand her deteriorating mental state and aggressive temper. Forgetful and agitated, but still prideful, Edna is angered by her family’s worries and lack of trust in her. However, she lets them stay, as she tells them she feels safer from the thing outside that has been coming into her house to torment her.

Relic is a horror film that will likely split audiences, like many horror films have done in the past few years, but Relicwill split them for a unique reason. The film is justified in its classification as a horror film and is quite scary and grotesque at many points, but it can also be classified as a metaphorical drama at the same time. Not everything the viewer sees on screen is always literal, and some things are meant to be taken metaphorically. The film deals with the mind and its deterioration due to dementia, so it is only fitting that sometimes what the characters see is either not real or meant to be taken in a different way. At times, the film also leaves the audience completely unsure if what is on the screen is straightforward or a visual representation. Relic reminds me of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! in those ways, especially in its treatment of metaphors. The film also reminds me of another divisive horror film, The Babadook. In that film, many viewers expected a classic monster/paranormal haunted-house movie, but instead got more of a psychological, depressing horror/drama hybrid. The same can be said about Relic.

Emily Mortimer as “Kay” in Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

I, as a huge horror fan, must say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed Relic. My favorite horror films are the ones that can be creepy, tense, and scary while also telling a deep, personal story with characters that the viewer can relate to and sympathize with. Relic has all that and more, with its story really hitting home. To watch this family in agony have to deal with Edna’s dementia is heartbreaking and solemn, but also terrifying, especially when Edna becomes increasingly violent and erratic. Edna begins the film as a happy, joyful old woman, but we get to see her gradual decline into someone unrecognizable, and it is quite sad and disturbing.

The technical aspects of Relic are all quite amazing. The eerie and depressing atmosphere is conveyed well through the film’s color palette and location choice, specifically the rotting old home of Edna. The cinematography is done very well, with surprises in many frames that you can notice only if you look very closely. The effects work and editing are very high-quality as well, and the limited soundtrack works perfectlyl for the film.

Bella Heathcote as “Sam” in Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

Unfortunately, the film does have a number of issues that detract from the otherwise truly exceptional work. The first act is quite slow and uneventful and tends to drag on a bit, but is necessary for proper setup. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder when I would become interested in the film. Thankfully, the second and third acts accomplish that mission. My largest issue with the film, though, is the reach of the metaphors the film introduces. The frustration the viewer experiences when trying to determine what is real and what is not, what is literal and what is metaphorical, etc., is probably similar to the frustration dementia patients feel, which could be the filmmaker’s intention, but I still can’t say I was pleased by all of it. Some things the viewer sees on screen are never explained or explored, some dementia symptoms begin to affect the mother and daughter (which I do not understand at all), and the ending is quite confusing and abstract. The overall message and theme of the metaphors in the film and of the ending I understand, but some of the specific instances in which these metaphors are explored are mind-boggling.

Overall, Relic is a dreary, unsettling, but ultimately beautiful piece of art masquerading as a film, and I say that in a good way. I’m one who typically doesn’t enjoy abstract, experimental, or metaphorical films, but this one is the perfect mix of horror, metaphor, and real-life psychological drama that really hits the nail on the head as to what it’s like to have dementia and be around someone who is experiencing dementia symptoms. It has its logical conundrums and leaves some unanswered questions, but ultimately the film explores the subject of dementia masterfully and highlights the horrors many people face every day in an exaggerated but impactful way. The film will hit hardest those with personal connections to dementia and/or dementia patients, but I think will also open the eyes of any viewer to the terrible horrors of the condition.

Robyn Nevin as “Edna” in Natalie Erika James’ RELIC. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

Matt Patti has enjoyed voicing his opinions on films from a young age. He has lived in the Baltimore, Maryland, area since 2015 and is a graduate of Stevenson University’s Film & Moving Image program. Matt is currently back at Stevenson University, working as the School of Design, Arts, and Communication's Studio Manager.

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