‘Saint Maud’ Utilizes Its Eerie Atmosphere and Relentless Tension to Horrifying Effect (FILM REVIEW)

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Rating: A+

Is January too early to start bandying around brash statements such as “one of the year’s best”? It feels like it might be too early. And yet here I am, grappling with the fact that already the shape of my annual best of is taking shape, thanks to Saint Maud.

In my defense, it’s not really my fault. The film, the feature debut from writer/director Rose Glass, had its debut at TIFF way back in 2019 (back in “the beforetimes”) before picking up steam at Fantastic Fest a month or so later. It was supposed to come out last spring, before being pushed back to last summer, before being taken off the calendar indefinitely. And so here we are, in January, a time of year best known cinematically for the beginning of dumping season, where studios tend to just dump whatever they have and hope for the best.

That is an indignity wholly unworthy of Saint Maud, which should not be judged in any way by the circumstances of its release. Were it to debut in October it would have the same impact as it does in its inauspicious January date; it would still be one of the year’s best, regardless of the year in which it happened to be released.

Saint Maud is a masterpiece of tension, unrelenting in its approach, that pierces the heart of madness like no film before it. Glass has crafted a debut so unique that it already solidifies her standing as a Director of Note, walking confidently in the footsteps of the horror masters that walked before her while threatening to overtake them. Rarely have I experienced cinematic terror of the likes that Saint Maud delivers and a part of me hopes I never do again.

The film follows a young nurse, Maud (Morfydd Clark), slowly rebuilding her life and career following some sort of breakdown some months ago. She’s taken a position as a private nurse, working palliative care for Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer of some renown who is dying of lymphoma. Maud, having recently converted to Catholicism, becomes obsessed with the idea of saving the soul of her atheistic patient. The obsession, however, leads to madness as Maud becomes more and more convinced of God’s plan for her.

Clark gives a revelatory, star making turn with her performance here, which is an understated meditation on psychological descent. Backed by the innate subtlety of Glass’s script, Clark allows us into the mind in the grips of psychosis, allowing us to experience the world through the eyes of madness. It’s hard not to be empathetic with Maud, whom we so desperately hope will find her way back to sanity in order to get help for whatever trauma it was that brought her to this state.

We get the sense of desperation inherent to Maud’s character, even as she becomes further and further detached from reality as we know it. The framework provided by Glass also allows us to intuitively know what’s really going on even as we’re seeing Maud’s perceptions of events. In that sense, there are competing narratives, similar to how one might experience madness for themselves.

Glass also brilliantly never relents on the slow building tension that begins as soon as Saint Maud opens. She offers us no respite, no relief, methodically turning the screws until you aren’t even sure of your perceptions. Is Maud right? Are we wrong? Is she somehow enlightened where we are clouded by doubt and fear? The ceaseless application of tension creates an atmospheric dread that eventually enshrouds the audience in the darkest depths of insanity, never allowing release even after the film’s horrific finale.

Saint Maud is a work of true horror, one that never shies from its intent and never relies on the tropes that have moved the genre for decades now. It’s wild subversion of expectation regarding what horror is and can be, crafted a filmmaker of clear and immense talent. January be damned, it’s easily one of the year’s best films, and an absolute must see for any and every viewer who fancies themselves a horror fan.

Saint Maud is now playing in select theaters and will be premiering on Epix on February 12.

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