Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Sundance ’20: Amulet

This titular figurine is said to be either a harbinger of evil or a protection against it. Perhaps that makes it the perfect artifact to come into the possession of a philosophy post-grad like Tomaz. He could ponder its meaning and essence through several schools of thought, but he hasn’t pursued his studies in years. Instead, he lives in self-imposed hand-to-mouth exile on the mean streets of London. When he is suddenly offered permanent room-and-board, it comes with a sinister catch in Romola Garai’s Amulet, which screened during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Tomaz’s war is never explicitly identified, but it bears a strong resemblance to the Balkan War. Regardless, he suffers from some debilitating PTSD and is perhaps justly tormented by overwhelming guilt. Even though his is an egghead academic, Tomaz is surprisingly handy, so a rather chipper nun offers him a deal. He should stay with the socially stunted Magda and her unseen invalid mother, paying for his keep by fixing up the decrepit house.

Although Tomaz nearly leaves several times, concern for Magda’s well-being and a taste for her cooking keep him coming back. Although she keeps her dying mother out-of-sight, Tomaz can tell there is something profoundly off about her, judging from the bite marks on Magda and the sounds of violent altercations. She is more than your average mad woman in the attic.

Amulet is a seriously confounding film. Garai (the thesp best-known for classy historical dramas, like The Hour and Atonement) creates a vibe of creeping dread as well as anyone. This film has a real tactile, textured feel. You can practically smell the dry rot. However, when the big revelations come, instead of shock and awe they produce moments of “wait, what happened” befuddlement. Just when you think you understand the evil designs, she adds weird coda to re-obscure any sense of viewer clarity.

That is definitely a problem, especially considering how challenging it is to slog through the deliberately slow and excessively fragmented first act. Yes, it then comes together, only spin out into left field once again.

Nevertheless, Imelda Staunton still might be worth the price of admission as the flamboyant nun. She chews the scenery, swings for the fences, and generally upstages everyone and everything in this film. Seriously, it could very well be the best horror movie performance of the year, by the standards of both critics and fans alike.

In contrast, Alec Secareanu is so moody and tightly wound playing Tomaz, he could give you a stress headache just watching him. Weirdly, Carla Juri is appropriately mousy as Magda, because that lets her sort of sneak up on the audience. Of course, Staunton isn’t sneaking up on anyone, but she certainly drops a surprise or two.

Amulet was somewhat divisive among midnight regulars this year, for obvious reasons. Maybe another session in the editing bay would have tightened and clarified things better. There is great atmosphere and terrific performances here, but there are also issues of pace and logical consistency. It is good enough to inspire curiosity about Garai’s next horror outing, but its flaws are nagging. Earning a mixed review, Amulet is sure to have a lot genre festival life ahead of it, following its screenings at this year’s Sundance.