The horror genre can be a very powerful vehicle for exploring challenging, often timely themes and topics in a riveting fashion. Weaving those concepts into a narrative in a blunt manner could certainly work well, but what makes Romola Garai’s feature directorial debut especially effective and unforgettable is how those ideas sneak up on you. Amulet sucks you in, challenges you to try to put things into focus and then smacks you with a wallop of an ending that’ll leave you needing a few moments after the credits.
The movie stars Alec Secarneau as Tomaz with the narrative jumping back and forth between his past and present. While working as a guard at a post deep in the woods all on his own, something terrible happens that he carries with him to the present. Now, a struggling ex-soldier, he’s offered a place to stay by Magda (Carla Juri). If he helps her fix up her house while she takes care of her ailing mother, he can stay free of charge. While this sounds like a great arrangement for Tomaz, obviously something sinister is brewing and it’s two fold; not only is Tomaz plagued by his own demons, but he also grows increasingly suspicious of what exactly is going on in that house.
Forgive the vague description of the horrors at play, but Amulet is a movie well worth walking into knowing as little as possible. There’s a fascinating, multi-layered mystery unfolding that Garai handles with great finesse. The result is an eerie, all-consuming puzzle that reveals it’s got quite a bit to say about genre assumptions, gender dynamics and forgiveness upon its completion. The points it makes are mighty direct but also come through shockingly naturally in the nightmare Garai scripted, a quality that ensures Amulet makes an indelible impression.
Garai’s leadership no doubt had a lot to do with that achievement, and that extends to her department heads who deliver stellar and extremely thoughtful work across the board. Amulet takes place in three primary locations – the woods, Magda’s house, and the outside world – and director of photography Laura Bellingham ensures each is uniquely atmospheric and photographed in a way that further enhances the characters’ transformations.
Amulet is also quite the performance showcase for Secarneau, Juri and Imelda Staunton. It’s tough to really celebrate the merits of Secarneau and Juri’s work here without nearing spoiler territory, but do know that handling Tomaz and Magda’s arcs couldn’t have been easy. Whether it’s dealing with present, extremely horrific threats or bearing the weight of past mistakes, Secarneau had his work cut out for him in Amulet from start to finish. Even when things seem to be looking up for the character, well-placed flashbacks never let Tomaz come close to outrunning his sins.
And the industry better make way for Juri because she’s proving again and again that she’s a standout. She’s probably most familiar from Blade Runner 2049, but I for one will never forget her performance in the 2014 Sundance selection Wetlands, a dramedy I highly recommend if you’re down for some seriously vulgar and graphic material. Now in Amulet, Juri continues to show off endless range and also a seemingly natural ability to draw your gaze. There’s an especially crafty story choice at play in Amulet that Garai pens extremely well, but having such a shift land is so heavily dependent on casting the role of Magda with an actor of Juri’s talent.
Garai scored more pitch perfect casting with Staunton. She plays Sister Claire, the nun who helps Tomaz when he needs it most and is also the person who introduces him to Magda. You’ll need to see Amulet to truly feel the force of Staunton in this role, but again, range is key here and Staunton was clearly up for the challenge.
There’s a lot to take from Amulet – too much to list off in full – but to further celebrate some of the biggest of the bunch: what a debut for Garai! Amulet shows off next-level attention to detail in every respect, a quality that’s key to this challenging narrative sticking its landing. Then there’s Juri. I’d be shocked and hugely disappointed if her star power didn’t skyrocket in the near future. And finally there’s the impact of the film itself. The concepts Garai explores aren’t anything new and they’re things I’ve thought about often, but when delivered in such a unique and well-constructed package, you’re challenged to come at those ideas from fresh perspectives and the results are both chilling and emboldening.
For more of our Sundance 2019 coverage, click here or on the links below.
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Boys State
- Crip Camp
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- Miss Americana
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- Promising Young Woman