The human species has found a lot of ways to deal with their trauma, some more healthy than others. But there’s no denying that the scorch of unfathomable hardship often drives people into the soothing structure of religion, where suffering is part of god’s plan and salvation holds the promise of an eventual happily ever after. In other words: “Never waste your pain.”
That four-word motto is a repeated anthem for Maud (Morfydd Clark), the recently converted nurse at the heart of A24’s most recent horror acquisition, Saint Maud. The debut feature from writer/director Rose Glass, Saint Maud follows the devoted young woman as she recovers from some horrific professional incident that’s hinted at throughout the film. Regardless of the details, it’s clear that the incident shook her down to the core and in the aftermath, the young nurse formerly called Katie rebuilt a new, reverent image of herself as Maud; all charity and penitence, and utterly terrified of her own doubt.
When Maud takes an assignment as the caretaker of a dying woman who believes in no god, she sees the ultimate opportunity for redemption: the gift of saving a soul in its final days. Unfortunately for Maud, that soul belongs to Amanda Köhl (Jennifer Ehle); a former world-class dancer and bonafide art-world intellectual. Amanda has little interest in Maud’s proselytizing beyond that of an amusing distraction from the desolate boredom of dying. Despite their differences, Maud and Amanda strike up a fascinating bond that’s impossible to turn away from, each character driven by desperation not to feel alone in their greatest time of need. And Glass makes the whole thing feel like an impossibly alluring, slowly tightening noose.
At a tight 83-minutes, Saint Maud speeds by in the best way possible, every subtext laden bit of dialogue and pointed glance earning its place in Glass’ vision. Enough cannot be said about the performances from both Clark and Ehle, who are both so compelling your eyes barely know where to look in their shared scenes. Ehle is riveting and electric as Amanda, with the live-wire enthusiasm of an old alley cat enjoying the struggle of a particularly spirited mouse caught in her grasp. In response, Clark plays Maude as devastatingly fragile, reflecting the spider’s web of fractures in her spirit and psyche, gently walking and talking as if afraid she might step too hard and shatter herself. But that’s not to say Maud is above her own mind games, and watching the duo duke out their battle of wills makes for the film’s brightest moments.
The darkest come from Glass’ elegant construction, which begins with an untraceable feeling of dread and never lets up, each new scene arriving with some unknowable darkness that threatens to engulf everything. Though thematically different in a few crucial ways, Saint Maud often strikes a similar tone as First Reformed in its examination of the trauma of the pious, the breaking point where faith becomes fanaticism, and the moment where doubt becomes abject horror. And of course, there are traces of The Excorcist. It’s also a bizarrely sensual film. Maud doesn’t just believe in god; she hears him, she feels him, and she loves him. And as she confronts Amanda’s sexual freedom in tandem with her religious awakening, the two become merged in a carnal crisis of faith.
Best of all, Saint Maud’s impact only gets stronger as it brews, building to a stunning, shocking finale that knocks whatever wind you have left out of you right before the credits roll. But this is not a movie built around twists and gotchas, and there’s no point in trying to outsmart it. This is a film that washes over you and closes in, sealing the deal with a walloping, if not surprising stinger that lands like the hammer of god.
Saint Maud debuted at TIFF and was quickly picked up by A24, which gives the film a certain amount of instant cache in some filmgoing circles. It’s easy to see why the film was a perfect fit in the indie banner’s horror catalog; a project of directorial vision, slow-burn tension, unknowable dread. A24’s brand comes with a lot of expectations, but I think one of its most enduring legacies will be as a home to an outrageous number of extraordinary directorial debuts — Alex Garland, Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, Greta Gerwig, and Bo Burnham, to cite a few of the benchmarks — and in that regard, Glass’ Saint Maud is right at home.