Following lengthy delay, the unsettling Saint Maud sees a release, albeit an inconvenient one

By: Steve Pulaski

Like most horror films that become festival darlings long before they see a formal release, Saint Maud was victim to some overpraise upon its 2019 premiere in Toronto. In spite of that, this is a quietly unnerving debut from Rose Glass (you legally have to direct horror films when that’s your name). I’m the last person qualified to give advice in this department, but now would be the time to buy some stock in Morfydd Clark by my estimation.

I’ll start by lamenting, however. It’s a real bummer that A24 chose to release the film on Epix of all platforms after its original April 2020 theatrical release was cancelled. In a world becoming increasingly saturated with streaming services, why choose the one the general populous (a) has likely never even heard of and (b) has a paltry 15 million subscribers compared to Amazon Prime Video. A $20 P-VOD release would be more justifiable.

Onto the film at hand. The story follows a hospice nurse named Maud (Clark), a recent convert to Roman Catholicism working as an in-home palliative care nurse. Her latest patient is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a one-time dancer now spending her remaining days mostly housebound with stage four lymphoma. Maud mostly keeps to herself, occasionally making small-talk but largely saving her words for the almighty God. She becomes uneasy when she sees Amanda is having sex with Carol (Lily Frazer), a woman she met online. Clearly, she’s a soul in need for saving.

Yet the story isn’t so much about Amanda nor the ostensible “angel and devil” role Maud and Carol, respectively, play in her life. The story is strictly fixated on Maud, who occupies nearly every frame of this 79-minute work. A glimpse of Maud’s previous self is revealed when Amanda publicly shames her at a party, and the evening ends with our titular soul falling back into self-destructive habits.

Writer/director Glass acutely observes how low self-worth and deep-seated insecurity is the breeding ground for someone becoming insular with their faith. Maud isn’t challenged in her convictions. Frankly, she doesn’t really have any friends nor family. The reality we see is almost entirely filtered through Maud, penetrated only by the entrance of other characters who more often than not see her for what she is: a pariah.

The next debate to be had by cinephiles across all film-driven corners of the internet is whether or not Saint Maud constitutes as a horror film. There’s certainly aspects of it. You won’t have to look closely to see connections to The Exorcist in more ways than just a few gaping jaws and curdling screams. Glass is commendably reserved when it comes to trying to spook the audience outright. Saint Maud has more in common with films like Taxi Driver and more recently First Reformed, which saw a pastor of a dwindling pew experiencing a crisis of faith.

In turn, the film wisely remains a character study, one that examines loneliness and isolation as dangerous forces compounded by unquestioned loyalty to a higher power. While the aesthetics are uniformly attractive, I was most taken by Paul Davies’ sound design, which heightens little details such as a roach crawling onto countertops or pebbles hitting the floor only to be knelt on by Maud readying for prayer. Sure to prompt the most squeamish reaction is when Maud places nails into the soles of her shoes as punishment for falling back into her own ways. She commits to walking in them for an extended period of time. Davies makes sure we hear the hard soles hitting the pavement and the blood squishing between them and her feet. The whole experience is joyfully uncomfortable right up until the final shot, which still lingers in my mind hours after seeing it.

Morfydd Clark owns her role, remaining dutiful and despondent in ways that would make you think embodying this character would be easy. Glass brings out her strengths right down to the instances where her role demands physicality. It all adds to the allure of Saint Maud, a film that, once it gets an appropriate release, will likely be the next thriller/horror film to be beloved.

NOTE: As stated, Saint Maud is currently available to stream via Epix. If you have Amazon Prime Video or Sling TV, you may stream it through there upon starting a free trial for the service.

Grade: B

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