Saint Maud (2021)
Written & Directed by Rose Glass
Religion and horror seemed tied together since the very beginning. Christianity has its fair share of dark & horrific elements. Just sit down and read through the Old Testament, and you’ll come across multiple gruesome stories about the wrath of God. Religious dogma in the hands of mentally unstable people can be a volatile combination. You can look across the American landscape and see a little under half the population caught up in a fervor fueled by a distorted understanding of the Bible. While filmmaker Rose Glass may not be living in the heart of the United States’s current madness, she certainly shows an understanding of how this particular poison can be so enticing to a person who is alone and unstable.
Something happened to Katie (Morfydd Clark) when she was a nurse. The film opens on a bloody tableau of a hospital room, the young woman sitting in a corner, her hands soaked in blood. Then we cut to months later, where she is calling herself Maud. She’d found work with a private palliative care company and become a devote Catholic. Her first patient is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a former dancer whose lymphoma has left her no more options other than to slowly succumb to death. Amanda is deeply embittered about the loss of her life & art. Maud eventually becomes convinced God has sent her here to save Amanda’s soul, and she begins to try and “fix” the woman’s life. This involves ostracizing friends Maud sees as a negative influence on Amanda while keeping this a secret from her charge. Eventually, the whole thing comes tumbling down, and Maud is pushed further into delusion, trying to make sense of her former self and this new mindset where she believes God is speaking directly to her.
This is a fantastic debut film, and Rose Glass should be commended for coming out of the gate swinging. From a pure atmosphere-building perspective, she lays the groundwork with a slow burn while not actually taking up too much time. The movie clocks in at just under an hour and a half and delivers a complete character arc with many moments of profound terror. In terms of horror subgenres, this falls clearly in the psychological category. To the viewer, it’s clear that there are no supernatural elements, but we see the story from Maud’s perspective. As a result, we witness the disturbing filter she sees the world through. We also get to know her on an intimate level and can’t help but sympathize with how alone she is in the world. It’s revealed that after the hospital incident, she was fired, and all her connections to the world, mainly through her job, were gone.
Saint Maud is a film predicated on the horror that emerges from extreme loneliness. Maud feels empty after the hospital incident and speaks of God’s presence filling her in some way. In the second act, Maud tries to go back into her old life and finds she cannot connect with anyone. During this period, she begins to believe God is no longer with her, leading to her ultimate psychological break at the conclusion. Juxtaposing Maud with Amanda, we see the differences in how these women approach companionship. Amanda is at the lowest point of her life, waiting for death to overtake her. She is an atheist yet is slightly despondent about the idea that there will be nothing when she dies. For a brief time, she humors Maud and plays along with the religious redemption angle. We are really seeing that Amanda is trying to connect with Maud on a human level and know her as a person, not just a caregiver. This is reflected in the way Amanda has multiple friends come over and spend the night and a large party she holds when it appears her condition is about to go downhill at an even more accelerated rate.
Glass makes sure to jerk the audience back to reality in the film’s grand horrific conclusion. That final “blink and you’ll miss it” shot sums up the whole movie. Maud lives in an illusion she’s created because reality has been incredibly unkind to her. The world is a harsh, unloving place, and the belief that God will protect her is so very enticing. However, what she is truly missing is human companionship, and she rightfully distrusts the people to whom she used to be close because they abandoned her when she needed them most. Her misunderstanding of Amanda’s kindness is heartbreaking and speaks to the distortion that an uncritical view of religion & spirituality can bring. If a person approaches religion to make their hurting stop through magical thinking, then it is inevitable they will end up unhappy and likely worse than how they began.