In the year of our Lord 2021, I should know better than to freight hop an A24 horror hype-train. Maybe it’s the way marketing declares the studio’s pushed genre releases as fresh, new, untested masterpieces, or maybe it’s the cultural assumption that if it’s A24, it must be “good.” Either way, buzz has routinely soured like milk left in the sun once I have the chance to see for myself since about 2018, when Hereditary drove me to laughter at a midnight screening with a crowd who, like me, found Ari Aster’s exercise in derivative pretense comical.
But Saint Maud, on paper, has a great deal going for it, or at least enough to hold my interest hostage: A muscular running time for one, the promise of body horror for another, a throughline of religious psychosis, a woman in the director’s chair (Rose Glass) instead of yet another white dude and a Welsh star (Morfydd Clark). (If there’s a way to my heart, it’s casting the Cymry in your movie.) And maybe, had the film kept its April ‘20 release date, before being pushed to July ‘20—and before eventually being yanked from the calendar altogether—it might’ve remained reasonably satisfying in its minimalism and compelling in its ambiguity on its own terms. It’s a lean tightrope walk along the line dividing reality from delusion, posing questions if not about faith, then about fundamental dilemmas within it. But a year’s passing has done my expectations no favors. The brakes on the hype-train have worn down to the rotors.
Saint Maud takes place in Scarborough, tucked away on England’s northeastern shore, where young nurse Katie (Clark) works in palliative care under the assumed name “Maud.” The film’s opening scene gives a vague sense of why, exactly, Katie would become Maud in the first place, and why she’s also a staunch Roman Catholic convinced she’s in figurative conversation with the Lord Almighty Himself. When your life takes a sharp turn for the worst, you either turn to the bottle or you turn to God, and having tried out the former it seems that Maud has pivoted to the latter. She tends to a terminally ill American dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), whose death nears courtesy of lymphoma and who can no longer walk on her own. Maud, shortly after making Amanda’s acquaintance, comes to believe that God has chosen her to save her patient’s soul.
Nine times out of ten when a character in a horror film thinks God wants them to perform a divine service, the whole thing blows up in their face. Saint Maud isn’t an exception. It is cleverly made, laden with dolorous, decrepit atmosphere and composed of inventive images to zero in on Maud’s increasingly perilous grip on what is and isn’t real: One shot, best described as a “keyhole,” starts out tilted sideways with the camera’s gaze fixated on Maud as she stumbles down a dimly lit stairwell, the rest of the frame black as pitch as the lens slowly rotates 90 degrees until the picture is upright. It’s a deliciously eerie bit of cinematography that announces Glass’ eye for found creepiness—all she had to do was find the perfect location and ask her cinematographer, Ben Fordesman, to shoot it the perfect way—while maintaining focus on Clark, whose performance is Saint Maud’s greatest merit.
Clark plays Maud as a divine messenger living like a mouse: She’s meek in person but utterly certain of her connection with God, for better and worse. Playing that kind of two-sided coin takes a twitchy finesse married with unblinking, wide-eyed conviction. For Clark, that translates to shy self-assurance, the latter kept to herself and the former the face she puts forward to the world. Given the absence of Maud’s docile nature, the film simply wouldn’t work. Glass needs Clark to maintain the dichotomy. That she does, and does so without flinching, saves Saint Maud from succumbing entirely to its A24-ness, but the A24-ness remains a frustration.
The company leans toward genre movies that play coy and reserve the full brunt of their niche-specific elements for the final ten minutes. Everything else up to those 10 minutes is a flirt. In Saint Maud’s case, the formal, aesthetic details make the wait worth the while, and it helps too that the film clocks in at 80 minutes, and thus the wait isn’t much of one at all. But as with Hereditary, with which Saint Maud is almost guaranteed to be compared to on the basis that both are slow-burns as well as striking debuts, the most shocking material is also the only shocking material. All else is unsettling the way that Travis Bickle’s unraveling violent machismo in Taxi Driver is unsettling. Frankly, Saint Maud relates much less to horror than to thrillers. This, of course, isn’t a criminal offense, but given that A24 buys up horror movies and saves its energy to boost only the artsiest of them at the expense of all others, it does feel like a misdemeanor.
This isn’t Glass’ fault, of course. She’s a strong director whose work is facilitated by her lead. What lets Saint Maud down most is its screenplay more than its own buzz: Good as Clark is, her performance can’t make up for Maud’s one-dimensionality and the absence of a proper arc. Good acting isn’t the same as good writing, and the final, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it image is so harrowing as to make the movie preceding it look positively anodyne. There’s texture here, unnerving ambience as proof of Glass’ budding talents. But less isn’t always more, and while Saint Maud doesn’t need much, it simply doesn’t have enough to make an impression lasting beyond one second of terror.
Director: Rose Glass
Writer: Rose Glass
Starring: Morfydd Clark, Jennifer Ehle, Lily Knight, Lily Frazer
Release Date: January 29, 2021 (Limited); February 12, 2021 (Epix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.