Saint Maud (Film Review)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: A devout young woman who works as a caregiver sets out to "save" her newest client, and the more she feels tested by a higher power, the further she pushes her devotion — regardless of the cost.

REVIEW: With movies like The Lighthouse, Midsommar, Hereditary, The Witch and quite a few more, A24 has assembled the library for modern horror movies to shake your soul as well as haunt your dreams. Their newest release, Saint Maud, finds the directorial debut of Rose Glass right at home among these heavyweights of horror. While those craving some shocking moments or outright terror may need some time (or a rewarding second-viewing) to be won over by Glass’ meditative, studious approach to her title character, that shouldn’t deter any curious soul looking for that next great slow burn, one bountiful in its own brand of unnerving atmospherics and psychological complexity and features plenty of body horror to go along with religious dread.

Maud’s central character is the titular Maud (Morfydd Clark), a sheepish, reclusive young nurse whose devotion to God would make even some of the more prudent followers look like heathens. She lives in a small, humble apartment and has dedicated herself to God after what we’re only hinted at was a traumatic experience at her last job as a nurse. Now a private caregiver, she finds new purpose in trying to “save” the soul of a dying dancer, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who in her last days wishes to fill it with sex, booze and raucous company. Where writer/director Glass instantly wrings out so much unsettling tension is in how she illustrates Maud’s devotion to God as the beginnings of what is to become an abusive relationship, wherein she is so committed to this newfound “mission” that, even under an initially simple demeanor, we know she will act drastically to see it through if it means pleasing her Lord.

One of the strongest ways Glass explores this is through Maud’s practically sexual connection to this higher power, and how the pleasure of pleasing Him factors into her faith. Maud doesn’t feel the power of spiritual love like how some Sunday churchgoer might when they feel compelled to throw three bucks into the collection basket. While she avoids other human intimacy and "sin", her experiences on a spiritual level are pure euphoria. “Most of the time it’s just like he’s physically in me or around me,” Maud tells Amanda when she asks about her relationship with God. “It’s how he guides. Like when he’s pleased it’s like a shiver or sometimes it’s like a pulsing, and warm and good. He’s just there.” Amanda thereafter starts calling Maud her “little savior”, causing Maud to fill with ecstasy, struggling to walk up the stairs as euphoria courses through her – the lights pulsating above. Between Glass’ intimate direction and Clark’s dedicated performance, her passion and commitment to God is as unsettling and twisted as it is seductive. How the devotional mind of Maud is manifested and illustrated as something fantastical and fanatical will so quickly ensnare you, and not for a second afterward does it let you escape.

While even the posters for the movie hint at some incredible work from Clark, nothing, not even my words of praise, can prepare you for how good she is in this and how much she surrenders herself to everything Maud goes through. At the start, she gives Maud an appropriate amount of warmth and relatability to balance out the worshipper, making her someone that you would find yourself finding a soft spot for, as Amanda does. As Amanda, Ehle is also excellent, charmingly, almost seductively prodding Maud to get her to "lighten up." But it’s so easy to become entranced by Maud as a character that, as the events of the movie unfold and find her spiraling down the path of a true, unhinged zealot, she becomes impossible to look away from. Clark’s work is so mesmerizing and Glass’ hand so steady that the shocking moments of body horror that come when Maud needs to commit even further to her Lord hit so hard and linger so long. These spine-tingling moments could have felt cheap and ineffective had they been in less assured hands, but here they’re haunting and evidence of a troubled mind looking for guidance and pleasure, regardless of cost (or, on the contrary, anticipating it).

What makes Maud such an entrancing, discomforting journey – along with the sheer strength in performance and direction – is in the editing from Mark Towns. At a lean, always welcome 80 minutes, the film remains compelling from start to finish because it moves so briskly without an ounce of fat slowing it down. There’s nothing about the story or the events throughout that distracts from Maud’s personal narrative, with each event further pushing Maud towards martyrdom. Even with that tight runtime, the movie feels large in scope. We follow Maud through various phases, from a kind, innocent believer who feels she’s meant for something grander, to her spiral through doubt, and ultimately reaching an unforgettable, haunting finale. Every moment and interaction she has feels perfectly placed and necessary, and Glass and Towns’ collaboration is yet another example of how sometimes movies that run shorter than Adam Sandler comedies and can get more mileage and depth out of their stories than the longest, most epic dramas.

I saw Maud back in the summer of 2020 when it was on the brink of release, only to be taken off the schedule with no new date in sight. In the months since, this movie has not been far from my thoughts, with frames burned into my mind and the complexity of the character study that examines devotion as a source of horror leaving so much to sit with. When I say Saint Maud is unforgettable, I mean it.  It works much like its fellow A24 companion, The Witch, in how it's an atmospheric experience driven by the kind of religious hysteria and menace that takes the concept of devotion and turns it into something endlessly unnerving, and turns a delusion of love into something horrifying. Making it all the better, at its core is a commanding performance by Clark, and bringing it all to life with equally commanding vision is Rose Glass in a directorial debut sure to leave a mark. 

Saint Maud



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