There’s a unique energy and passion in directorial debuts that always reminds me why I love cinema, and it’s especially inspiring and exciting when a first feature is a bold, daring assault of a film...
...Most known for her talents as an actress, writer/director Romola Garai launches her filmmaking career with the moody and stylish Amulet. Undeniably rich with atmosphere and visceral, gritty rawness, this high art horror picture is the kind of polarizing film I deeply respect, but is it a film I enjoyed watching?
Tomaz (Alec Sacareanu) is a homeless ex-soldier who wanders the city seeking short-term construction employment. A local nun notices his desperation and makes it her business to find him proper lodgings. She settles him in with a woman who is a full-time caretaker to her ill mother. Uncomfortable with the nun’s charity and kindness, Tomaz finds it difficult to adapt to his new surroundings. To come to terms with his new living situation, he spends his time repairing the old, decrepit house. One day, while attempting to fix a defunct toilet, Tomaz encounters a strange, bat-like creature; one of many strange occurrences he discovers during his stay. Meanwhile, Magda (Carla Juri), the caretaker, is keeping her deathly ill mother locked up in the attic and forbids anyone from entering. As the paranoia, tension, and frequent grotesque discoveries threaten to overwhelm Tomaz, he desperately seeks answers and, more importantly, a way out.
Amulet offers a lot to appreciate, even outside of horror standards. It takes a good while to get things moving on the story front, but I was hardly bothered by this because the atmosphere and visuals are so arresting. It’s the kind of visual flair that’s less concerned with drawing attention to itself and more concerned with drawing you into the world of the film and the emotional states of the characters. Amulet is a bleak affair from every angle, but the way it’s articulated to screen is genius. For example, there is plenty of sunlight in the film, but it’s a harsh, desaturated, white presence. The home is surrounded by greenery and the magnificence of the English countryside, but it’s never shot with any kind of reverence. Our characters are not entitled to the simple optical pleasures of color. The film’s visual style brilliantly reflects their emotional turmoil through subconscious details like these without ever being heavy handed.
At its core, Amulet is about two very lost and lonely individuals. It may sound like the boiled down plot to a Nicholas Sparks novel, but I assure you, we are far, far away from that. The pace we learn about these characters is deliberately slow. So little information is given to us about Tomaz that I didn’t settle on my opinion of him until about halfway through the film. Magda is the same way; she first comes across as cold, distant, and blank slated. Over time though, both characters start to come out of their shell. It’s actually quite adorable and, more importantly, believable. The film, like the characters, grows on you. The interplay between Tomaz and Magda is involved and intimate. Both Sacareanu and Juri give incredible performances and the subtlety of their character interactions makes them feel earnest and real. They are both shy, soft-spoken individuals and discover things about each other voyeuristically, watching one another go about daily tasks. The evolution of their relationship is sometimes odd, even uncomfortable, but I believed these characters and became invested in them. While much of the film is bleak, the depressing story does blossom into something quite beautiful.
One of my only issues with Amulet is its struggle to find an identity. It has trouble balancing itself between an arthouse drama and a creature-based horror film. Of course, both can coexist in one movie, but this film never quite knows how to balance the two genres. The biggest shame is that both the drama-focused story of our characters and the creature feature bits are all done expertly, but there’s no real synergy. The narrative logically makes sense, but the tonal shift between the two elements comes off as jarring. It’s as if there are two films competing for the audiences’ affection and they end up bullying their way into each other’s movies. It’s certainly a criticism, but because the film is so hypnotic and proficient in other areas, this dissonance doesn’t hurt it as much as you might expect.
Amulet is one of the most visually effective and emotionally captivating films I’ve seen all year. Yes, it’s grim, and not necessarily “enjoyable” in the usual sense. Instead, it’s a film that wants you to meet it halfway. It can be a tad challenging in that way, but like I said, this is sure to be polarizing. It takes its sweet time getting to the meat of the film, but by the end I looked back fondly on the journey. What starts out as a depressing, hopeless tale about a questionable man, ends up going to some unexpectedly warm places, even if it never lingers there. I do wish more attention was paid to how the film works when it comes to its combination of genres, but as a directorial debut, this is an incredible effort and one I won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.
Amulet comes to VOD July 24th from Magnet Releasing/Magnolia Pictures
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth