Newly discovering faith can, for some, make them even more fervently intense than someone in your everyday evangelical environment. Those people can often be ex-addicts, people who’ve replaced old vices with religion, a kind of one-for-one swap of stringent obsession. Such is the case with the titular character of writer-director Rose Glass’ debut feature. Maud (Morfydd Clark), a home nurse with a troubled past, depends on her regular fix of communion with the divine in order to stay on her newfound righteous path; tiptoeing the line between religious devotion and mental illness. And when things get in the way? Well, it gets unwieldy.
It’s such a natural fit for A24: from being a mix of chamber drama, to having some Paul Schrader-esque character study elements, to visceral body horror, Saint Maud encompasses the ideals of the art-house distributor/production company. Yet while they’ve played with religion plenty of times before, Saint Maud sees supernatural visitors very much in the Old Testament variety, the kind that inspires both transcendent awe and bone-rattling fear. The religious terror in this film is specifically Catholic in nature, drawing from the church’s traditions of self-mortification: Maud walks around with tiny beds of nails in her low-top Converse and experiences transcendent visions that often look more orgasmic than divine.
Her latest employer, retired dancer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), definitely sees it as more the former. Once a star in the dance scenes of London and New York, Amanda now lives in her lonely mansion in the English seaside town of Scarborough to carry out her last days. She’s dying of cancer, and her fear of what happens next leads Maud to presume that the saving of Amanda’s soul is also imminent. But while her live-in nurse is upstairs in her room kneeling on popcorn kernels and praying for her employer’s soul, Amanda is saying goodbye to life on Earth in her own way — namely through one last fling with a local girl named Carol (Lily Frazer). Yet Maud’s views on such lesbian interactions further drive a disconnect between her and Amanda, forcing her to take shocking acts of what she sees as contrition.
Ultimately, though, the film’s deepest conflict is see within Maud. It’s around the midpoint that Saint Maud shifts from a love triangle to an unstable loner losing touch with reality, and while Clark was previously playing off of Ehle, now she carries the film alone. And she’s mostly up for the task, particularly in terms of physicality — some of her eye-rolling contortions are pretty chilling. But there’s still an odd emotional disconnect to Maud’s descent, never fully executing the Schrader-esque elements that would make the film involving within the protagonist’s psychology. And Clark’s performance, however vulnerable, lacks the fire in the belly that made Ethan Hawke’s similarly troubled believer so grippingly powerful in Schrader’s First Reformed. Rather than steadily escalating its tension, Saint Maud moves — perhaps appropriately, given its preoccupation with sin — more like a serpent, winding from side to side until lunging at the viewer with an unnerving surprise.
At a lean eighty-three minutes, it’s a movie that asks for engagement through its final second for full impact. And Glass delivers reasons to stay; from her and cinematographer Ben Fordesman’s striking tableaus of sickly sodium vapor and rich mahogany, to Adam Bzowski’s thrumming score. It’s all in line with the recent run of dread-centric horror, in fact it gets to the point where Saint Maud can feel familiar to a fault. But, thankfully, the film distinguishes itself through an emphasis on character over metaphor, and the dark pit that sits at the core of its protagonist. We only get to see the true ferocity of Glass’ vision for a few fleeting moments, but have faith: It’s enough to let you burn. There may be a rushed disconnect at times, but Saint Maud still finds a good amount of taut holy terror; moments that roar like an out-of-control inferno.
Saint Maud is available to stream through Epix