'Saint Maud' Review: Rose Glass Breaks Brains With Her Horror Debut [TIFF 2019]

Have there been studies linking trauma and piety? How many born-again converts came to their faith through suffering, damage and pain? First time feature filmmaker Rose Glass examines just that, following newly devout nurse Maud (Morfydd Clark) and her relationship with her patient, Jennifer Ehle's Amanda. Maud most recently worked at a public hospital, but after a mysterious tragedy concerning her last patient, she's now a private nurse for Amanda, a celebrated dancer dying from lymphoma of the spine. Amanda's iconoclasm and Maud's sanctimoniousness make for a dangerous combination, one that Glass takes in fascinating and deeply unexpected places.

Saint Maud feels uncategorizable for much of its brief runtime (a delightful 83 minutes!). Is it a dark, quirky indie, a blackly comedic character study, a low–budg thriller? But oh man, its last few moments remove the question from our minds in the most dramatic of ways: Saint Maud is a horror movie, and one of the gnarliest and most unapologetic horror movies in recent memory. It's tonally singular, sometimes very funny, always profoundly unsettling, quite emotionally affecting. Glass' feature debut wrestles with questions of self and faith, subtle until it's not. Clark and Ehle are locked in an archetypal battle of good and evil, but their positions are constantly shifting from victim to villain, instigator and influenced. The action propels forward to an inevitable conclusion, but we're never quite sure who's responsible here, Maud or Amanda, God or the other guy – or is it all just random, shitty chance?

It's a great-looking film, with even its ugliest scenes singing out with unlikely charm. The perspective of the film is in relentless motion, sometimes bringing the audience into an uncomfortable intimacy and sometimes keeping us at a chilly distance. Ehle gives a powerful performance as Amanda, full of rage at her condition and amusement at Maud's reverence, but both are tempered with surprising glimpses of empathy. Clark is a find and a half, giving us moments of Sissy Spacek's Carrie, all vulnerability and blackness. And Saint Maud certainly brings to mind De Palma's film, as well as Friedkin's The Exorcist. But even with her influences firmly in place, Glass creates something utterly her own, a female-forward examination of trauma, religion, sexuality and shame. Glass squeezes so much thought into Saint Maud that there's a wonder she has room for humor and horror, but there's plenty of both, to be sure.

While the true joy of Saint Maud lives in its surprise, it's the small kind of movie that viewers may not seek out without proper encouragement, so please believe me when I say that its final few minutes are absolutely shocking, making the film worthy of residing on your radar until it's available for wide release, whenever that may be.

Saint Maud is, in its uniqueness, always a pleasure, but it's also, by the end, a very difficult watch. Glass keeps her audience on our toes, always surprising us, challenging us, provoking us. The film's a marvelous thing in its own right but also a thrilling invitation to follow this filmmaker wherever she dares to take us next./Film Rating: 8 out of 10