The standard of religion pushes us to aspire to look something greater than ourselves. That somewhere, there is a higher power ordering our steps for the good and bad. Religion gives a sense of community and perceived answers into the quarries of life. Why do bad things happen to good people? How is it that a murder may get a longer life, but a young person perishes before their life begins? Many of life’s questions may keep us up at night, but religion serves as an anchor for many. Director Rose Glass‘s Saint Maud explores the role that the search of a higher purpose plays when we are at our lowest point. It can aspire us to be greater, kinder, and full of determination. Within the wrong hands or mind, it can seem to be intrusive and detrimental to the outside help we may need.

Saint Maud begins with Katie (Morfydd Clark) who has a traumatic experience losing a patient while trying CPR. Because of this, she changes her name to Maud, becomes a devout Roman Catholic and private care nurse. An assignment brings her to former dancer/choreographer Amanda (Jennifer Ehle) who has stage four lymphoma and is entering the last days of her life. As she is confined to a wheelchair, it’s a stark contrast to the nimble movements of her youth. Maud and Amanda’s relationship has interesting layers to it. Not only from the intimacy of at home care, but just from the standpoint of life and death.

Despite her sickness, Amanda fills her life with parties and love from a young woman. She’s sarcastic and bills Maud as “her savior,” almost in a mockery tone. Maud explains she guided by what she perceives to be calls from God. They come over her in a euphoric, almost orgasmic contortions where lights flicker. As Maud grows protective over Amanda, she inhabits a savior complex. However, because of the intelligent methods of Glass’s storyteller, one wonders who the person who needs saving. Is Maud only clinging to Amanda and this profession to give her the purpose that she lost? After all, a nurse assists with everyday needs. It could very well feel as though this type of service is heaven sent. Amanda’s carefree surrender to the dimming of her life and Maud’s persistence to “save her” meets a combative apex.

As the movie goes on, Maud spirals and her appearance deteriorates. She wanders around town aimlessly and turns to dangerous situations in order to find some companionship. Her voice-overs become more distraught and adversarial with God as she searches for meaning. Ben Fordesman’s cinematography captures this descent where frames are upside down, sideways, and full of darkness. The imagery that would be found in other exorcism-type movies permeates here, but in a more unsettling way that’s tied to the principal character. Maud puts herself through trials that are painful, self-harmful, and contorts her body. The more she feels as though she’s being punished, the more extreme the “trials” are. Signs occur around her that sends her careening into this direction of stewardship that seems to

Clark’s performance as Maud is captivating that you want her to find happiness. As is Ehle’s who serves as an opposite in terms of life outlook. Glass does an impressive job keeping the viewer guessing what’s real or not. With experiences regarding religious, there is an element of personality to them. If someone says they see a vision or has to “trust their gut instinct,” it may seem farfetched to some, but concrete to others. Glass’s story presents the two opposing viewpoints in ways that are clever and hearkens to classic horror movies like Carrie and The Exorcist. Maud (or Katie’s mask) needs help from the traumatizing experience that she is running away from. Is there a point where chasing for a higher consciousness causes a distortion field for the world around you? Do we try to save others because saving ourselves is too painful of a cross to bear?

Life has its trials and tribulations. Not a single person can get around them. Things happen with no warning, pop or circumstance. Saint Maud will definitely invoke discussion in the roles that mental health and religion plays within our lives. While we may lose control of ourselves, trying to control others may not get our hands back on the rope as soon as we want. Other exorcism films concern themselves with driving out an evil spirit from an innocent soul. Saint Maud asks when does the power of belief become so strong that it may be a danger.

Photo Credit: A24