Even before Harvey Keitel stood before a Catholic altar — seeking penance by holding his hand over an open flame — in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, religious conviction and madness have long complemented one another onscreen. These stories, where spirituality isn’t a gateway to character’s redemption but rather their destruction, account for some of the most powerful portraits of human despair ever committed to film. A24, the studio behind Saint Maud, has entered these waters before back in 2017 with First Reformed, and now this debut from writer-director Rose Glass takes that narrative to its logical extreme, placing the protagonist’s religious fervor into explicit horror territory.
Maud’s tale plays out like Taxi Driver crossed with The Exorcist, as a hospice nurse’s spiraling madness manifests itself in a battle for her newest patient’s eternal soul. The stakes of that battle remain, well, fairly ambiguous given that the screenplay cements the viewer firmly into Maud’s unreliable point of view from the very beginning, where (in one of the film’s many Taxi Driver nods) we hear her praying via voiceover narration, asking God to guide her during her next “posting.” This new job is taking care of Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), a sardonic former dancer in the late stages of cancer. After Maud notices some aspects of Amanda’s life that she finds less than savory (namely a lesbian lover and her atheism), Maud throws herself into the task of rescuing Amanda from the flames of eternal damnation.
Considering this is Glass’s first full-length feature, Saint Maud is stunning on several levels. Ben Fordesman’s cinematography transports the viewer into Maud’s manic visions with harrowing efficiency, using handheld photography and extreme close-ups when she’s experiencing something like religious ecstasy and austere wide shots shrouded in shadows at other times to communicate the oppressive bleakness of the character’s worldview — one where it’s her and the Lord against an ever-encroaching evil.
Similarly, relative newcomer Morfydd Clark’s performance as Maud paints her as someone who’s simultaneously naive and deeply disturbed. Clark’s expressiveness can peg Maud as a wide-eyed doe in one moment and a crazed cult member eager to guzzle down some poisoned Kool-Aid the next. When Amanda at one point calls Maud “my little savior,” Amanda has no idea just how sincerely her caretaker will take that compliment to heart. All Maud needs is a gentle nudge for her to dive headfirst into whole-hearted hysteria.
Unfortunately, Saint Maud is also a movie that begs you to draw the aforementioned cinematic comparisons, and those explicit references mostly serve to remind you how much more thematically rich those films were by comparison. That doesn’t mean Saint Maud is some shallow stylistic exercise a la 2019’s Joker, but it isn’t exactly brimming with as many ideas as the impeccable direction might lead you to believe. There’s never any doubt that things are not going to end well for Maud, and even when Glass’s screenplay tries to be coy about whether or not the characters’ visions are real, it’s similarly clear that Maud is insane. Knowing how dangerous she is also keeps us at a remove from gaining any emotional attachment to her eventual fate. It’s not like we need to sympathize with every movie protagonist, but at times it seems like the viewer is simply being asked to observe a character do some really fucked-up shit as opposed to feel the weight of her tragedy.
Saint Maud won’t convert anyone who’s already cold on A24’s brand of arthouse horror, but as a throwback to the dark character dramas and demonic horror of the 1970s, this is the kind of film pastiche it’s hard not to appreciate, even if it ultimately doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.