Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass, puts a spin on the religious horror movie that both honors the tropes of the genre while also infusing it with a distinctly modern perspective and considerable artistry. Katie (Morfydd Clark) is a Welsh nurse who is wracked with guilt over a patient that she has lost. After being let go from her job, she becomes a devout Roman Catholic, leaving behind not just the job but also her libertine lifestyle that will come to haunt her throughout the film. She starts caring for Amanda, an American dancer, played by Jennifer Ehle, who is dying of stage 4 lymphoma. Despite her illness, Amanda is also engaged in a liberal lifestyle that Katie, who now goes by Maud, disapproves of. Her mission to “save” Amanda both physically and spiritually is soon intertwined with Maud’s immersion into the belief that she has been chosen by God, and her grasp on reality is soon compromised to the point that she starts endangering herself and others around her.
Saint Maud is bold and artistically assured. It is one of the most striking and fresh movies to come out in the past couple of years. Yet one of its greatest strengths is how it harks back to older movies. There is a timeless element in the aesthetic of Ben Fordesman’s cinematography, which favors deep, warm colors and striking visual motifs such as vortices. We see the swirling blood in the sink when Maud washes and later Maud sees vortices in everyone’s beer when she is at a bar when she is figuratively spiraling out of control. In fact, other than a few mentions of the Internet and cell phones, this film could have taken place at almost any time during the last 50 years. The time period that might come to mind is the 70’s, which obviously saw the rise of religious horror (The Exorcist, The Omen, etc.). But the 70’s film that Saint Maud is interestingly quite reminiscent of is Taxi Driver.
Some of the similarities are obvious such as Maud’s Schraderian monologue throughout the film reflecting on her shortcomings and how to right them. Maud’s descent near the end of the film to the city with the neon lights is eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s own nightly sojourns into the River Styx of New York City nightlife. Also, both Schrader and Scorsese came from strongly religious backgrounds that placed a high emphasis on sin and human shortcoming and the need for repentance and redemption, which Saint Maud is clearly obsessed with.
Yet Rose Glass manages to distinguish herself from those auteurs in important ways. The fact that Maud goes on her journey because of guilt is important because we understand her reversion to Catholicism as an extension of her desire to not feel guilt over her accident whereas with Taxi Driver, and other movies inspired by it, the character’s motivations are often inextricably wrapped up with toxic masculinity. In contrast, Maud seeks to heal and help peacefully, at least at the beginning.
Often in these vigilante narratives, women are often an afterthought or a plot device to propel the troubled protagonist into violent action. But Jennifer Ehle’s Amanda, while she does serve to move the plot forward to some extent, is more complex and interesting than that. Ehle plays her with a prickly self-assuredness that barely hides the fear that she has of death. And while the film is definitely critical of Maud’s destructive self-righteousness, Amanda doesn’t get a pass either. She mocks Maud’s faith and condescends to her in front of her worldly friends even though Maud is sincere. Even if you are inclined to be an atheist or agnostic, Amanda isn’t the character you would immediately sympathize with.
If Amanda is a prickly character then Maud is a whole Gordian knot of her own making. Morfydd Clark is so good at portraying the mighty struggle between Maud’s desire to be benevolent and her natural character flaws. She has so much rage and guilt that even her attempts at being modest are laced with tension. Even something as simple as correcting Amanda’s way of playing solitaire becomes a loaded action because of how Clark plays it as almost an affront to her need for perfection. Even her monologue, which is meant to be a prayer to God, is often angry and demanding, one that demands God to be even clearer in his messaging.
It is also possible that Maud is not really meant to be the spiritual receptacle for God that she so desperately wants to be. Faith is by its nature ethereal and incorporeal, yet Maud’s reactions to God are mainly physical. Even though she wonders if the pain that she is interpreting as God’s entering into her body is actually something mundane like appendicitis, she clings to these physical symptoms nevertheless as her penance. Also, her motivations to be a nurse are strangely divorced from a humble desire to serve and help. Her attempts to help Amanda are motivated by a cleansing of guilt rather than sincerely wanting to ease Amanda’s pain.
Yet the Bible is filled with unwilling prophets who wrestled with God, and it’s frankly ingenious how Glass is able to tap into those old stories while telling a thoroughly modern one about a woman and her deeply-seated mental issues. To go back to the vigilante narrative however, Saint Maud is definitely critical of the messianic delusion that Maud suffers. Maud is empowered by her delusion to act beyond the boundaries of morality and to take unwarranted control of Amanda’s life. Her violent acts are ultimately rooted in a selfish need to prove herself to God and are a perversion of her desire to be free of her guilt. Saint Maud is ultimately the origin story of a horror villain, but it’s a complex one that gives humanity to the monster without condoning her actions.