[SPOILER ALERT: The following article discusses the ending of new film “Amulet” in detail.]
Romola Garai loves the f-word. The actor’s feature film debut as writer-director, “Amulet,” now available on demand, began its buzz out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, with audiences praising it as a feminist horror film — and Garai has no qualms with that label. “Oh, I’m always very comfortable with the f-word,” Garai says with a laugh. “It’s a word I feel extremely comfortable with and would like written on everything. If I had a glass of water and people asked, ’Is that a feminist glass of water?’ I’d be like, ‘Yes, yes it is!’”
Since Garai is best known as an actor for her work in acclaimed period productions like “Atonement” and the BBC miniseries “Emma,” horror might seem an odd choice for her first feature foray behind the camera. But Garai has long loved the genre; she cites Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” as a film she “carried around in my heart” since seeing it in her 20s. But it was really Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” that made her realize she should try her hand at horror.
“Amulet” introduces us to Tomaz (Alec Secareanu), a homeless former soldier who is offered help by a kind nun named Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton). Sister Claire urges him to board with Magda (Carla Juri), the caretaker of her ailing mother, who lives in the attic. There are horrors aplenty in the old house: Magda exhibits signs of abuse from the ranting mother, and a strong rat/bat creature is found clogging the toilet pipes. The film goes on to subvert expectations when it’s revealed Tomaz raped a woman he was hiding during the war. That’s not the only surprise; the mother in the house is actually another man with a violent past, who has been turned into a creature that repeatedly gives birth to those rat/bat hybrids as punishment for his sins.
It’s a film that expertly blends body horror, suspense and revenge in a tale that feels all too timely in the midst of the #MeToo movement. In fact, Garai has been very outspoken about her own history in Hollywood; she previously detailed the experience of being 18 years old and meeting for a role with Harvey Weinstein, who chose to conduct the meeting wearing only a dressing gown. (One can’t help but note that Weinstein would benefit from seeing the film, but it’s probably not one they’ll show in prisons.)
Garai does say she’s fine making people squirm. “It has been great to see the film with an audience and there are some men who are made incredibly uncomfortable by the film, which just gives me incredible pleasure,” she says.
With the movie now available on demand, Garai broke down some of the twists and its ending, sure to be discussed among those who view it.
What gave you the idea to tell this story in the context of a horror film?
My idea was to write a film with a set of characters and tropes you knew and understood — good man lost in the woods, young female victim and an aged woman who’s a threat — and to make sure that they all change places or to explore their tropes a bit more. That was my starting place.
It’s interesting to use supernatural horror as a gateway to look at real-life horrors.
Whether this film absorbs the philosophical doctrines of feminism in its many incarnations — it does insomuch in that it’s written and directed by a woman. I don’t know if I can say it signs up to feminist theory more than that.
It is definitely about gender, more than feminism itself, it’s about masculinity really, and my observations. It is very threatening to men to have their status as nurturers and protectors challenged, even in the force of enormous evidence, because there is a narrative that exists around being a man, which is that they nurture and protect women and children. Actually, human history debunks that. Time and time and time again, men are very threatening to women and children.
I was interested in exploring why it is men have done that and why they’re able to do that because of this psychic splitting that occurs around their behavior and the mythology that exists around them. That’s what I wanted to write about.
That sums up the character of Tomaz perfectly; we’re on his side for most of the film and then realize he’s raped the woman he was protecting.
I was with the casting director and we literally looked at the photo of him and I said, “There’s no way that man ever raped someone!” Of course that’s why he was absolutely perfect for the role. He would absolutely be able to exemplify that problem of not accepting what your elemental nature is beneath the surface. Alec is also really a kind and nice man as well, you get the sense his energy is just right.
Tomaz finds an amulet at the start of the film and I’ve seen discussions that say the amulet itself caused him to behave out of character. Was that your intention?
No, you’re not the only person who has said that, but it’s absolutely not what I intended. He finds this object and after he’s found it, it mainly exists in the hands of the woman he rescues. I wanted the object to be present at this act; it observed this act, and somehow that meant that she was able to be avenged. Magda goes to visit her at the end and take the amulet in a way to demonstrate that she has avenged her, that her experience has been seen and avenged in some way.
Sister Claire says they’re trying to contain the evil but they allow the creature to reproduce. Do they really intend to kill all the offspring or are there more sinister plans?
Sister Claire is a human woman who helps her entrap and take revenge. He’s given the opportunity to leave the house at any time he could leave. Magda says, “I don’t want you to be here, I don’t need you.” But he continues to stay and imposes himself on her out of this mistaken belief she requires him. He finally comes face-to-face with this creature which is the personification of his evil. The woman, we learn, is actually a man continually giving birth to his own evil in a kind of flipping of what would happen in real life if a woman was raped and become pregnant. She would carry the baby and experience the pain of the labor. In fact he is essentially giving birth to this creature that is the personification of his own evil.
So they don’t want it out in the world, even though one escapes through the toilet?
I think the one that comes up through the toilet is an accident. Maybe it ran away. Magda says, “We always kill them because they’re born with teeth.” Well, that’s not the reason. The reason is they’re evil.
So if I’m being simplistic, Sister Claire and Magda are on the side of good.
Yeah, they’re the good guys. The idea is he’s just become a sort of receptacle of his own vice, just a kind of eternal punishment. The film is simple in that way, in that it’s a cathartic way of seeing somebody who’s done something incredibly wrong being punished for it. It’s a revenge story, very simple in that sense. I guess the twist or spin is only really that he is not what he appears to be at the beginning. His character goes through this extreme evolution.
His predecessor, who we believe is the mother locked in the attic, also did something to be put through this punishment. There’s a newspaper headline that tells us he’s committed a crime.
You can see it just on the edge of the frame, it says he murdered his wife and children. But the general message is that he’s a man who’s committed a crime against women.
You have spoken very openly about how Hollywood can mistreat women in the industry. Do you feel as if things are moving in the right direction?
I think it’s a great feeling to be a director. I just think there is so much about being an actor that is so incredibly complicated when you’re female. Hopefully there are going to be some things [that are] less complicated going forward — like maybe the workplace won’t be actually dangerous for you. But there are other parts of it where you’re expected to do your job as an actor but also be a figurehead other women use to beat themselves up with. All that stuff of being an exemplar of perfect beauty is really hard for a woman, and it’s really difficult to say I’m a feminist, I have these ideals, and then go on a red carpet. It’s not easy to do those two things. That doesn’t happen as much when you’re a director, I think. It’s a very timely and long overdue thing the industry is finally trying to correct decades and decades [of], where they have actively conspired to insure that only a limited number of people can tell the stories that influence the world.