Samara Weaving Is the (Silent) Scream Queen of SXSW With ‘Azrael’

C2 Motion Picture Group
C2 Motion Picture Group

After last year’s abysmal No One Will Save You, in which Kaitlyn Dever ran from alien invaders without ever saying a word throughout the film’s entire runtime, releasing another horror movie with deliberately little dialogue is like playing hopscotch on thin ice: ill-advised. Luckily, the minds behind this latest almost-wordless film, Azrael, which premiered at SXSW Film Festival March 9, have some tricks to ensure that this quiet conceit is less of a gimmick and more of a fascinating storytelling device.

The first is the film’s legitimately imaginative premise, which follows a young woman hunted by a cult of violent religious zealots, who will stop at nothing to ensure that they capture and sacrifice her. The second is the supreme talent of star Samara Weaving, who plays the titular Azrael and reaffirms that she is one of the most enigmatic horror stars working today. Weaving’s turn in Azrael is just as gnarly and meticulous as her performances in Ready or Not, the two Babysitter films, and the cold open of the latest Scream movie. But in Azrael, Weaving confirms that she has the nerve to be a horror icon, delivering a wicked and gritty performance, and rising to the demands of a film where she must believably convey the nuances of fright and rage, without any words to do so.

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Azrael is set after a biblically accurate Rapture sends the earth into peril, a condition that the film communicates with title cards of scriptural quotes. Because Azrael is almost dialogue-free and set after the end of the world, the film is almost begging for comparisons to A Quiet Place. It almost seems like Azrael is daring those analogies, given that, like A Quiet Place, this film also includes a collection of sinewy cryptids that are never far from Azrael or the cult that’s tracking her. It’s as if writer Simon Barrett and director E.L. Katz were less than impressed with the big-budget sheen of that franchise and set out to make their own version with a little more carnage, which the film supplies in bloodsoaked droves.

Decapitations, throat-ripping, and skin-slashing are all par for the course in Azrael, and the film wastes no time letting viewers on to the extent of its gore. At the beginning of the movie, Azrael and her romantic companion (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) are captured by the sect of religious fanatics, who make their first attempt to sacrifice the pair. It inevitably goes south, but not without someone else succumbing to the horrific violence of the blood-guzzling forest demons. These things are legitimately freaky, even by horror standards, recalling the cave mutants from The Descent if they were covered in the dried blood of their prey. Naturally, Azrael wants to escape that kind of fate.

Azrael spends the entire film in this state of flux. She’s fleeing from demonic entities. She’s escaping the cult's apprehension. She’s running from the camp of run-down mental shanties that they live in. Were the film longer than its brisk 85 minutes, this repetitive structure would easily hinder its breathless pace. But Azrael sticks around just long enough to give viewers a little taste of its brutal world before sending them back into the light of day.

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All of that running and hiding demands Weaving give a fierce physical performance, and she is more than up for the challenge. Her large, expressive eyes and knotted facial language telegraph Azrael’s emotions and desires without any words. The closest Weaving ever comes to talking are her silent, strained screams. She conveys the character’s utter exhaustion without making the audience feel it themselves, and commands the camera with even more intensity as Azrael reaches her limit and flips toward boisterous revenge. Weaving provides the film with a gripping spectacle without saying a single syllable, and it’s no leisurely feat.

Even if it’s a fascinating and well-executed concept, one has to eventually wonder: To what end? Azrael makes a ferocious meal out of its lack of talking, subbing in some stellar sound design and carefully chosen needle drops and score cues. Katz’s film is occasionally complicated by the necessity to stick to Barrett’s vision. Audiences, especially those familiar with the biblical nature of Azrael’s namesake (Azrael is an archangel of death), won’t need to be spoon-fed—especially when the character makes it to the cult’s eerie chapel, run by an equally chilling priestess. But some may crave a story that is more resolute, its answers more definitive and less left up to viewer interpretation.

But Barrett has always been great at toying with the viewer’s expectations, taking what the audience thinks will happen and batting that around until it looks like something else entirely. He did it in the screenplays for You’re Next and The Guest, a pair of slick and ultra-memorable horror films that kept people guessing until the end. That style is a particularly effective trick in Azrael, where the audience is forced to remain engaged with Barrett’s wordless screenplay to understand exactly what’s happening within the film’s horrific dystopia.

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The scarcity of speech doesn’t, however, make Azrael hard to follow. Barrett could easily muddle his script by focusing too much on how “inventive” the lack of dialogue is, but he understands that this conceit is nothing new. Instead, Barrett thrusts the audience into events that are already at play, and encourages us to catch up to where his characters and this world are at. By inserting us into something that’s already happening, and very close to reaching its conclusion, Barrett and Katz pull off a clever, sanguine finale that requires only as much extra thought as any individual wants to give it. It’s nice that Azrael is so unassuming. A lack of self-importance keeps the film from feeling like an experiment, but rather a fully formed thesis brought to life by an electrifying Weaving, whose daring choices may have solidified her as Hollywood’s next horror dynamo.

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