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Silent Survival: AZRAEL Review Unleashes Unspoken Terror

A bloody woman sits looking off into the distance
Image Courtesy of SXSW

By Amylou Ahava

In the creepy, messed-up world of AZRAEL, it is all about the quiet. Director E.L. Katz and writer Simon Barrett ditch the usual storytelling rules and focus on action and expressions to tell a wild survival story. Making its world premiere at SXSW, Samara Weaving kills it as Azrael, a woman trying to survive in a world where nobody talks. Within the film, Weaving plays another game of hide-and-seek, except this time, it’s in a post-apocalyptic hellscape where she is hunted by the survivors and whatever evil lives in the woods. 

A voiceless Azrael (Weaving) and her partner (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) travel through the woods, fearing an approaching whistle. The fleeing pair rely on facial expressions and simple hand gestures to communicate, but they do not use anything resembling speech. The film's opening tells very little about the world the story is set in and we must infer from context the characters' lives and their relation to each other. One noticeable characteristic both the hunted and the hunters have (besides not speaking) is they all have a scar in the shape of the Christian cross on their throats. We know only from the text at the beginning of the film that something terrible happened, and “among the survivors, some are driven to renounce their sin of Speech.”

From the outset,  AZRAEL immerses the audience in its mysterious world. There is no spoon-feeding of information, and instead, viewers must piece together the story from subtle cues and context. Living in a post-apocalyptic state, the rival group lives in a tent city made of scraps and remnants of a past civilization. Instead of building houses out of wood or natural resources, they still depend on artificial materials as they live among car parts and plastic.

Aside from the group of people stalking Azrael through the forest, there is also a creature that lives in the woods and feeds on humans gruesomely (In a very teeth-gnashing, throat-ripping, and blood-splattering way). The creatures want human blood, but they don’t go about getting it in a neat and tidy way like say a vampire would. Instead, these monsters treat humans more like a coconut they want to crack open so they can suck out all the delicious liquid. 

One of the film's most striking elements is its use of symbolism. Everyone bears a cross permanently etched into their bodies, hinting at a society haunted by past sins. Furthermore, the name Azrael appears in a few religions (all with some variations from one another), but for Christians, the name is given to the Angel of Death. While the film makes a lot of allusions to a Christian existence with several instances of imagery associated with the religion, this new civilization seems to worship a much more sinister and even archaic version of Christianity. One that relies on shedding blood and prophesizes something horrible to come.

A fascinating aspect of the film is that despite the new world seeming to have existed for a while, there is no discernable language. One of the intertitle cards provides a proverb that mentions “muteness.” Still, perhaps the people also took the proverb about the “sin of Speech” seriously and refused to develop sign language or even a communication system via whistles, which goes beyond merely alerting each other. Either way, the lack of dialogue forces the audience to immerse themselves in this new world.

Barrett and Katz do a phenomenal job with their storytelling, conveying so much about the characters' way of life without relying on an exposition dump. Instead, every frame is meticulously crafted, with each shot serving a purpose in advancing the narrative, and the lack of spoken words only heightens the tension. From the guttural growls of the creature in the woods to the gasps of our protagonists, the film's sound design is particularly noteworthy, with every noise serving to ratchet up the tension. 

Overall, the film dares to avoid the safety net of dialogue and instead relies on the power of visual and auditory storytelling to captivate its audience. AZRAEL does not provide a single moment where there is a sense of relief or even a pause in the action. The brilliant Weaving continues to gasp and claw her way from one torturous situation to the next as she anchors the film with her raw emotion and physicality. While the film does not answer many questions, it instead drops the audience into a different world from our own and lets us watch the events unfold.


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