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The idea behind “Azrael” is praiseworthy — a silent, gory revenge indie about a woman who breaks free from a cult during the apocalypse (or some kind of zombie uprising) — but it fails to visually communicate many aspects of its story. Struggling with the relationship between image and meaning, the film produces an uncanny result that allows for too many competing interpretations, and not enough emotional clarity.

Once onscreen text establishes that Christian extremists have renounced “the sin of speech” in this post-apocalyptic world, E.L. Katz’s horror movie begins in medias res, and then some. A young woman (Samara Weaving), who has a cross branded onto her throat, walks through woods casting fearful glances over her shoulder before silently scolding her lover (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) for lighting a fire. Both actors commit to their parts with wide-eyed intensity — or rather, with the wrong kind of intensity for what the Azrael movie itself suggests happened.

Although we eventually realize they’re lifelong mutes, these characters act as though they only just abruptly stopped speaking right before the cameras rolled. There’s no indication they’ve worked out any kinks in communication or understanding whatsoever; this points to flimsy world-building and creates an ill-formed romantic dynamic between them. They seem like strangers thrown together by chance amidst danger rather than people who know each other well — yet there’s little clarity about what any of those things are.

Armed members of their cult capture the couple soon after they meet up again in hiding; Weaving is bound while one takes a slice at her shin with a razor until she bleeds. It seems like this is intended to lure something out from the wilderness — whether blood is ultimately what makes it happen remains unclear; either way, though, such loud heaves and breaths would suggest summoning from deep below.

What rises up turns out to be a zombie-like ghoul with charred, falling-apart skin or flesh (from burning?), and an appetite for people. Weaving frees herself and goes looking for Stewart-Jarrett in the forest, with light pouring through the trees in ways that should make your eyes pop. She doesn’t speak or call out, but the movie rarely suggests any risks or consequences of doing so — even while showing the desire to — except near its end, when there are suggestions that this mutism may have been surgical given all the scars and heavy breathing and occasional silent screaming. But then there are just as many sound choices that would seem to indicate otherwise: grunts and vocalizations which are wordless but have the distinct tenor of human voices.

The reasons for Weaving’s flight remain unknown. Is it that she is avoiding oppressive circumstances invisible to us? Or was the ritualistic zombie sacrifice a punishment for running away, or what she was running from in the first place? —The film’s casting choices may hint at what’s really going on (Weaving is white, Stewart-Jarrett is Black, and there aren’t many Black cult members to be seen), though while it wants you to think its villains have an anti-miscegenation agenda, it only piles up more confusingly symbolic mess. Some scenes and story choices (like Stewart-Jarrett being chained to a tree stump) may call forth disturbing images of anti-Black racism throughout American history (like an instance of a body being hanged from a tree), but they don’t add up to a coherent thesis statement about the movie itself.

This religious worldbuilding is only more ambiguous, thanks to some dubious attempts at clarity. The cult’s creaky wooden church, presided over by a pregnant priestess, is filled with paintings that are implied to be premonitions; eventually Weaving’s character starts having her own supernatural ability to see into the future. But whether this ability has anything to do with her persecution, or if it’s just random chance — the movie never says; so every time something happens we’re like “oh great.”

There are very few moments in “Azrael” that rise above viscerally shocking in their bloodiness and gore — most of which are obscured by shadow anyway. Though rooted in the POV of people who hear things just fine thank you very much, its sound design is relentlessly loud and disorienting, emphasizing every footstep breath gunshot with ear-piercing intensity even when nothing dangerous seems to be happening nearby. This isn’t “A Quiet Place,” where sound attracts danger and doom — but perhaps some more considered technical worldbuilding would’ve meant something to us about this place, through the ears of someone who lives there.

“Azrael,” though rarely actually scary, does contain some creepy hints of the supernatural and/or occult once its apparent premonitions start coming true. However, the way they’re assembled in the edit suggests less a relationship between Weaving’s character and these visions than attempts to deliver explanations and plot points to the audience where the image alone has failed. So while it does have bouts of righteous bloodshed (the title refers to an angel of vengeance), what this heroine is fighting for or against remains too unclear for any amount of action beats to be cathartic.

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