This is not a perfect film, and a few blunders prevent it from even reaching the level of “great”, but it is a film worth watching.
The wife saw a recommendation for this on one of the alternate social media sites and dragged me, kicking and screaming, into a real world movie theater. She knew only the barest of synopses – a psychologist interviews a death row inmate to determine if the inmate is demon-possessed or faking insanity to avoid the chair – which means I had the pleasure of going into the film with very low expectations. We know before the lights dim that there’s a demon in there, after all. And Hollywood has a very poor track record with exorcism movies, generally trading on the Catholic imagery to tap into our primordial fear of evil incarnate while face-planting on the theology.
This isn’t one of those films.
It turns out Nefarious is a low-budget independent flick based on a book by BlazeTV’s Steve Deace. The film adaption was written and directed by the same duo that produced surprise hit God is (Not) Dead. Which means that they were not crippled by the usual Hollywood handcuffs. The result is one of the most daring films I’ve ever seen, and perhaps one of the most shocking.
In retrospect, the budget becomes clear. The bulk of the film consists of two men sitting across from each other in a dark room. They talk, wheedle, debate, cajole, and argue for long stretches providing for one of those rare instances of a ‘psychological thriller’ that delivers on the concept. The resulting conversation-slash-investigation sprawls across topics rarely even mentioned in Hollywood films. The nature of evil. How sons suffer for the sins of their fathers. The pressures that even a poorly-formed conscience can exert on a man of reason. And of course, the nature of fallen angles, the role they play in God’s creation, and the hows and whys of their ability to convince men to work their own doom. It’s a compelling conversation, and one that raises as many questions as it answers.
The film is carried on the strength of the two leads, who turn in three masterful performances.
The atheist psychiatrist, enters as a man at the top of the world. He has it all figured out and life by the horns. He quickly discovers that the world does not operate the way he thinks, and his descent into reality provides a harrowing look at the dark side of conversion to Christianity. That’s one. The other two come from Sean Patrick Flanery, whose death-row inmate at first appears to be a bad case of multiple-personality disorder. This allows him to play a fearful and dim-witted inmate and a cool and collected master of this earthly realm. He effortlessly switches back and forth between these two characters, providing a chilling look at the way sin enslaves us all.
And here is where the real terror begins.
Because the real impact of the film lies in the way it inspires a deep sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.” At times the film challenges the viewer to think of himself as the inmate – how often have you listened to your own demons? At times the film challenges the viewer to think of himself as the Doctor – how often have you let your guard down, been tempted, or been caught unprepared to face of evil?
This is to say nothing of the narrative tension involved with the question of whether the man possessed can be saved from the chair. The question of whether our struggling Doctor will fully succumb to the power of the demon. It’s powerful stuff, and provides a deeper sense of drama and menace than anything you’ll find coming from the Mouse.
And now, like the film itself, we have to end on a bit of a downer. At the risk of breaking my promise of no spoilers…Glenn Beck appears and things grind to a halt. The film’s resolution involves an extended “tell, don’t show” sequence featuring Glenn Beck that feels like a reluctant inclusion. The film would have been better served with a few short scenes illustrating the resolution of the central conflict, but there’s only so much you can do on such a limited budget. The decision to wrap things up “one year later” with a brief interview wraps up the narrative, while providing a true-to-life sense of ‘that’s as much closure as you can hope for’ with a dash of sequel-bait for good measure. It’s a little weak, but given the strength of what preceded it, this reviewer can forgive the film its stumble at the finish line.
This is the kind of film America has been starved of for far too long. You should go see it. It may be too late to do the nation much good to have these rare bright lights of Christian success in theaters, but it’s never too late for you.
As an addendum, it’s worth noting the audience with which I watched this film say quietly throughout the run time. In retrospect, it comes as no surprise that the rare well-behaved audience would be the one that goes out to see a film of strong Christian faith.