DVDanger: The Evil That Men Do
Nothing Bad Can Happen, and other meditations on darkness
By Richard Whittaker,
1:30PM, Tue. Oct. 14, 2014
Is evil something that we do, or something that we allow to happen? In German morality tale Nothing Bad Can Happen (Drafthouse Films), it's something we must endure to overcome.
This is a battle, between the pettiness of malice and the naivete of faith. Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is a Jesus Freak, part of a commune of Christian anarcho-punks in a suburban Hamburg commune. Like the Little Prince's ganglier and less worldly brother, his devotion to the cause is undoubted. Determinedly chaste, he is even convinced that his epileptic seizures are his connection to the holy.
In the devil's corner, there is Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak). With a little work, commitment, and a quick shower, he could become one the devious malcontents of another recent Drafthouse Films release, Borgman. Instead, he's content to leave a trail of depravity over his adopted family. Living on an allotment, supporting himself by unseen and probably nefarious schemes, he seems pleasant enough when he takes in Tore after a rough night of slamdancing. By the time Tore realizes how abhorrent and irredeemable his host truly is, he is locked into his own Job-like trial of devotion.
Complicating matters is Benno's step-daughter Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof), for whom both men have scarcely-suppressed feelings. She becomes their battleground, as the doting but naive Tore attempts to find some redemption among the cloud of teen hormones, and Benno seems perpetually on the verge of proving his demonic nature.
Writer/director Katrin Gebbe is clearly part of the new wave of post-Von Trier directors: But then, Von Trier's narrative style, which she most clearly emulates, owes huge debts to playwright Bertolt Brecht. She even keeps the chapter structure that typifies Brecht's strongest, most didactic work. But where Brecht was the philosopher-shrink of Socialism, her target is what faith means. There is nothing overtly supernatural or uncanny at play here. Instead, the question is what the end-game of both men is. Can Tore really believe that Benno will have some Damascene conversion? What does Benno think he will achieve, bullying this wisp of a boy?
Ultimately, Gebbe's debut feature, with the distant drums of its near-tribal soundtrack and washed-out color palette, plays less like the sometimes cartoonish Von Trier, and runs closer to the more cerebral work of his fellow Dogme ’95 veteran, Kristian Levring. There is a third-act escalation as she places Tore on a seeming path to martyrdom. That seems like an awkward tone change: A morality tale, after a kitchen-sink drama. But by that stage, this has become a full-blown religious allegory.
At least with Tore's story, the battle lines between good and evil are clearly shown. In The Rover, there's neither black nor white, nor even reassuring shades of grey. There's simply what is done under the bleaching, scalding Australian sun.
Imagine the world a year before the thugs and bullies became the full-blown motorbiking cannibal rapists of Mad Max. That's the world through which Eric (Guy Pearce) rolls endlessly, pointlessly. God is dead, and the social contract has been torn up. As he explains to the wounded Rey (Robert Pattison), there are no consequences, no repercussions. As the world boils dry, there's nothing to stop anyone doing anything.
Dressed in shorts and sandals, Eric makes the most unlikely unstoppable killer. But there's something broken in his eyes, even though he can see the world for what it is. He finds the wounded Rey by the roadside, abandoned by his brother after a robbery gone awry. Eric doesn't care. He just wants his car – stolen by the rest of the gang – back. After that, they can do whatever they want.
Pearce, as always, is masterful. His depiction and description of a man walking through an amoral landscape, one who has adapted perfectly to this new paradigm, and despairs of those that cling to the old orthodoxies, is peerless. Well, not quite. This is yet another revelatory role for Pattinson (yes, some day we'll stop being surprised that the guy from Twilight is really that good). Rey is not the brightest bulb in the box, with an implication of learning or possibly developmental disabilities. Just as Benno tries to break Tore's devotion to God, Eric rolls his eyes whenever Rey swears that his brother didn't mean to leave him behind, that he'll be glad to see him.
There is a kinship, although it is mutated: Tore seems oblivious, while Rey is no innocent, and Pattinson never forgets that he's playing a violently inclined thug. On the other hand, Benno is a scumbag just because he can be. When Eric unleashes an act of seeming inexplicable violence, the question is, why? Why is he so obsessed with getting his car back, when he seems quite happy to, ahem, liberate the property of others? While Gebbe strikes almost purely emotional notes, The Rover's writer/director David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) takes a more philosophical bent, depicting post-morality man as a product of his sand-blasted environment.
If Rey is a last hint of light in the moral darkness, then Child of God would have snuffed him out before the first frame. "What kind of meanness have you got laid out for us now?" asks Sevier County Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) of Lester Ballard (Dallas-based actor-playwright Scott Haze). Ballard is the county menace: a rambling, spitting, feral man-beast. Abandoned by his mother, orphaned through his father's suicide, he's the titular child of God. That's no compliment. As anyone who has lived in a rural community knows, every farming area has its own phrase for children born with developmental issues (where I came from, it was 'touched'), and in Sevier, it's the nice way of saying, steer clear, because no good can come from dealing with him.
Adapting Corman McCarthy's 1973 novel, director James Franco has his camera skulk alongside Ballard, through the backwoods and muddy lanes of 1960s rural Tennessee. As in the book, Ballard is the maniac as holy fool. He's not evil, but then again, neither's malaria, and that's not a welcome houseguest either. McCarthy's text has a redneck poetry to it, elevating Ballard's crimes to a new Odyssey as he becomes more depraved, more primal.
In this second of Franco's attempts to convert a lesser-known novel from a major American writer, he reunites with many of the cast and crew from his 2013 William Faulkner translation, As I Lay Dying. Nelson is the best legacy here, exuding tired violence and worldly disdain as the sheriff. After all, if it wasn't for Ballard, he could well be the worst man in town: Maybe even worse, because his nemesis understands neither good nor evil, just instinct. Less essential is cinematographer Christina Voros: An accomplished documentarian, having also previously collaborated with Franco on Kink, her bland anti-style is borderline inept. Shooting on what seems to be cheap digital doesn't help, adding an unnecessary level of artifice to the period drama.
But it's not the cinematography, nor the supporting parts, that define the film. It's Haze. This is less a performance, and more an infestation, with blazing fury in the eyes of Ballard, and a constant tumble of gibberish gushing over his crooked teeth. He dares to make the character nonsensical, as erratic as the cosmos he preys upon.
If those three films share a moral, it's that there's no point asking for divine intervention. In contrast, 1988's Pumpkinhead is a redneck angel of retribution, and there's no dancing around the fact that he is real. In an opening flashback, young Ed Harley (Chance Michael Corbitt, seen the previous year as the littlest vampire in The Lost Boys) finds out how real he is. The only son of a pair of dirt-poor farmers, one late night he watches the demon swing a grown man like a Wiffle bat. He's been accused of killing a girl, and Pumpkinhead has been summoned to take revenge, the backwoods way. Years later, the grown Harley (Lance Henriksen) has his own killing to be done. His infant son Billie (Matthew Hurley) has been killed in a motorcycle accident by a bunch of college kids, and he does what he knows must be done: He visits the old wise woman, and has her summon the Pumpkinhead to take vengeance for what he has lost.
This was the late Eighties, the era of college-kid horror, where terrible things happened to people with terrible haircuts. But Pumpkinhead stands out because it is not a straight-ahead monster horror. It's a tragedy. The death is an accident: It's when the drunk driver responsible stops his friends from calling for an ambulance that the real crime is committed. But the dye is cast before then, in the flash of raw, seething hatred in Ed's eyes as he carries his son's limp body back to their truck stop.
The directorial debut of multi-Oscar winning FX master Stan Winston (the Terminator and Jurassic Park franchises), Pumpkinhead has become an afterthought in most discussions of Eighties horror. In part, as is explained in one of the extras on this packed disc, that came because the original distributor, Dino de Laurentiis, went belly-up before it could hit cinemas. Yet this Shout! Factory release calls for a reconsideration of its place in the canon.
As a movie, it's not perfect, but it's head and shoulders above most of its Southern-fried contemporaries. It also features of the best cinematic beasts of the era: A weird, misshapen hulk of teeth and swollen skull. But it's not what it looks like, or what it does, that makes this movie so memorable. It's that Ed Harley turns to dark forces in his darkest hour.
"She can't help you, she can only take you straight to hell," one of the locals warns Ed when he seeks out the old witch, and so turns this tale into a heartbreaking Gothic revenge. If The Rover's Eric wants to find some semblance of a cosmic order, Ed Harley has rules and strictures to spare. The moral here is simple: An eye for an eye turns the whole world blind, but Harley has his eyes stapled open, forced to see the gruesome cost of his quest.
A decade after Pumpkinhead blipped into theatres during the post-Scream depths of stupidity, I Know What You Did Last Summer took the same revenge dynamic and made it asinine. The teen killers become cardboard heroes, and the man they run over is supposed to have deserved it. Honestly, you can see the roots of the dross like Jersey Shore in its shrug-it-off morality. But Ed Harley and his kind look like they just put on their rat-torn church outfits because that photographer lady Dorothea Lange is looking for Dust Bowl migrants. And Winston may not be the greatest nuts-and-bolts filmmaker, but his designs take the super-color-saturated ethos of the era to a new and nuanced level.
Ultimately, this is Henriksen's film. This is the culmination of a run of career-defining roles for him, preceded by Bishop in Aliens and Caleb in Near Dark, and he roots this tale in believable tragedy. Even when the action and visuals get gory and bizarre (it's a safe bet to say that Tim Burton watched this a few times before heading to Sleepy Hollow), he finds the humanity in the horror.
Nothing Bad Can Happen (Drafthouse Films) is released on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct 14. The Rover (Lionsgate) and Pumpkinhead (Scream! Factory) are available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Child of God (Well Go USA) is released Oct. 28.