For a review of “The Nun,”
Step aside, “Halloween.” Forget it, “Paranormal Activ- ity.” Nice try, “Scream.” “The Conjuring” franchise (or the “Conjuring Cinematic Universe,” the “CCU”) has steadily become the most dependable horror film franchise of late, conquering the box office with good old-fashioned and flawlessly executed spooks and scares, with a few interesting ideas to boot.
Spinning off James Wan’s 2013 “The Conjuring,” about real-life married ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, the franchise started with true tales of hauntings, possessions and spectral invasions. But there were so many side stories and creepy characters that both “The Conjuring” and “The Conjuring 2” well, conjured up, that more movies were necessary. There have been two films about Annabelle, the creepiest porcelain doll ever. And now “The Nun” takes on the backstory of the imposing demon in a habit that terrorized Lorraine’s visions.
In this spinoff, director Corin Hardy delivers a ’70s throwback gothic horror epic. Written by “Annabelle” screenwriter Gary Dauberman and James Wan, it’s lush, operatic, hardcore Catholic horror from the depths of “The Omen” and “The Exorcist,” with hints of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “Black Narcissus,” washed with medieval overtones. And it’s a total, screaming blast.
Demián Bichir is perfectly cast as Father Burke, a reluctant priest tasked by the Vatican to investigate unusual religious phenomena, or as they call it, “miracle hunting” (he exudes shades of Jason Miller in “The Exorcist”). After young deliveryman Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) discovers the hanged body of a nun at a cloistered Romanian abbey, Burke is sent to investigate the suicide. He is asked to bring along a young novitiate, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), for her familiarity with “the territory” (she’s never been to Romania).
The people of the village claim the abbey is cursed, bringing a plague upon their houses, and the woods are littered with protective crosses. Once the trio arrives, they discover it’s not as bad as they expect — it’s worse. The place is a mouth to hell, guarded by terrified nuns who participate in perpetual adoration and prayer to keep the demons at bay, though they aren’t doing all that great a job of it.
Burke must rely on his deep religious historical knowledge, while Irene puts her psychic abilities and visions to use in combatting the ancient evil. Frenchie is the audience surrogate, agape at the surreal horrors unfolding within the abbey’s walls, using good old-fashioned firepower as his protection.
French horror cinematographer Maxime Alexandre is well-versed in the visual language of the CCU — the slow camera movements, pushes and pulls that build tension, and slow pans that mimic human vision, looking away then back to reveal some demon lurking in the shadows. The camera chases and circles elusive creatures, catching glimpses but never quite finding anything before some hellish doom looms out of the dark.
Despite the sumptuous imagery and sound design enhanced with Gregorian chants and despite the excellent performances (particularly Farmiga as the steely but vulnerable little nun), “The Nun” fails to execute one element: the question of faith. The franchise, with its point-of-view camera work and themes of psychic visions, has always pushed the boundaries on “seeing is believing,” and having a little faith in the things you can see that others can’t. In a religious setting, where prayer keeps demons at bay, there’s an opportunity to explore the idea further, but “The Nun” stays on the surface. The surface may be ominous, richly textured and morbidly fascinating, but storywise, it remains shallow.
“The Nun,” a Warner Bros. Picture release, is rated R for terror, violence, and disturbing/bloody images. Running time: 96 minutes. ★★½
“God Bless the Broken Road”
The growing faith-based film industry is on a quest for content: stories that will connect with audiences, or draw pre-existing ones. Mostly, the content has come in the form of true stories, from the Bible, medical miracles or visions of Jesus. There are the political fictions built on straw man arguments (the “God’s Not Dead” franchise). Now, there’s the “inspired by a country song” subgenre.
“I Can Only Imagine,” based on the MercyMe smash hit, was a box office hit. The film’s plot chronicles the life events that inspired lead singer Bart Millard to pen the wildly popular song’s lyrics. And now there’s “God Bless the Broken Road,” directed by Harold Cronk, director of “God’s Not Dead” and the upcoming “Unbroken: Path to Redemption.” The film is based on the Rascal Flatts song “Bless the Broken Road” and combines NASCAR and the war in Afghanistan to craft a story connected to the song by the thinnest of threads.
Lindsay Pulsipher stars as Amber, a widow with a young daughter, Bree (Makenzie Moss), who loses her faith when her husband is killed in Afghanistan. Two years after his death, her house on the verge of foreclosure, she’s struggling to make ends meet while waiting tables at the local diner. Amber’s lost her connection with church, and with God. But she catches the eye of a handsome stranger, Cody (Andrew W. Walker), a bad boy NASCAR driver who rolls into town after a crash, forced by his coach to do some small-town community service. Naturally, he starts teaching the youth of the local church, including Bree, how to build their own gokarts, while wooing the grieving Amber.
The entire conflict is all a bit strained — the denizens of the small town seemingly straight from the 1950s are all awfully judgmental of the young pair. Apparently Cody is a bad guy because he crashes a lot — isn’t that what they do in NASCAR? Furthermore, there isn’t a shred of charity shown toward war widow Amber, who has to pawn her engagement ring to make house payments. Everyone shows terrible judgment all around, except for her friends from church (Robin Givens and Jordin Sparks) who have the good sense to show up with a ziti every now and then and find her a new home.
“God Bless the Broken Road” is a very strange Frankenstein’s monster of a film, the story trying to combine too many elements while reverse-engineered into incorporating the title of a popular country song. It is unclear what anything in the movie has to do with Rascal Flatts or the song, except that Amber sings it at the end in her triumphant return to church, after her many cometo-Jesus moments: losing her home, her daughter running away on a go-kart and going to live with her judgmental, multi-level-marketing-shilling mother-in-law, finding out the story of her husband’s death from his Army pal, a climatic NASCAR race wherein her new boyfriend drives a commemorative car decked out in pink camouflage and eagles.
What “God Bless the Broken Road” does have going for it is a better-than-expected performance by Pulsipher, who plays the winsome but broken woman with a deep sense of sensitivity. At the center, she holds together this hodgepodge of random story elements that otherwise don’t make much sense together at all.
“God Bless The Broken Road,” a Freestyle release, is rated PG for thematic elements and some combat action. Running time: 111 minutes. ★½
Andrew W. Walker plays a racecar driver and Lindsay Pulsipher an overworked young widow in “God Bless the Broken Road,” a faith-based drama opening today.