You can approach a movie many ways. Directors view it as a kind of statement. Cinematographers and set designers view it as a kind of visual art. Actors view it as a demonstration of their skills. And producers – mustn’t forget them! – view it as a kind of muscle-flexing: “See what I can do?”
All of them, without exception, hope you’ll see their movie their way, if not exactly through their eyes. Whatever message they embed in it is the one they’d like you to come away with as you leave the theater. But if the movie really “comes together,” the viewer will get more than that. The impact on him will go beyond statements, artistry, craft, and the rest. As the saying goes, the whole will be more than merely the sum of its parts.
Nefarious is all that, and more.
This movie is upsetting. If you’re easily upset, it will get you in a very tender place. In that way, it parallels another movie that many found supremely upsetting. The two would make quite a double feature.
This movie is also terrifying. Sean Patrick Flanery gives a performance that’s beyond praise. From his lips comes the voice of evil: genuine and unadulterated. While he’s on-screen as Edward Wayne Brady / the demon Nefarious, you hear, as closely as a human is capable of producing it, the anti-gospel of Satan. Unless, that is, there’s something about him that I don’t know and he’d rather we not find out.
Jordan Belfi is also impressive as psychiatrist James Martin, brought in to certify Brady’s mental competence for execution. He plays Martin’s part straight: as an admitted, “devout” atheist at the start, but one who is ever more persuaded by the evidence Brady / Nefarious gives him, that the condemned man is possessed by a demon. The counterpoint between the two, written with exquisite attention to rhythm and timing, is seductive in the best sense. You can feel Nefarious’s evil gradually overcoming Martin’s stubborn insistence upon rejecting the supernatural.
But central to the movie is the question Why? It’s been said many times that “The devil’s greatest achievement is convincing us that he doesn’t exist.” C. S. Lewis laid emphasis on this in The Screwtape Letters:
I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and sceptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, belief in us, (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis, may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight. But in the meantime we must obey our orders.
He underlined that concept in That Hideous Strength: one of the reasons I hold that novel in such high regard.
That is why I find Why? to be the question most urgently pressed upon us by the movie. Why would a demon be so eager to convince an atheist psychiatrist – one, moreover, who has unwittingly been doing Satan’s work – that the supernatural is real, that demons and possession exist, and that Hell has a specific plan of campaign? Possible answers abound, yet none are conclusive. The one Nefarious urges upon Martin is explicit: he wants Martin to write a “dark gospel,” the better to accelerate Mankind’s damnation and self-destruction. But he can’t do so without first getting the psychiatrist to damn himself…and as matters proceed, it proves to be a very close call.
There’s one questionable note in the movie: the portrayal of Father Louis, a Roman Catholic priest who serves as the prison chaplain, as himself a disbeliever in demonic possession. He also misrepresents Catholic teaching about such things. That would make him a deviate from Catholic doctrine. But perhaps there are reasons such a priest would be sought for that position by prison authorities.
Please, Gentle Reader: see this movie if you haven’t already. But be prepared. Whether you’re a believer or not, it will affect you. The C.S.O., an agnostic Jew, couldn’t endure it. I can’t guarantee that you’ll do any better than she did.