The Dark And The Wicked

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Dark And The Wicked
"What would it mean to live in a world where damnation was a very real and tangible prospect and yet, because of one's immutable nature, nothing one did could make a difference to one's fate?" | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

The parable of the sheep and the goats is one of the most frequently misunderstood parts of the Bible, according to scholars. In the story, we hear that God will divide the nations of the world into sheep - who get eternal life - and goats - who suffer eternal damnation. Most people take from this the message that if they do good, they will become like the sheep, and will be saved - but there is no suggestion here that one kind of animal can transmute into another. Rather, the sheep will be saved because it is in their nature to do good - they have this quality because they are, from the outset, the chosen ones of God. The goats are non-believers, and it doesn't matter what they do. They can never redeem their nature.

The second way in which Westerners tend to misunderstand the parable today is in assuming that sheep and goats are easy to separate. On the farms they are familiar with, that may be true, but it's a consequence of selective breeding - it wasn't true when the Bible was written and it isn't true in other parts of the world today. It isn't true in Brian Bertino's latest film. Critics can't agree on whether the animals we see on the farm are sheep or goats - only a trained shepherd (as God is to humans in the parable) could discern the difference.

What would it mean to live in a world where damnation was a very real and tangible prospect and yet, because of one's immutable nature, nothing one did could make a difference to one's fate? This dark prospect lies at the heart of Bertino's film. It opens with siblings Louise (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbott Jr) returning to the family farmstead against their mother's wishes because their father is gravely ill. He (Michael Zagst) is suffering from a mystery ailment affecting mind as well as body, and has been undergoing a long process of decline. Immediately the siblings feel guilty for having left their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) to care for him alone until now, though they show it in different ways. She, however, is afraid for them. She clearly feels that the sickness stems from something not right in the area - something that could threaten them too.

Is there such a thing? Viewers may very well feel that they are in the presence of evil without being able to pinpoint why. Bertino employs several kinds of visual trickery, including something close to subliminal imagery, to create these feelings. Less subtly, he presents us with what seems like low level poltergeist activity, which builds up over time. By the time it becomes undeniable, Michael has already come to understand that he might be hallucinating. His instinct it so flee - but can he really get away, and what will become of Louise if he abandons her?

There are multiple layers of illusion at work here. Bertino understands his occult world well, and it's worth remembering, first and foremost, that the Devil is described as the father of lies. At another level, there are the delusions that most of us encourage in ourselves and one another every day. The belief that if we leave home we can go back one day and it will be just the same; that our parents will always be there to take care of us; that our children and our siblings will never leave us; that it will all be alright in the end. As, one by one, these beliefs are stripped away. Louise is gradually able to see the world more clearly - but will that be a blessing or a curse?

With strong performances all round, this Fantasia 2020 pick is a fireside yarn of a film, a story to tell to one another as we huddle together against the dark - but like many old stories, it makes no effort to offer comfort. The characters are whole and relatable and we want to help them but that is not within our power. All we can do is to seek reassurance for ourselves, according to our nature.

Reviewed on: 02 Sep 2020
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The Dark And The Wicked packshot
On a secluded farm in a nondescript rural town, a man is slowly dying. His family gathers to mourn, and soon a darkness grows, marked by waking nightmares and a growing sense that something evil is taking over the family.


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