Director: Katrin Gebbe
Running time: 105 minutes
In 2011, a "based on true events" film called The Snowtown Murders disturbed me into a nearly paralytic submission. Based on a series of murders that rocked South Australia between 1992 and 1999, director Justin Kurzel's cold, relentlessly bleak film introduced uneducated viewers like myself to John Bunting, the Aussie serial killer responsible for those homicides, and, honestly, I've yet to shake off what Kurzel accomplishes in the film. With an oppressively downbeat tone and total, unblinking exposure to its most graphic scenes, The Snowtown Murders is a masterful genre movie achievement that, frankly, is hard to recommend, lest I submit people to a more depressing experience than Requiem for a Dream.
Here at Fantastic Fest, a new reality-based film has affected me just as much as The Snowtown Murders—and, once again, it's tough to excitedly suggest others give it a look whenever its released theatrically.
Directed by first-time German filmmaker Katrin Gebbe, Nothing Bad Can Happen fictionalizes an incident in her native country in which religion is front and center. Tore (Julius Feldmeier), a warm and upbeat teenage drifter, is part of the Jesus Freaks, a counter-culture Christian movement that's part headbanger's ball and part prayer circle. A chance encounter with husband and father of two Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak) provides Tore with a sanctuary when one of his fellow Jesus Freaks commits a sin in front of him. Using Benno's young son's tent as his outside bedroom, Tore lives on the family's land and slowly integrates himself into their daily routines, even striking up an affectionate and potentially romantic relationship with the teenage daughter, Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof). It doesn't take long, however, for Benno's true colors to emerge—deep down, he's a sadist, and in Tore's disabling kindness and dedication to honoring Jesus' pacifist ways, Benno quickly figures out that he's able to abuse his new friend, both physically and emotionally. And Tore, in true Jesus Freak fashion, believes that Benno is his ultimate test.
Gebbe's an audacious, confrontational talent, and Nothing Bad Can Happen doesn't shy away from its increasingly horrific imagery. As difficult as it is to say, "Hey, you should totally watch an innocent kid gets beaten for no reason," Nothing Bad Can Happen is so skillfully made that it'd be a crime to overlook Gebbe's superb debut for fear of psychological discomfort. Wisely, she doesn't project any of her own opinions about the vulnerabilities and dangers of faith-based religion, simply allowing her character's actions to give viewers the chance to interpret Nothing Bad Can Happen however they may. Tore's determination to see God's work through is presented as noble and brave, but the overall air of dread that Gebbe casts upon the film—through a recurring and chilling sound design that would be at home in a straight-up horror film—makes it clear that she's not about to let Jesus save the day.
At the Cannes Film Festival in May, Nothing Bad Can Happen has a polarizing impact amongst the press members in attendance. Around three-quarters of those watching its first industry screening walked out, perhaps not ready to embrace Gebbe's assaultive drama. Variety's subsequent review suggested that it be given a special new Cannes award: Palme d'Horreur. Though it's never as ghoulishly raw as, say, The Snowtown Murders, and those Cannes walk-outs seem a bit undeserved, Nothing Bad Can Happen justifies Variety's clever distinction, and the reasoning is twofold: Gebbe's constructed a horror film about humanity's worst impulses but in a such an artistically sound and first-class manner that prestige is completely warranted. It's proof that, sometimes, the best art thrives on pain.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)