There’s a thing or two to be said about Katrin Gebbe’s breakout film.
It’s brutal, though nearly bloodless. It feels brisk, though it clocks in at nearly two hours long. It’s beautifully shot, although its murky doc-style does not serve its imagery. Its portrayal of religious people, all things considered, is remarkably balanced.
Nothing Bad Can Happen follows Tore, a youthful and devout member of the ‘Jesus Freaks’, which is unrelated to DC Talk but bears some resemblance to Shane Claiborne’s ‘New Monasticism’ movement.
He’s got a heart of gold and almost no common sense – the sort of fellow who would do nearly anything for nearly anyone but can’t quite seem to become self-sufficient.
Part of the reason that he is gainfully unemployed, of course, is that the Jesus Freaks hold all their possessions in common. They’re an earnest bunch – quick to inform anyone who’ll listen that most of the churches have it wrong: “We’re supposed to live the way Jesus lived,” Tore explains. “It’s not about religion.”
He lives in community with his brothers and sister in the faith. Literally – in a compound. “Jesus was homeless, too.” He explains.
But this is not a film about a dangerous Christian cult who does spooky religious people stuff that puts those other, normal, unspooky secular folks in religiously-oriented danger. Well, it sort of isn’t.
Without spoiling any of the details (a courtesy that almost none of the reviews I read before watching the film bothered to extend), let’s say that the horror of the film emerges from the increasingly unbelievable lengths that Tore will go to ‘pass the test’ through which he believes the Lord is putting him.
No, he does not become the axe-wielding boogeyman of the film, convinced somehow that he has to honor God by hacking up those closest to him. ‘Religious people gone crazy’ flicks are less than a dime a dozen and rarely noteworthy. Nothing Bad Can Happen turns that tired trope inside out. Tore is our hero, and he is exactly that. He’s a ‘faulty protagonist’, even pathetic, but he’s difficult not to admire – at least, one gets the sense at the folks behind the camera thought so.
In that sense, it’s a bit like a low rent Silence, which shouldn’t be mistaken for an insult. Both films pose questions that only the devout have any business answering, and both trudge toward conclusions that are only particularly meaningful in a universe where God exists. Brian Tallerico called Nothing Bad Can Happen the ‘feel bad’ movie of the summer, which felt a bit asinine to read in a sentence. Maybe Gebbe’s film is the ‘feel bad’ movie of the summer, but only in a world where struggle isn’t better than death.
Count Zinzendorf, an old dead Moravian, advised young Christian men and women to forego whatever they thought their dreams were and instead content themselves to ‘preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten’. When I was younger that might have sounded gloomy. Those were different days, when I was plenty jaded by nothing in particular and felt the weight of something near the opposite of guilt looming over me like a smug albatross. The specter of meaninglessness, I suppose. The vanity of vanities, as the aged Solomon, or someone like him, once said.
I say it was the ‘near opposite of guilt’, because it felt almost exactly like what guilt didn’t. I was young and carefree, haunted by an imagined guilelessness, and certain that nothing was anything, so to speak. I was not guilty of anything because there was no guilt to be experienced, not really, because there was no ‘mark’ to miss, no ‘Good’ to transgress, no trail to diverge from as I wandered through the woods. How could there be?
If there was a telos to everything, I figured, what was it? How could I know it? Why should I care? And if I should care, why didn’t I? If there was an essence to everything, toward which I ought to be existing, and, by extension, some personal entity from whom all meaning, all purpose would emanate, why wasn’t it obvious? If there was a God, if anything mattered, if I shouldn’t kill myself, or if anyone shouldn’t, why didn’t I just know?
In such a milieu, everything was gloomy if it wasn’t fun. And nothing was fun if it wasn’t noisy. The mere suggestion that there might be something better than gratification was a downer because in a world where nothing means anything, nobody can afford not to enjoy themselves, even for a long moment.
These days I find my spirit lifted much higher at the thought of dying unfamous, probably in Oregon, at some ripe old age, having quietly preached the gospel in some form or other to everyone who would listen, and keep listening.
If I’d spoken like this to my younger self, he’d have laughed it off. And I know this because I can remember having done so. There were people like myself who tried to talk to him. They told him things mattered, and people mattered. (And places. They tried to impart the value of nouns on him, I guess). He was stubborn, and he thought an awful lot like Benny, another character from Gebbe’s film. And very possibly he would have grown up into him.
Tore makes a slew of horrible mistakes. At every turn, he has opportunities to change his lot, and the lot of others, for the better. He misses nearly all of them because he wants to honor God, to ‘pass the test’, and it causes him to misinterpret situations, and often. I’ve done the same in vastly different situations, with drastically lower stakes. I said something far less comforting than I could have, or tolerated something I seriously disapproved of because I thought it would help me ‘witness’ to someone, somewhere. Tore’s misjudgments run far deeper, and their consequences are sprawling. But the movie’s got the guts to keep on trekking through the sordid and into the sacred.
William Peter Blatty was annoyed at the response with which The Exorcist was met. He couldn’t fathom how anyone might interpret its famous conclusion as a slight against the Vatican, or even as a downer. The point of the ending, he wrote, was that ‘God is real and the universe will have a happy ending’. Knowing absolutely nothing about the director herself, I think as much might be said about the ending of Nothing Bad Can Happen.
It closes on a down note, yes. In the universe that I believed I inhabited when I was young and faithless, the conclusion toward which the film crawls at a glacial pace probably amounts to proof that the lives we live while we’re here are inconsequential and the universe is indifferent to our presence upon her shores.
In the universe we actually live in, the one where God exists and the drama within which we are all actors is bound to have a happy ending – William Peter Blatty’s universe, and the Bible’s – I think that Nothing Bad Can Happen means that living a life of mercy is worth it because at the end of everything it means you’ve lived a life of mercy.
If you embody the love of God, then you’ve embodied the love of God, even if it gets you killed. Or that if you try to be a peacemaker and fail, you come to the end and find out you were a sinner in the hands of a merciful god. If you preached the gospel, died, and were forgotten, then you died and were forgotten having preached a wonderful gospel, and the whole thing was worth it because God exists and the universe will have a happy ending.
I don’t remember what changed. I was an awful lot like Benny. Probably on track to grow up to be a serial killer or young obituary, but a fairly unremarkable Bible Belt teenager by all appearances. One day I opened Nehemiah. I’m not sure how many chapters I made it, but somewhere between chapters one and twelve I began to see things an awful lot more like Tore. It’s a bit like I caught God – like God’s a disease and hope is a dirty syringe.