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"Nefarious" Review

 Movies about demonic possession predate disco and are an evergreen topic because, prior to the society's current plunge into utter depravity, who doesn't want to see good triumph over evil? (Nowadays, too many people ask whether evil is really so bad?) "The Devil made me do it" is a well-worn phrase and also a stock trope where an innocent is possessed and used to commit evil deeds. But what if the demonic possessor wanted some credit for his puppeteering? That's the premise of the unique faith-based film Nefarious, which looks like one thing on the surface, but has something else on its mind.

Psychiatrist Dr. James Martin (Jordan Belfi, Entourage) has been summoned to an Oklahoma prison to evaluate whether condemned prisoner Edward Wayne Brady (Sean Patrick Flannery, The Boondock Saints) is competent to be executed. The previous shrink has jumped off his office building, so the case has passed to Martin who has to make his determination quickly as Brady is slated for execution that evening.

 After some chit-chat, the prisoner gets down to it: He's actually a demon named Nefarious and he used Brady as a puppet to commit murders, but now wants to be executed, presumably to move on to another host. (The rules aren't made clear.) He challenges Martin, telling him that by the end of the day he will commit three murders. This launches a battle of wits and will between the atheist doctor and the man who claims to be a demon and seems to have an outsized knowledge of the newly-arrived doc's life.

 What's different about Nefarious, the demon and movie, is that its theme isn't so much what will happen to the poor schlub that got possessed, but whether people are as enlightened and free as they've convinced themselves they are. Nefarious isn't a crossroads demon offering riches in return for souls; he's a prideful jerk who wants the meatbags to know that they've been Hell's bitches for a long long time and it's time to rub humanity's nose in it and he's literally written a book bragging about it that he wants Martin to publish.

 While Martin scoffs at Nefarious's "three murders" challenge, the way the film explicates the premise may be a problem for some viewers; if one believes life is only valuable when it's convenient or easy, then one will have difficulty with the assertions of the movie. Which is precisely the point. Society has become very comfortable with all sorts of horrible things that would've been unthinkable not that long ago, but this demolition of morality has been sold as freedom from pesky rules which sap the fun from the party. 

When Martin rattles off all the supposed progress society has made with the usual liberal pieties about being on the right side of history and holding the moral high ground, Nefarious fires back with how few high school graduates read at a sixth grade level, black athletes making fortunes then cry about racism, and how there are tens of millions of slaves in the world today that no one seems too bothered about.

 As a low-budget two-hander, Nefarious rides on the sturdy performances of Flannery and Belfi. Flannery's is the showier role as he oscillates between the personas of the arrogant Nefarious and his terrified meat puppet host Edward and while he almost leans too much on twitches and ticks, he doesn't make a cartoon of the demon. It's a well-modulated performance that gets the points across. 

But the more impressive performance is Belfi's because he's got an arc to navigate as he walks in disbelieving in many things and ends up gutted and haunted by what he's experienced. Instead of tritely having Martin end up racing to a church to offer his life in service of Jesus and living happily ever after, he ends up in a more ambiguously gray area and not looking particularly enthused about it.

Co-writers/directors Chuck Konzelman & Cary Solomon (God's Not Dead series, Unplanned) working from conservative talker Steve Deace's novel, A Nefarious Plot (which was structurally inspired by C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters), have crafted an uneven tale which wavers between moments of hard-hitting subtlety to preachy soapboxing little different from liberal movies where characters start spouting talking points from pamphlets. 

 On the subtle side, as in the novel, Nefarious refuses to call God or Jesus by name, referring to them as "the Enemy" and "the Carpenter" as his rage at God choosing to love mankind over the fallen rebellious angels simmers. His taunting of Martin's utilitarian view of life works at first - there's a great aside about how "hate speech" was something even the demons didn't think of - but egregiously the script sets up a major whammy of a beat for Martin halfway through the story which is never addressed again, even in the epilogue scene when you'd figure it'd come up. Why make such a big deal and then nevermind it? What purpose did it serve? Instead they handwave it away along with the dossier on Martin that appears near the end.

I haven't finished reading the source novel yet, but its format of a demon general of Hell boasting of how he'd engineered humanity's collapse was going to be a challenge to adapt - there are no movie adaptations of The Screwtape Letters either, though it has been mounted as a stage play - but the manner they transform it into a prequel to the novel dilutes things in an attempt to set up a Nefarious Cinematic Universe franchise. This really trips up the film in its third act as they dwell way too much on the run-up to the execution, introduce a plot device that makes no rational sense, and hinges the penultimate scene upon the presence of a gun in an area of the prison where cell phones wouldn't have been permitted. The final moment before the credits is eye-rollingly bad as they threaten future stories with the worst buddy duo ever.

 The response to Nefarious has sadly broken down along the usual tribal lines with those already sold on its unspoken message calling for revival wildly overpraising a well-intentioned and mostly successful film as deserving all the Oscars. Those fully committed to their lifestyles of nihilistic hedonism bashed it as a false flag operation, a film that sells itself as a demonic horror flick but is actually a "Jesus movie with Glenn Beck showing up" as an unhinged dogpile of a Reddit thread shrieked when it was in theaters.

While selling Nefarious as one thing to lure in those who really need to hear another perspective on how to live may've seemed clever in the planning, the box office told a different story, ironically because the usual faith-based film crowd were frightened off by its R-rating (despite having zero curse words, nudity or gore, though the execution scene was needlessly grisly; The Green Mile did it far more tastefully) when that same audience watches The Passion of the Christ (which makes Nefarious look like a Teletubbies episode) every Good Friday; and the heathen got wise to the bait and switch immediately because you mustn't allow your fellow sinners to have their consciences pricked, can you?

 Trying to point out sin to the sinners in hopes of their turning away from it is always an uphill fight because sin is fun. They aren't selling Heaven in the beer and perfume ads, are they? While the performances of Flannery and Belfi elevate the material to a higher plane, a lack of grace and clumsy plotting of the script prevent Nefarious from completely achieving its laudable goals. But when it's not misfiring, it's some riveting and provocative stuff and worth a watch.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently only available for PVOD rental; purchases and physical media coming later)


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