NOTHING BAD CAN HAPPEN – Fantastic Fest Review
“…and as long as I have my shield of faith, nothing bad can happen…”
The story of Job is one of the better known parables contained within the Bible. A tale of a man whose faith is stretched to its limits by the Creator, it is the ultimate example of how far some believers will go to prove their devotion to the One True God. Job is tested after the Almighty gives Satan permission to lay down a gauntlet. His yoke of oxen and donkeys are killed. His camels are stolen by the Chaldeans. The house of the firstborn is destroyed by a mighty wind, killing the man’s ten children. But, in response, Job does not curse God, but instead shaves his head, tears his clothes, and offers these words: “naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return — Lord has given, and Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” It is a story of the unbroken in the face of pure evil — a lesson that even non-believers can find strength in.
German director Katrin Gebbe’s debut film, Nothing Bad Can Happen, begins and ends with water. Tore (Julius Feldmeier) is an orphan in the city of Hamburg, baptized by a sect of punk rock Christians who call themselves “The Jesus Freaks” and taken into their concert hall of a home. He’s a bright-eyed, precocious child, with a mop of bright blonde hair and a smile that illuminates his pale features. One day, at a rest stop, he encounters a family whose car has broken down. But instead of offering them jumpers cables, Tore places his head on the hood of their car and prays to God for it to be fixed. When the engine starts, the head of the household, Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), smiles and invites the young boy to join he, his wife and two small children, welcoming Tore into his home as if he were one of their own. Unfortunately for this teenage true believer, this seemingly generous act of charity is really the beginning of a nefarious game, as Benno is the Satan God has sent to gauge the depths of his faith.
Before I go any further, I need to point something out: Nothing Bad Can Happen is not going to be for everyone. In fact, I’d be willing to bet only a very small percentage of filmgoers are going to be able to stomach the relentless punishment Tore suffers at the hands of this smug, sneering patriarch. This “test of belief” contains some of the most uncomfortable acts of brutality I’ve ever witnessed in a film, and Gebbe’s commitment to driving home her central thesis with the subtlety of sledgehammer is highly commendable. Tore’s soul is torn apart through relentless violent and sexual degradation. He is starved and then poisoned with rotten food; refused medical attention to the point that the boy becomes an emaciated ghost of his former self. It’s a sickening display of cruelty, made that much more unsettling by the way nearly every member in this otherwise happy family is complicit in the repeat torture and humiliation. And the final title card of Gebbe’s film acts as a parting gut punch, letting you know just how “real” Tore’s ordeal is.
The 1989 horror novel The Girl Next Door uses a similar sequence of atrocities to reveal the dark underbelly of 1960s American suburbia. With Nothing Bad Can Happen, the violence acts not only as a thorny maze of chastisement for Tore to navigate, but also to illustrate how evil can be spread through a family via osmosis. Much like the motherly protagonist of Jack Ketchum‘s infamous book, Benno uses fear to dominate those both inside and out of his clan. Be it through molestation or the threat of violence, he is a force to be reckoned with — to the point that joining in on the sad humiliation of Tore seems to be the only choice. And like the titular martyr from that seminal work of fiction, the wandering Jesus Freak takes it all and refuses to break by Benno’s hand. Instead, he looks to the sky and prays, hoping that the Father Almighty will finally put an end to his trials. But Benno will not stop until he proves, once and for all, that God has forsaken this modern saint, thus invalidating his entire belief system.
Like the best work of Lars Von Trier, this is highly confrontational cinema at its finest. Gebbe’s sparse compositions and use of ominous, thundering music let the audience know from frame one that there is no way the film is going to end well. In many ways, Nothing Bad Can Happen almost feels like a cinematic dare; a use of form as a means to leave the audience shaken and questioning their own moral code. And while the argument could be made that Gebbe’s film is staunchly Nietzschean in its anti-religion message, it could also be used to illustrate how the most desperate and disparate members of society cling to faith because they simply have nothing else. Tore is an avatar for those who refuse to be broken by a society that is corrupt and out to damn them for what they view to be brazen piousness, knowing that his faith in God will get him through the worst that life has to offer. Brutal, uncompromising and relentlessly bleak, Drafthouse Films has added yet another stellar title to its increasingly eclectic slate.