The Binding Movie Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Written and directed by Gus Krieger
2015, 91 minutes, Not Rated
Amy Gumenick as Sarah
Josh Heisler as Bram
Leon Russom as Minister Uriel
Christian-themed horror is likely to elicit mixed feelings from audiences. On the one hand, Christianity has a lot of adherents, and depending on the flavor of Christianity and the particular background and personality of an individual viewer, they may not be kindly disposed toward the subject matter of their faith being appropriated as a source of entertainment. On the other hand, there is some pretty scary stuff buried in Christian faiths, stuff which lends itself very well to supernatural horror. (I say “faiths” deliberately, because of course there is not only one Christian faith.)
But for all its controversial, scary potential, Christian-themed horror has proven particularly hard to pull off. I can only think offhand of three or four good Christian-themed horror films (and yes, two of them are from the Exorcist franchise, which itself has also produced some of the very worst horror of this subgenre). The rest have been lackluster at best, exorcism-driven “shockers” with rapid head movement and screaming and sometimes unexpected liquids dripping from unexpected orifices.
Thankfully The Binding breaks away from the possession formula (maybe...) and moves to a lesser-explored area of Christian belief: revelation. The main character, Bram, is a minister struggling under the literal weight of revelation: on the night of his daughter’s christening, Bram is visited by God and given a divine mission. At first he’s thrilled at having been chosen, and his wife Sarah, though a bit bewildered, tries her best to be supportive. It’s gradually revealed that Bram has struggled with alcoholism but has recently climbed onto the wagon, which is fortunate for the young family and their infant daughter. Unfortunately, as his behavior takes a dark turn, Sarah is forced to consider some unhappy alternative explanations for Bram’s self-professed holiness: he’s back on the hooch; he’s psychotic; or, you guessed it, he got him a demon up in thar.
Thankfully, we’re never quite sure which of these is the case, and this is one film in which ambiguity is a good thing (as opposed to a pretentious gimmick intended to mask a film’s inability to answer its own questions). The Binding chooses not to beat us over the head with Christian moralizing or with anti-Church banalities a la Stigmata. Instead it parades before us a slew of answers to Bram’s problem—and it is a problem because we quickly learn “God” has asked him to follow the example of the biblical Abraham and sacrifice his own child. Of course, the Bible story has an angel intervene, saving the child Isaac from death at the hands of his father. Bram assumes that this will happen now too, but those around him are understandably less than eager to climb on the “God will stop him milliseconds before he paints the wall with his infant daughter” bandwagon.
This plot point, that Sarah and several others know the full extent of Bram’s situation, is perhaps the largest problem with the script in terms of believability. His wife, a fellow minister, and a psychiatrist all know he’s had serious thoughts of killing his child, and none think to involve the authorities. (In fairness, the priest eventually tells Sarah that if Bram really REALLY seems serious, like no foolsies, then she should call the cops.) But in the context of religious fundamentalism, it may not be as unlikely a scenario as it appears—a consideration which makes the narrative all the more frightening, at least on a social level.
Amy Gumenick gives a solid performance as Sarah, though at times she doesn’t seem able to muster the appropriate emotional response to Bram’s increasingly insane behavior. John Heisler’s Bram is suitably creepy in the smiley priest kind of way, full of self-righteousness and Holy Spiritude, his voice slightly too high-pitched for a man of his build, his proclamations of holiness too overwrought and melodramatic to be taken seriously. Overwrought is in fact the best term to describe Bram’s character, and while it’s unclear whether this is deliberate or not, the result of his angsty dialogue and Heisler’s studied weirdness is a good performance, one that feels organic to a person in Bram’s situation. These two carry the film, and while there are a handful of other major characters, none are particularly noteworthy.
The final moments are important, challenging the conclusions the audience has likely drawn about the reality of Bram’s predicament. The last scene isn’t entirely groundbreaking, but it’s satisfying in that the last ounces of ambiguity are swept away and we know, finally, what was really at stake. It isn’t a flawless film, but The Binding is a reasonably smart, satisfying addition to the possession/exorcism subgenre.
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