Director Christopher Smith has a history of subverting expectations with shocking surprises and razor-sharp commentary in his work—look no further than Triangle or Severance—but his modern take on the nunsploitation genre, Consecration, is one I’m afraid won’t have many shouting Hallelujah by the time the credits roll.
Written by Smith and Lauri Cook, Consecration follows Grace (Jena Malone), an ophthalmologist who despises religion and considers the belief in miracles to be delusion. When she learns her priest brother committed a murder and then took his own life at a convent, Grace sets off to the isolated cult palace…I mean, monastery…to uncover the truth about what happened. But what she finds is a sinister mystery that forces her to question everything she believes in.
Drenched in dreary grays and encroaching shadows, Smith sets the stage for a moody film with a darkness lingering beneath every frame. Despite various flashbacks to other periods in Grace’s life, you’d be hard-pressed to find a scene that isn’t blanketed by gloomy storm clouds or torrents of rain. To say this is a bleak film would be an understatement. Though not quite a traditional nunsploitation tale, Consecration follows suit with what’s come before by crucifying the church's oppressive nature, specifically towards women. Much of the horror of the film comes from the way in which the women of the convent are treated by Father Romero (with an unsettling performance from Danny Huston), bending and bowing to his every word. It also arises from the way in which they're brainwashed into treating themselves, such as one poor soul who we find early on took her own eye for having witnessed sin.
It should come as no surprise, but Malone is the best piece of this curious puzzle. An actress who always brings an A-game worth worshipping, she does so once again here with a performance that captures all of the pain and frustration when it comes to dealing with the maddeningly devout. For the entirety of the runtime, Malone’s Grace is a vessel for “godless” viewers like myself who can't stand the ways of oppressive religion. Her relatable dismissal or vulgar anger towards the insanity of the church had me cackling. Religious oppression, suicide, death, Smith and Cook understand that these are all difficult themes, injecting subtle humor into the script wherever they can.
Strong themes and a standout performance from Malone aside, Consecration, like any church service, struggles to maintain momentum.
Though well-directed and good for a few cringe-worthy shocks, many of you will be all too familiar with where Consecration is taking you. We’ve eaten this bread and sipped this wine more than a few times. There are a few rays of intriguing originality which shine through in the lore of the film, but where it feels like Smith can push the envelope, Consecration remains conservative. The film has all of the urgency of a slow-burning church candle which flickers out instead of ending in a bang. It’s likely it will have you shrugging your shoulders rather than wanting to attend this service again anytime soon.
Consecration’s character relationships are also, at best, heavily guarded. From Romero to the nuns to the detective (Thoren Ferguson) investigating the case, Grace is isolated from them all through suspicion or downright dislike. Nothing wrong with that by itself, but without anyone for Grace to connect with, it makes it difficult for the audience to get to know her or anyone else populating the film at a deeper level. Usually in this type of narrative, there’s at least one soul willing to help the protagonist through their peeling back of the mystery, someone who isn’t what they first appear to be. An obvious trope, sure, but Smith’s film reminds us why it works. Beyond Grace, there isn’t a single interesting character with a personality that has anything going for them besides “creepy weirdo”.
Don’t get the wrong impression, though. Consecration is not by any means a “bad” film. It just doesn’t do much to stand out, either. An engaging performance from Malone and the shocking nature of those who spout “there is but one god” are effective in their own right but don’t do enough to carry the film through a meandering mystery which many of you will be able to unravel midway through, if not earlier. While not as provocative or sharp as some of Smith’s other work, Consecration is a fine watch for anyone wanting to indulge in creepy nun fare, just don’t expect a miracle.
Consecration arrives in theaters February 10th from IFC Films and Shudder.
By Matt Konopka