Written and Directed by: Gus Krieger
Starring: Amy Gumenick, Josh Heisler, and Leon Russom
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Fear what you believe.
Even though Iím not a religious person, I find that religious-based horror movies have the most potential to be scary. Maybe this owes to some residual trauma from when my family went through a brief phase, or maybe itís more natural than that: for many people, faith is a great comfort, so thereís arguably nothing worse than to see that perverted and twisted into some unfathomable horror. The Binding is perched right along this fault line, delicately straddling that point where faith becomes a terrifying burden by taking it to a logical, literal extreme. For most of its runtime, itís a harrowing, intimate look at the destructiveness of the ambiguity of it allósince, by definition, faith requires trust in the unknown, what does it look like when you have to peer into such an abyss?
Sarah (Amy Gumenick) and Bramwell (Josh Heisler) seem like the perfect couple: happily married, the couple has just welcomed the birth of a daughter. They live in a nice house, and Bram has a steady job as a pastor at a local church. Everythingís almost disgustingly great for these twoóI mean, they even seem like pretty nice people to boot. When Bram claims to receive a vision from God himself, it can only mean more good things, at least until it becomes clear that it most certainly does not. It turns out Godís presence comes with a caveat: Bram has been chosen to stave off the apocalypse, but only if he sacrifices his infant daughter.
I canít imagine anything that would shake oneís faith more resoundingly than that. Naturally, Sarah is reluctant to accept this and begins searching for other possibilities: is her husband experiencing a psychotic break? Is it a physiological disorder? What if itís not God but rather Satan that has visited Bram and compelled him to consider committing this unspeakable act of violence? Writer/director Gus Krieger explores these possibilities via a series of confrontations and conversations, resulting in a rather talky movie that reserves its sparse visual storytelling for the expected showdowns and moments, such as the obligatory heated arguments and a requisite exorcism.
Otherwise, the film leaves Sarah to fend for herself and her baby by digging around to discover the possible truth. As thereís not much narrative heft to the film, it follows that it mostly involves following Sarah down a path of false starts and dead ends: as she canít truly know the nature of her husbandís disturbance (especially once the medical professionals find nothing wrong with him), she can only find solace in friends and family. In one case, even thatís a small comfort, as an old family friend relays the story of how her brother butchered her mother after he, too, heard voices. Other revelations involving Bramís own tortured path are at hand too, which only compounds Sarahís desperation and confusion.
Despite its heavily expository nature, The Binding nonetheless captures this suffocating ambiguity well. It unfolds in unfussy style, with unassuming photography capturing similarly modest surroundings (well, except for a super nice beach house), seemingly in an effort to highlight just how mundane this is. Thereís nothing glamorous about what these characters endure, and Kriegerís filmmaking style appropriately reflects this. Itís perhaps tempting to mistake it for utter plainness or blandness, but The Binding seems to be awash in a certain anonymity, as if to suggest that this horrific ordeal could occur anywhere.
Kriegerís approach also wisely transforms this into a vehicle for his actors, particularly the two leads. Just as Sarah shoulders the burden of protecting her family, so too does Gumenick shoulder the film in a role that sees her come to the slow, horrifying realization of her utter helplessness. Her initial meekness (not to mention a faint whiff of piety) is almost deceptive, as she eventually takes an admirable stand in a situation that almost demands her submission. As a pastorís wife, her obedience is expected, and the film occasionally finds a tension between this institutionalized sexism, most notably whenever she and Bram argue.
I almost wish Krieger were more willing to explore this, especially since Bram proves to be somewhat slippery. Even when we first meet him, thereís something a little sneaky and untrustworthy hiding behind his almost too boyish, doughy face. When Sarahís mother cryptically mentions some of his past misdeeds, it sets off so many alarms, and much of the filmís intrigue hinges on Heislerís elusive performance. At different points in the film, Bram ranges from tortured victim to weaselly, deceptive little shit depending on what proves to be a volatile demeanor. Itís the latter that really drives The Binding: sometimes, Heisler is so convincing that you absolutely believe this character will be capable of committing something awful, if only because his faith seems to coincide with a certain sense of entitlement. His interactions with his wife become uncomfortably domineering to the point where the film almost becomes an examination of how faith shapes interpersonal dynamics.
The Binding stops short of being about anything that substantial, though. Eventually, it degenerates into piquing the lizard part of your brain that thrives on trashy curiosity: will he or wonít he go Abraham on his baby? Is he just insane? Who the fuck names their kid ďBramwellĒ anyway? Sort of like a less elegant and less gripping version of Take Shelter, it teases these questions out until a devastating climax lands rather heavily. Not content to merely linger on it, however, Heisler script an absurd little monologue that spells out the obvious, a stumble that isnít nearly as damaging as the filmís final shot, a cheap little ďgotchaĒ moment that undermines the ambiguity driving the film. For 85 minutes, The Binding is unsettling because neither Sarah nor the audience can ever truly know what caused these horrors to be visited upon her, but, for whatever reason, this final moment is in a rush to provide an answer.
To be fair, however, it does hint at something so sinister that I canít help but be curious about what Heisler does nextóit may feel like a misguided ending for this movie, but I do kind of like how dark and twisted The Bindingís final note is.
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