There's one movie I can't stop thinking about since Fantastic Fest ended -- I loved so many films early on (A Field in England, Escape from Tomorrow), that I never saw this one coming. Nothing Bad Can Happen, from writer and director Katrin Gebbe, is a German film about a Jesus Freak named Tore, whose simple act of kindness leads him down a path that will test his faith.
When Tore runs into a family having some car trouble and calls on Jesus to get them going again -- and it actually works -- the patriarch of the family, Benno, is intrigued by Tore's persistent faith. Benno invites Tore into the home he shares with his wife Astrid, and his stepdaughter Sanny. Everything seems fairly normal at first -- Tore sleeps in the back yard in a tent and helps with chores around the house, and even gives them his welfare money because Jesus has taught him that money and material belongings are of little consequence. But Tore's unending optimism and faith begin to test Benno, whose surprising and sporadic aggressive -- and violent -- outbursts slowly increase in maliciousness.
Nothing Bad Can Happen moves at a deliberate pace, every scene not so much dripping with dread, but coated in the stuff. There's more in what's not being said or done than any amount of dialogue can express, and the film looks wisely at the dynamics of abuse and the way the abuser can either infect others or keep them down, both the result of fear. It becomes apparent early on that Benno's abusive inclinations didn't start with Tore, as his relationship with Astrid and Sanny is sinister -- but Gebbe's script and direction are restrained and seek out more intimate moments; a sharp look or a scurry down the hall feel so heartbreakingly habitual for these characters stuck in Benno's orbit.
The film works like a knife, but Gebbe isn't interested in quick, repetitive thrusts -- she takes her time to slowly present the knife to you so you can thoroughly look it over, before she quickly pricks you with it so you understand how sharp it is. Just when you think you understand and grasp the severity of that pain, she slides it in meticulously ... and then she twists it. The moments of sudden violence that erupt during a scene that is dreadful in its own banality call to mind the work of Michael Haneke, and it's with that in mind that you know that the last 20 minutes of this film are going to destroy you.
The last act of Nothing Bad Can Happen (which is told in three chapters) is when all that knife-twisting comes into play. Tore has set himself up to become the ultimate Jesus Freak, willing to lay down his life for what he believes in -- it's tragic and sort of misguided, but Tore refuses to lose his faith, and he will become a martyr if it means there's a chance (however tiny) that this family can find redemption. Gebbe understands that she doesn't need to use graphic visuals to elicit a visceral response, and the most painful and sickening moments are in concept -- the idea that people could be this unrelenting and horrible, coupled with Gebbe shying away from antagonistic imagery and letting us fill in the blanks for ourselves.
I almost threw up during a scene that wasn't aggressively graphic in the slightest, and 20 minutes later, I was sobbing. Gebbe knows this isn't a film about torture or testing the limits of her audience, but a contemplative, and ultimately soul-crushing experience that confronts us with the darkest parts of humanity -- and the darkest parts of humanity aren't loud and obnoxious; they pour in slowly, filling the space with dread.
Nothing Bad Can Happen is one of the smartest, most heartbreaking films of the year. Gebbe has meticulously crafted a film that knows exactly what it is, what it needs to say, and what it wants from its audience. And when she's done twisting the knife, she drops it with a thud: the title card at the end that reads, "Based on a true story."