FrightFest 2013: Missionary

Anton Bitel,

With Big Love all over our TV screens, The Book of Mormon winning critical acclaim and awards on stage, and in 2012 the first ever Mormon candidate running for the US Presidency, the Church of Latter Day Saints - the most mainstream of America's homegrown religions - has recently risen to unprecedented prominence in the public eye. It is also the centrality of Mormonism to Missionary that distinguishes the film from other 'bunny boiler' titles like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Coffin Rock.

Here, as in those films, a family's fragile integrity is destabilised by the arrival of an increasingly unhinged outsider desperate to have what they have - except that when Katherine Kingsmen (Dawn Olivieri) embarks on her rash affair with Kevin Brock (Mitch Ryan), she does not realise that the younger man will become as unhealthily obsessed with her and her 12-year-old son Keeley (Connor Christie) as he is with the teleological myths of his own Mormon faith. For this over-committed convert does not just want Katherine and Kesley for himself in this life, but as his 'celestial family' for the eternity hereafter - and by the time Katherine has realised that she and her estranged husband Ian (Kip Pardue) need to talk about Kevin, it may be too late for the Kingsmen clan to emerge altogether unscathed.

As is often the case with films in this subgenre, Missionary starts on the slow burn with a strong focus on character and psychological subtlety - but as the initially sympathetic Kevin grows ever more deranged, quoting Mormon teachings to justify his racism, violence and eventually murder, the film's third act bubbles over into a somewhat more hyperbolic mode of sensationalist thrills. Working from a screenplay written by Scott Poiley and former Mormon Bruce Wood, Anthony DiBlasi (Dread) takes time and care in delineating the Kingsmens' struggles against financial difficulties, separation, infidelity and family tragedy, before letting Kevin in to bring all these problems to a decisive head.

Kevin practises his own deviant version of Mormonism, blithely transgressing his organisation's rules, and in the end it is he alone, rather than his Church, that is demonised. Much, however, of the film's tension derives from a dramatic collision between secularism and the missionary zeal of faith. For as we see the economically vulnerable, confidence-lacking Katherine and Kesley at first being so easily seduced by Kevin's unswerving self-belief and fanatical certainty, before finally recognising him for the dangerously predatory creep that he really is, the divisions in America's culture wars take on dramatic form before our eyes, and two very different models emerge of the American family and its future: one a deluded dream, the other a compromised reality.  It is all held together by fine, understated performances from the leads, matching the director's relative restraint.

'Missionary' screens at Film4 FrightFest 2013...

Main Screen, Sun 25th August, 10.30am

Follow Anton on Twitter: @AntBit

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