The creative partnership between Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman is an intriguing one. Having grown up living next door to one another after Solomon's family moved to Wayne, New Jersey during the elementary school years, the influential filmmakers have grown up as best friends and creative collaboratives. For nearly 17 years, the two worked primarily on the secular side of the film industry with such familiar folks as Stan Lee, Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and major studios like 20th Century Fox and Sony-Columbia.
In 2008, however, the lifelong Catholics felt a sense of call toward more faith-based cinema. The result has been a series of films that it's fair to say have been considered controversial even by the usual faith-based standards. Frequently savaged by critics, Konzelman/Solomon films under the Believe Entertainment banner have nevertheless struck a powerful chord among evangelical Americans and while critical success has been elusive the low to moderately budgeted films have found faithful audiences and financial success. Films such as What If, God's Not Dead, God's Not Dead 2, and Unplanned have turned both men into household names, at least in the evangelical world, with Unplanned even noteworthy as a GMA Dove Award nominee for Inspirational Film of the Year iin 2019.
Nefarious is an unusual beast of a film, beast perhaps being the operative word. I will confess that I've been hit-and-miss with the Konzelman/Solomon efforts, though unlike most critics I've actually seen them all.
Inspired by and considered a prequel of sorts to Steve Deace's A Nefarious Plot and A Nefarious Carol, Nefarious is that rare R-rated faith-based film. However, let it be noted up front that the R-rating is ludicrous at best. Supposedly triggered by "some disturbing violent content," the R-rating for Nefarious is more an indication that the MPAA has no clue how to effectively evaluate religious-based intensity of themes and behaviors.
In the film, Jordan Belfi (television's Entourage) is Dr. James Martin, a psychiarist tasked with the last-minute psychiatric evaluation of Sean Patrick Flanery's Edward, a convicted serial killer sentenced to die that very night whose competency for said execution remains under debate. To complicate matters, Edward himself announces himself to be a demon with an indecipherable name translated most accessibly as, you guessed it, Nefarious. Possessing a knowledge of Dr. Martin for which there is no explanation, the unnerving Nefarious proves to be a powerful, if somewhat unexpected, foe of the doctor's complicated life as an atheist whose life obviously leans toward the more liberal.
As is always true of a Konzelman/Solomon film, there's no mistaking the messaging in Nefarious even if it is a tad unique to have it all show up in what is classified as a horror/psychological thriller.
Largely set in one sparsely decorated room with the exception of our doctor's occasional debriefing smoke breaks, Nefarious is an ambitious evangelical effort that attempts to tackle difficult material in a way that is both authentic and compelling. While there is occasional action to be found in Nefarious, this is more of a spiritual chess match of sorts with one man whom we understand very clearly, "the liberal," and the other whose identity always dances somewhere between insanity and demonic.
If you're debating how all of this pans out, you're not paying attention.
By now, it's no secret that I didn't care for Nefarious. Subtlety has never been a spiritual gift for Konzelman or Solomon whether we're talking about writing, directing, or producing film. I have a feeling this is intentional. There are those faith-based filmmakers who aspire to crossover appeal. There are those who couldn't care less about crossover appeal. While I'm not quite willing to say that there's no desire for reaching non-believers here, the simple truth is there's very little within Nefarious's 98-minute running time that would appeal to a secular audience.
The horror? There really is none. While there are moments of intensity in Nefarious, there isn't a moment in the film that looks or feels like cinematic horror unless you're talking about one of those evangelical haunted houses where demons pop out of the walls to warn of the evils of the world.
As a thriller, Nefarious also falls short. While there are early moments in the film, essentially the fleeting moments before you comprehend the film's messaging, when the anticipation of this conflict builds it quickly dissipates as the narrative begins to take a backseat to the amateurish moralizing.
Sean Patrick Flanery's turn as Edward/Nefarious is modestly interesting, a demonic tic-filled spewing forth of righteous rage that may serve as one of the more unusual characters to show up in a theatrically released faith-based film. While I'm not quite willing to call it a good performance, it's certainly never less than interesting with the exception of a final Flanery scene that actually made me laugh out loud.
On the flip side, however, Belfi is woefully miscast as Dr. Martin. as the film's projected personification of evil, a "liberal," Belfi needed a sort of Patrick Bateman-styled swagger to really pull off the spiritual intensity here. Instead, he's the worst kind of evil - bland and not particularly compelling. If anything, I kept thinking to myself the criminally under-utilized Stelio Savante could have worked masterfully here and possesses a conflicted intensity that would have added so many layers to a character who needed them. There's an interesting premise in this film, a film largely devoid of those who actually identify as "Christian," but Nefarious squanders the premise.
Original music by Bryan E. Miller feels disconnected from the film, though Jason Head's lensing deserves some kudos for capturing the ominous nature of this spiritual conflict masked as a psychological evaluation.
Nefarious is, as I said earlier, an unusual beast of a film. A closing scene featuring none other than Glenn Beck is jarring considering the film that has unfolded before it. While the narrative at least tries to make room for it, it feels overly gratuitous in a film that starts off with narrative clarity before losing its way and drowning under the way of its thematic lack of balance, weak ensemble, modest production values, and inconsistent tone.
Yet, here it is once again. For those who've embraced other Konzelman/Solomon films, I have a feeling that Nefarious will still offer enough to appreciate with a message that will resonate and a narrative confidence that will convince. While this certainly isn't a film I would take the kids to, Nefarious, despite my own misgivings, may find its desired audience among those who appreciated the God's Not Dead films along with Unplanned.
Nefarious opens in theaters nationwide on April 14th, 2023.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic