When approaching the early works of David Cronenberg, many modern viewers are initially put off by the ruddy, low-rent stylings of films like Shivers, Rabid and The Brood, citing the director’s choice of low-budget genre trappings as rendering his cerebral central postualtions inaccessible. Much like the Canadian horror auteur (who has since moved on to greener pastures of prestige with pictures like Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and A History of Violence), American independent filmmaker Billy Senese has crafted his sophomore feature, Closer to God, with one foot in the horror film grave. Borrowing liberally from the clinical director’s filmography (The Brood being the most obvious point of reference), Senese strains to balance the “dark thriller” portions of the narrative with the set of proverbial “big ideas” he presents. Once Closer to God descends into out-and-out monster movie territory, it becomes readily apparent that any kind of heady aspirations were simply the jumping off point for a somewhat pedestrian riff on modern Frankenstein mythos.
Victor (Jeremy Childs) has done what many thought impossible (and a certain sect still consider immoral): he has created the first clone of a human being. His baby Elizabeth is a miracle of science that is still not ready to be brought into the public eye, as the suits who monitor his clinical trials desperately attempt to parse through the legality of their client’s creation. All the while, a debate rages on TV as protesters line up at his doorstep. Conservative pundits damn the doctor for betraying God’s grand design, while moderate and liberal thinkers see the potential breakthroughs a manufactured human being could provide to the arenas of science and medicine. To Senese’s credit, he captures the ferocity of modern media debate in a rather realistic fashion. Neither side is truly interested in what the other has to say, opting instead to scream over the other in order to ensure that their unwavering moral stance is voiced. Victor watches from afar as his true intention (to gift the field he’s devoted his entire life to a genuine miracle) is perverted and twisted by either side, both speaking about Elizabeth as a pawn to be utilized in order to strengthen their argument against the opposition.
At least, that’s what Senese wants you to initially believe his slice of superficially hard sci-f is about. The most intriguing ideas are introduced up front, as Closer to God feels like a character study attempting to place a human face on the twenty-four hour news cycle. Had Closer to God stuck with the somber tone it opens with, the picture might have been a somewhat groundbreaking affair. How often have we, as a people, watched and raged over a moral debate that the media exploited for the sake of their never-ending cycle? Whether it’s cloning, abortion, police brutality or the right to life, these issues are usually reduced to abstract concepts by those discussing them from the outside, all while the human beings who exist at the center of the event being analyzed are marginalized to causes instead of people. Instead of providing a moral stance of its own, Closer to God could’ve been a picture about the actual debate itself. That would’ve been refreshing and engaging on multiple levels, both dramatically and intellectually.
Sadly, once the hardcore horror elements are introduced in the film’s back half, Closer to God becomes a rather rote retread of Cronenberg’s meditation on divorce and grief. Only Senese doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that Cronenberg’s monsters in The Brood weren’t just introduced in order to simply add terror to the proceedings. His little beasties actually stood for something. Once the darkness behind Victor’s creative process is revealed, the movie drops the preponderance of thoughtfulness that came before in favor of an almost slasher film vibe. It’s a jarring tonal transition that, while well executed on its own terms, still leaves you wondering just what in the hell happened to the picture you were watching before. It’s almost as if Senese got bored with his own material and decided midway through the movie that he didn’t trust the audience to remain completely invested in his dissection of moral debate.
To be honest, it’s a shame that Senese didn’t pick one picture to make and stick with it all the way through to the end, as both halves of this muddled whole are engaging and well constructed, both in terms of cinema and storytelling. Evan Spencer Brace’s digital cinematography is slick and well composed, utilizing filtered light and engulfing shadows to maximum effect. A few of the wide shots are stunning, making even the largest rooms seem claustrophobic and conveying a sense that Victor can feel the walls closing in on him. Jonathan Rogers‘ editing keeps both halves of the movie tight and controlled. Even the casting of Jeremy Childs feels like a uniquely cinematic choice, as his gangly, lumbering presence conveys the soul of a man who realizes that human beings are imperfect and strives to change that fact.
There’s potential contained within Closer to God; enough to make me wonder if this is what audiences who sat through Shivers on its first run felt like once the credits on Cronenberg’s directorial debut rolled. Senese has a great eye and a sense of horrific flair that will serve him well in future features. Unlike the forefather he blatantly apes, he has the aesthetics down pat, as there isn’t a hint of amateurishness to be found here (outside of the occasional odd foley editing, which isn’t completely unforgivable for a film of this size). Now Senese just has to believe that we, the movie-going public, will remain in rapt attention once he finally comes up with something of import to say for eighty plus minutes. Hopefully next time he doesn’t lean on the handholding crutch of horror to steady his own vision.