Based on true events this intense Australian possession picture analyses the destructive nature of religious zealotry and the horrific consequences of allowing grief to snowball into fanaticism.
Lara is a troubled young woman who is struggling desperately to come to terms with the death of her baby. She is sleepwalking, dancing stark naked in the woods, and suffering truly terrifying hallucinations.
Her doctor is convinced that she is experiencing hypermania coupled with paranoid schizophrenia and with the right drugs and therapy she will eventually improve. However, Lara’s husband Ron has placed his healing process in the hands of the church and believes her symptoms are the manifestations of demonic possession.
Increasingly desperate, Ron emotionally blackmails his wife into pausing her pills and pushes for medical approval to consult a priest. When Lara’s condition deteriorates and the doctor refuses to budge Ron enlists the services of Daniel, an off-the-books exorcist of epic evil.
There are no spinning heads and green vomit fountains in Nick Kozakis’ profoundly sad and distressing exorcism picture. Instead, he takes the position of a mournful observer of tragedy rather than a sensationalist exploitation merchant. Infusing the film with a concise kitchen sink realism gives it a documentary feel that embraces its true story inspiration while remaining respectful to real-life victims of mental health abuse.
Although bearing witness to spiritual warfare being waged on a young woman’s PTSD in all its inexorable glory is a grueling experience, it never reaches Martyrs levels of cruelty. While Pascal Laugier’s film was a product of deep depression lashing out at the futility of theology, Kozakis’ project is concerned with the vulnerability of desperate humans when targeted by extreme religious manipulation.
The film world builds with a quiet confidence that showcases its mature attitude toward the subject matter and remains for the most part judgementally impartial, happy for the viewer to draw their own inevitable conclusions concerning the immoral consequences of faith-based indoctrination.
Maintaining this brave posture, Godless is content to shine a pragmatic light down into the unhealthy burrows of conspiracy theory rabbit holes, elucidating their aftermaths rather than simplistically demonising their apostles.
It’s so refreshing to see filmmakers allowing the power of storytelling to speak for itself without condescending moral signposting and superfluous faith bashing. Even though Lara’s debasement is unforgivably harsh, the film is bold enough to pose the awkward summation that her persecutors are also victims of spiritual grooming at various junctures of the theological food chain.
Another plus is the film’s unambiguous narrative structure. There is one out-of-the-blue scene where it appears we are being taken down the well-trodden path of whether it’s a mental health issue or a genuine demonic infestation that grips Lara.
However, we soon see that it’s the confused interpretation of those she should be relying on that is front and center here, not some overused clunky mechanic that subjugates complex psychological illnesses to the role of lazy audience mind games.
It should also be said that the use of clarifying flashbacks as a plot livener is exemplary in Godless. They are deployed with an organic frequency and tempo so as to be smooth narrative conduits rather than distracting style showboating. So many horror movies have been ruined because they insisted on using labyrinthine constructs to load the bases for underwhelming twists. I can only hope that any future directors tempted by embrangled timeline gymnastics adopt Kozakis’ approach to relevance and economy.
The circumspect and sobering nature of Godless is aided by the work of its committed cast. Admittedly a little raw at times, they succeed in creating a believable scenario by depicting a tangible dynamic of unchecked peer pressure and spiraling collective madness.
Particularly excellent is Georgia Eyers’ pivotal performance as the besieged Lara. It’s a grounded portrayal that embraces the emotional and physical aspects without looting Linda Blair’s spew-soaked legacy.
In taking a more nuanced and unorthodox approach to the exorcism genre Kozakis has generated a melancholy case study of what can happen when survivor’s guilt becomes nourishment and justification for a predatory belief system. A depressing expose of theological sadism and divine doubling down that questions who in a global society of toxic doctrines are truly the Godless ones.
Horror, Realist Exorcism Drama | Australia, 2023 | The Overlook Film Festival 2023 | Cert. TBC | 92 mins |XYZ Pictures| Dir. Nick Kozakis | With: Georgia Eyers, Dan Ewing, Tim Pocock, Eliza Matengu, John Wood, Rosie Traynor