★ / ★★★★
The Augustine Interfaith Order of Hellbound Saints (Clancy Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Andre Royo, Robyn Rikoon, Macon Blair, Dan Fogler) are men and women who serve God as well as licensed exorcists in Brooklyn, New York. But they are no ordinary holy water wielders: Instead of living their lives to serve as examples, they attempt to be as morally compromised as possible—defying the Ten Commandments and committing sins left and right—so that if or when the time comes that they are faced with a demon so powerful, they can invite it inside their bodies, kill themselves, and ensure that the demon be dragged to hell with them.
With a premise like that, one expects “Hellbenders,” written and directed by J.T. Petty, to be wild, imaginative, funny, ironic, and a hell of a good time. Instead, the energy behind the performances is unfocused, the dialogue is neither intelligent nor all that amusing, and visual effects are allowed to run rampart—especially during the last third—that a lot of it ends up looking fake and trying too hard to impress.
Part of the problem is that we are not really allowed to watch Hellbound Saints do terrible things. Most of them are merely mentioned. Someone who is married admitting that he or she has had an affair is not equal to the audience seeing it in action. I wondered if the writer-director was afraid to make his characters look bad out of fear that we would find them so despicable that we would not want to root for them. But the bottom line is that they fight against demons who wish to set the world on fire. Despite “terrible” actions they commit, we are still very likely to be on their side. Giving them a little freedom to act wild or crazy might have given the picture an element of fun.
Each Hellbound Saint is not given appropriate depth. Just about every scene focuses on a behavior which gets exhausting after a while. A movie being a comedy does not justify characters who lack the capacity to have thoughts or internal monologue. Because the majority of the scenes are behavior-driven, we never get invested in who they are or wonder who they were before joining the parish. Sometimes knowing a bit more about the character’s history can make the jokes funnier—even if they are not all that clever.
The back half is a slog. One would think that once a great evil has been released, the material would be more interesting. Again, it rests on telling rather than showing. Instead of showing us the random acts of chaos that are happening in the city, we get two or three lines about how horrible it is out there. One might cite the limitation of the budget. But I argue: Budget does not create tension.
“Hellbenders” might have learned a thing or two from a little movie called “John Dies at the End” (where Brown also stars in). The latter creates a certain level of uncertainty which matches the paranoia of its leading character. There is synergy between the internal and the external elements. The former, on the other hand, by comparison and independently, is one dimensional in that it relies too much on a physical challenge that must be overcome. It features scenes of demonic possessions—one or two nicely executed. But how about exploring personal demons, maybe the contradiction of being an agent of God who sins on purpose to serve Him?