I was tempted to begin this review with “You probably won’t want to see this movie.” It’s not that Katrin Gebbe’s German language feature is bad. It’s fairly well made technically, and has a fine cast, especially adorably lanky lead Julius Feldmeier. But it contains scenes so harrowing that it’s likely to turn a great many viewers off. I’m still sorting out my own ambivalence over the film, and I consider myself a hard core horror fan.
Nothing Bad Can Happen isn’t quite a horror film, though, although it’s being promoted and written about within genre circles. It initially unfolds at such a slow and deliberate pace that one wonders where the horrific element will come in. Feldmeier’s Tore is an aimless but sweet soul who belongs to the “Jesus Freaks” and praises the Lord to anyone who’ll listen. This includes Benno (an all too convincing Sascha Alexander Gersak), a family man with a wife (Annika Kuhl) and two step children, Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof) and Dennis (Til-Niklas Theinert). When the Freaks’ prayer miraculously gets Benno’s car going, and he and Tore chance to meet again, the older man takes in the homeless youth. The family adopts him more or less easily, and a sweet attraction develops between Tore and Sanny (likably, realistically portrayed by Kohlhof).
But then Benno reveals his dark side: he can be cruel and abusive, psychologically and physically, and he’s molesting Sanny right under his wife’s nose. As Tore turns to his faith for solace, he is made to endure escalating and disturbing abuse, including an unforgettable sequence in which he’s force fed rotten meat. This last scene was so uncomfortable I actually had to remind myself I was watching actors in a movie to get through it. (Gebbe does claim she was inspired by a true story she found online, but provides no source or details.) When Tore is pimped out for money and raped on camera, I really found it gratuitous and unnecessarily mean. Tore’s belief in Jesus helps him maintain dignity even in the face of such terrors, but audiences will likely grow frustrated as Tore ignores Sanny’s advice to fight back and even returns to the house after being hospitalized for food poisoning. In the end, not only Benno but Astrid and a seemingly friendly gal pal take the opportunity to assault Tore, leading to a somewhat ambiguous, predictably bleak ending.
Feldmeier’s performance is outstanding, and he and Kohlhof generate endearing chemistry. Unfortunately, the scenes of abuse and its after effects will be more than the average viewer can stomach; I feel obligated to mention that there’s a scene of animal cruelty that, while more implied than explicit, will offend cat lovers and is made more awful in that Benno uses it to further taunt Tore. Why are Benno, his wife, and her friend so sadistic? What is Gebbe trying to say about faith and its attributes or defects? It’s hard to tell, as we’re given little to go in the way of character motivation for anyone besides Tore. The movie is not without merit, but I discerned little to justify sitting through all of its blunt savagery.
Nothing Bad Can Happen opens in New York on Thursday, July 3.