The new spiritual leader of a small religious sect in the American South has received the word. That is, the Word. And the Word is that the group must become purified to be sufficiently prepared for the final days, which—according to their own in-house prophet—will arrive about a month hence. Along with their usual rounds of preaching and praying, this will mean intense fasting. That sacrifice will get them back up to speed for the deliverance to come.
This setup provides not only the countdown structure of As It Is in Heaven but also its style. This low-budget indie is itself purified, stripped bare, and ornament-free. We see almost nothing but the big house—where the dozen or so cult members live—and the surrounding woods and creek. We don’t find out much about the recent convert, David (the haunted Chris Nelson), who abruptly takes over the leadership of the group. His visions might be divine intervention or guilty nightmares, but either way he appears to be that most dangerous of things: a true believer. There is some tension surrounding a rival (Luke Beavers) and the possible ambivalence of a brand-new recruit (Jin Park), but for the most part the film rolls out on its sweltering-summer mood and the growing sense of escape routes closing.
As It Is in Heaven is the feature debut of director Joshua Overbay, whose name sounds like it could belong to a megachurch pastor. Although his production design is simple, Overbay is fond of the moving camera, so the film never feels static. There are amateurish performances in the mix, and at times the simplified storyline probably errs on the side of purity—one occasionally yearns for intrigue or a pinch of melodramatic spice. But for the most part this movie joins other recent cult studies (Sound of My Voice and Martha Marcy May Marlene, good; The Sacrament, not so good) in identifying the apocalyptic simmer that runs beneath current American culture. Evangelical and horror-movie makers have their own takes on that theme, but these indies seem interested in examining that need to buy into the eve of destruction. They’re serious about it, and admirably searching—although with all this careful even-handedness on display, a good Dr. Strangelove-like satire would not be unwelcome.
Runs Fri., July 18–Thurs., July 24 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 87 minutes.