A little less chatter and a little more splatter might have improved “Godspeed,” an initially intriguing but finally overwrought tale of murder, retribution and quasi-religious fanaticism set in the land of the midnight sun. Director Robert Saitzyk’s self-serious thriller thinks very deep thoughts indeed about the agony of grief and the absence of God in a cruel, violent world, but it’s less taken with the elemental beauty of the Alaskan wilderness than with the sounds of its characters’ voices, to crippling dramatic effect. CineVegas prizewinner may connect with a core audience of high-minded thrill-seekers at fests and on DVD.
“Godspeed” immediately telegraphs its weighty ambitions, as well as its tendency toward laborious overstatement, in its opening scene, in which charismatic Christian faith-healer Charlie (ruggedly handsome Joseph McKelheer) tries to cast out an elderly woman’s emphysema. But Charlie’s fiery invocation of faith has little effect on the woman or the congregation, and much less on Charlie himself, who numbs his personal pain by drinking and cheating on his bickersome wife (Jessica Ward).
Charlie’s life goes from bad to worse when his wife and young son (Ben Loosli) are murdered one night — in a wordless, over-aestheticized sequence that unfolds in the glow of the Northern Lights — by two young men whose motives are left unclear. Six months later, Charlie (now sporting a mountain man’s beard) is living in a trailer, his faith shattered, as evidenced by his obsessive habit of blacking out passages of his Bible with a pen.
Enter Sarah (Courtney Halverson), a red-haired teenager who insinuates herself into Charlie’s life in a friendly yet oddly insistent, vaguely sexual manner. Claiming that her father needs his help, Sarah persuades Charlie to come to her family’s remote farm; there, he meets her intimidating older brother, Luke (Cory Knauf), whom the audience — but not Charlie — will recognize as one of the two killers.
“Godspeed” is the product of a unique screenwriting collaboration by helmer Saitzyk (who also edited) and actors/exec producers McKelheer and Knauf. The result is a film that evinces admirable ambition in the writing and capable talent behind the camera, but also one prone to tediously spelling out its ideas through angry, longwinded fits of speechifying.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the character of Luke, a frightening, magnetic ringleader type who’s trying to indoctrinate the local youth into a sort of sub-Nietzschean cult. His barely disguised hatred of Charlie lends some tension to the proceedings, but once the truth comes out (along with the guns), Knauf — in a striking performance that overstays its welcome — goes psychotically over the top with a ranting monologue that marks a precipitous dropoff in suspense. Other perfs are fine, McKelheer underplaying effectively opposite Knauf and the flinty, appealing Halverson.
Michael Hardwick’s fine widescreen lensing captures the bleak beauty of Alaska’s outdoors, but the setting appears to have been chosen more for its ready-made atmosphere than for any organic relation to the material. While the pic’s action chops are only so-so, it does contain one satisfying act of violence, accompanied by impressively squishy sound effects.