In a Cannes flush with onscreen unpleasantries including multiple rapes, severed limbs and genital mutilations, no film was more deserving of a special Palme d’Horreur than the ironically titled “Nothing Bad Can Happen,” whose Jesus-loving protag takes such a beating to body and soul as to make crucifixion seem like the easy way out. Skillfully made first feature by writer-director Katrin Gebbe has some undeniably striking passages and performances, but ultimately spirals toward a gruesome third act that is no less monotonous for supposedly being based on true events. Pic’s surprising inclusion at Cannes, which has largely overlooked much of the best new German cinema, will help it to make the rounds of international fests and new-director showcases. Austin-based Drafthouse Films has acquired the title for a niche U.S. release.
Gebbe intentionally offers little backstory about her central character, Tore (Julius Feldmeier), a wayward teen first seen in the company of his fellow “Jesus Freaks,” an actual Hamburg sect of fundamentalist Christian youth who dress in punk couture and express their faith at high-decibel raves set to the blare of Christian-themed rock. So convinced is young Tore of his proximity to the Lord that he thinks nothing of calling on the Holy Spirit to help jumpstart the car of a stranded motorist, Benno (Sascha Alexander Gersak), whom he encounters at a highway rest stop. Lo and behold, it works. Sometime later, it’s Benno who comes to Tore’s aid, when the teen lapses into an epileptic fit during one of the Freaks’ raves, pulling him from the crowded dance floor.
Benno’s summer home — a small allotment where he lives with wife Astrid (Annika Kuhl), stepdaughter Sanny (Swantje Kohlhof) and stepson Dennis (Til Niklas Theinert) — soon becomes a sanctuary for Tore, who flees the Jesus Freaks after catching his roommate in a most unholy act of premarital sex. Benno in turn agrees to let Tore sleep in a tent in the garden, and for a while it seems as if the older man might be the father figure Tore so clearly desires, even if he is a pronounced nonbeliever who enjoys mocking Tore’s faith for sport.
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But all too predictably, sizable cracks begin to form in this “happy family” facade: Benno is seen hovering around Sanny in a somewhat less-than-fatherly way, and seems to view Tore as a rival for the tomboyish teen’s affections. Then there’s the “accidental” punch to the face he lands on Tore during a family birthday party, which makes Tore think about returning to the Freaks, only to find that they’ve disbanded. So it’s back to Benno’s place, where the heretofore placid Astrid, accusing Tore of stealing food from the garbage, proposes a most squirm-inducing punishment: Tore shall eat an entire, maggot-infested chicken while she and Benno watch. And this, in the pic’s grand scheme of physical and psychological abuses, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Convinced that Benno is in fact a test from above meant to strengthen his fate, Tore sticks around, which only puts him in line for more grievous harm, the nature of which ultimately leads “Nothing Bad Can Happen” into full-blown “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”/“Last House on the Left” territory. By then, the pic’s initially intriguing ideological clash between a true believer and a heretic becomes little more than a catalogue of human behavior at its most depraved, lending Gebbe’s film echoes of such other recent Cannes charnel houses as “Kinatay” and “Heli.” But “Nothing Bad Can Happen” feels divorced from those films’ broader sociological contexts; if Gebbe is trying to say something about the opiate of religion or the social conditions that lead homeless teens into bad situations, it’s muddled — rather than sharpened — by the ultimately numbing graphic violence.
Gebbe has obvious (if misdirected) gifts as a filmmaker, atmospherically rendering a downtrodden working-class milieu and showing a real affinity for young people coming into a sense of themselves. Newcomers Kohlhof and Feldmeier both make big impressions, the latter projecting a slightly spacey, otherworldly quality that makes him seem like Candide on the cusp of Dante’s inferno. The hulking Gersak does his best to make Benno seem more than a central-casting psycho, at least in the early scenes. Moritz Schultheiss’ lucid handheld, widescreen lensing highlights a professional tech package.
While the subtitles on the version reviewed suggested the English-language title had been changed to “Rising,” Drafthouse will release the film Stateside as “Nothing Bad Can Happen.” The original German title, “Tore tanzt,” translates as “Tore Dances.”