Saturday 7 December 2013

Jesus vs the Messiah

Director: Alan Ronald
Writer: Alan Ronald
Producer: Debbie Attwell
Cast: Simon Phillips, Gemma Deerfield, Danny Idollor Jr
Country: UK
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: screener

When you’re watching a film, certainly when you’re watching it for review purposes, a phrase will often pop into your head. Some pithy combination of words will suggest itself, usually about 30-40 minutes in, which perfectly sums up what the film is or does or wants to be. As I watched Alan Ronald’s debut feature Jesus vs the Messiah, having started from a point of knowing nothing whatsoever about the picture, not even whether it was a drama or comedy, three words aligned themselves along my neurons and I realised that I was viewing an existential British western.

British westerns are few and far between; ones about the Son of God are even rarer.

There is little actual western iconography here. One character refers to another several times as “a cowboy” but that’s just because he’s wearing a broad-brimmed leather hat (the director’s own). It’s not really a Stetson, in fact with his long leather coat it makes him look more like a big, black Van Helsing (without the crossbow) than John Wayne or Gene Autry. The excellent score, mostly based around a strummed guitar, manages to evoke vaguely western feelings without ever being an Ennio Morricone pastiche. But the real clue to the genre here is the characters and their situation.

This is a three-hander - two men and one woman - and all three people are lone drifters. She lives in a car, one man has a flat and another home whose location he has forgotten and the other fellow we’re never told anything about, except that he spends his time chasing the first chap. Apart from these three and one barfly featured at the start, the only ‘characters’ are a barman and a waitress, the sort of human furniture that fills the mise-en-scene of a western without having anything approaching a personality. Our three protagonists (well, two protagonists and one antagonist, I suppose) move through a largely empty world, rarely interacting with the rest of humanity. The first half of the story is set in an urban locale, the second half is more rural but everywhere seems empty, the widescreen cinematography turning Paisley car parks and Loch Lomond hillsides into dusty plains.

There are just enough clues to show that this isn’t just my interpretation, this is an intention on the part of Alan Ronald to turn Scotland into Arizona, a sort of Wild West Lothian.

The aforementioned barfly is a hulking Glaswegian bastard whose hobby is forcing strangers into drinking contests. When he makes a move on a woman in a bar and is rebuffed, he doesn’t take kindly to the situation and takes even less kindly to the bearded bloke along the bar who asks him to leave the lady alone. Forced by the thug’s associates to sit down and knock back shots of something which probably tastes like furniture polish, the mild fellow protests feebly but nevertheless emerges triumphant (as the fat bloke brings up his lunch) only to collapse shortly afterwards.

Awakening in the back of the woman’s car, the two introduce themselves warily. She is Sally (Gemma Deerfield: Dawn of the Zombies, Violet, Caped Fear), he eventually admits that his name is Jesus (Simon Phillips: Idol of Evil, Jack Says). It’s pronounced the Biblical way – he’s not Spanish. “You must have had some fucked-up parents,” says Sally. Of course, when a character is named Jesus (he asks her to just call him J) the audience immediately starts wondering whether he really is The Jesus. Especially when he’s in a film with an obviously religious (if apparently contradictory) title like Jesus vs the Messiah. And especially when he has a beard. If there’s one thing that everyone agrees on about the Son of Our Lord, one thing which unites all the different factions and denominations in peaceful unanimity, it’s the universally accepted fact that Jesus had a beard. And was white.

Sally warily accepts J’s offer to crash at his flat but in the morning he finds that his wallet is missing. Being more astute than J, Sally realises that the fat bastard at the bar has it and returns there to retrieve it, which she does. But into this otherwise-deserted-at-this-time establishment comes a heavily built, stoney-faced fellow (Danny Idollor Jr, adopting an American accent, who claims to have been in Buffy the Vampire Slayer although I can’t find any trace of this online) who is searching for J and has no qualms about killing people - with fists or pistol - who get in his way. We have already seen him inexplicably kill some unnamed extras in other situations.

This is ‘The Messiah’ although he is only identified as such in the end credits (and by dint of being the antagonist who is ‘vs’ Jesus). The character is never named on screen although it is surely significant that he addresses J, when they meet as “Brother.”

J turns up at the bar, tries to rescue Sally and has to be rescued in turn from this seemingly unstoppable black behemoth, who is left out cold on the floor. There is a fair amount of people being smacked on the head with objects in this film, usually hard enough to knock them unconscious and, to be fair, a few situations where further blows were required would have been more realistic (but that’s a petty and irrelevant complaint about what is otherwise an absolutely cracking film).

Sally and J, who still don’t trust each other, retreat to a cafe for breakfast and hatch plans to get away from the city but the Messiah tracks them there and persuades J to go with him. This is the magic of the relationship here, into which Sally intrudes: Jesus and the Messiah are in opposition but they both know that Jesus has a destiny and it is the Messiah’s duty to see that this destiny is fulfilled. Just like the Terminator, ‘he can’t be reasoned with, he can’t be bargained with and he absolutely will not stop.’

Over the course of 100 minutes or so we see how Jesus and the Messiah give meaning to each other’s lives, and how Jesus and Sally can give meaning to each other’s lives (there is not even a hint of romance, which is refreshing). Sally never twigs that J is actually the Son of God until J confesses the truth near the end so the audience always has an advantage over her.

But is he? That’s the marvellous thing about this film. We’re dummied into thinking that we’re watching a religious film but then Alan Ronald throws in just enough doubt to make us realise that these two men could just be a couple of fucked-up loners. They’re certainly fucked up, as indeed is Sally, but are they fucked up enough to believe that they’re the Son of God and his Nemesis? Or are they fucked up because they are the Son of God and his Nemesis? Like the best existential movies, JVTM doesn’t provide answers but it does raise some fascinating questions.

This is a thought-provoking film but it’s far from heavy. There’s a bit of action, plenty of tension and a vein of dark humour running through the whole thing, best exemplified by probably the greatest walrus scene in the history of British cinema. I can see this film being a hit at festivals and provoking plenty of internet discussion once people have had a chance to see it. There’s always something fascinating about religious authority figures unafraid to indulge in righteous violence, whether it’s Garth Ennis’ Preacher or the gun-toting priest in Bram Stoker’s Shadow Builder (or indeed my own unproduced TV pilot Padre - ask me about it sometime).

This is also a beautiful film, very much a cinematographer’s film, not surprising as Ronald is a DP by trade whose credits include Pat HigginsTrashHouse, HellBride and KillerKiller (plus camera op on The Devil’s Music, in which he was so memorable in front of the camera as stoned drummer ZC). Ronald uses the widescreen image not just as a window but as a frame, always aware of the shape of the things that make up the picture, whether its an extreme close-up of a character’s eyes or a panoramic landscape with a single figure.

As well as being a terrific movie - a masterful combination of great photography and fascinating characters trapped in an intriguing situation - JVTM is also a triumph of minimalist production in having only five crew. Al Ronald himself wrote, directed and edited and handled the camera. Producer Debbie Attwell was also 1st AD, script supervisor, line producer and stills photographer and also also found time to produce and edit the forty-minute Making Of (which can be found in four chunks on YouTube). Attwell is also an actress who had small roles in TrashHouse and The Devil’s Music. She and Ronald have a long history of working together which includes the short films Sabbat, The Gloop and Blood Bank plus a music video which was included on the German DVD of Suspiria(!) although Ronald’s apparent ambition to star Attwell in a feature based on the Marvel Comics character the Black Cat is pure wish fulfilment I suspect... Attwell’s other genre credits include the atmospheric short film The Train Now Arriving and the spoof Bikini Zombies from the Moon, both for Shock! Horror! Probe! Productions.

The other three crew members were all in the ‘sound department’, which might explain why the sound production and mixing - so often the thing that lets low-budget movies down - is top-notch here. Andrew ‘Biscuit’ Byars was sound recordist (and stunt driver - not a common combination in the industry!) while Craig Woods and Ben McNeill shared duties as sound assistants, production assistants and boom ops. The only other people credited on the film are Al’s brother Gordon Ronald who was ‘pre/post-production assistant’ and shares a foley credit with Al; composer Eli Stone (Al Ronald and Andrew Byars are credited with additional music); executive producer Lee Thacker; and David Smith who made a rather important wooden prop. Gordon Ronald also has the distinction of having originated the long-coated, leather-hated title character in Ronald and Attwell’s short film Messiah, included in the Making Of.

All three leads are excellent in their respective roles, creating believable characters within a barely believable scenario from nothing but hints and suggestions. Ronald, Byars and Woods all make cameos as headbanging victims of the Messiah in an early shot unconnected to the main story while Attwell plays the waitress in the cafe. Alistair Rodger is the guy in the bar and John Lavelle plays the barman.

Technically and artistically a triumph, Jesus vs the Messiah benefits above all from an excellent script which makes us care about these characters and think about them too. It never establishes for certain whether the two men are in fact supernatural entities or just two guys with mental health problems. More than that, it makes it clear that it doesn’t matter which scenario is true. The film works equally well if you believe they are or they aren’t, or indeed if they both are and aren’t at the same time. It doesn’t matter - and that’s the whole point.

The film premiered at a festival in Leith in June 2007. In an example of the coming trend, it is not available on DVD yet but can be purchased as a download from Film Annex for a very reasonable six dollars.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 23rd April 2008

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