Traditionally when a film bypasses theatres entirely, it is often a sign that it’s not particularly great. So, when I heard this odd film following a potentially supernatural cult leader had garnered this fate, things didn’t seem to bode well. With a long and unspectacular career behind him, Phil Janou has never exactly set the world on fire. With The Veil heading straight to DVD/Netflix, it seemed unlikely to elevate him. Surprisingly, the film is pretty decent, and there are far worse works littering the Netflix landscape.
Twenty five years after members of Heaven's Veil, a religious cult, commit suicide, documentary filmmaker Maggie Price (Alba) contacts the sole survivor, Sarah Hope (Rabe), to film a documentary about what really happened. Sarah, who was five years old when she was found at the scene, accepts when she learns that Maggie has found evidence that never-recovered footage exists. Maggie's brother, Christian (Jack De Sana), explains that their father was the FBI agent who led the investigation. Shortly after discovering the mass suicide, he committed suicide, driving Maggie and Christian to learn the truth. With her crew, Maggie takes Sarah to the site of the cult's suicide.
The first thing that struck and impressed me about this film was the visual direction. A majority of the film has a very washed out and muted colour palette, the complete antithesis of Del Toro’s near neon Crimson Peak. The grading choice is perfectly matched with the film’s general tone and atmosphere, which allows us to see through Sarah’s eyes: after what she has experienced, it would make sense that her personal world would be devoid of colour and rather bleak.
It’s also the most basic of visual storytelling techniques, as the gloomy colour scheme plants a sense of dread in the viewer’s mind. This is polished nicely with some wonderful cinematography; it is classy, professional and unique, and really gives the film an extra element oft-missing in this particular genre.
The nightmare/vision sequences and the video footage of Jacob’s startling spiritual growth are particularly great. This is underpinned by a very solid score, and this synthesis creates a powerful ambience that resonates throughout. The film has a very surreal, dreamlike feel to it.
The writing is hit and miss, but hits more often than it misses. Some characters, particularly Sarah and Jacobs, are well fleshed out and have a clear arc. Unfortunately the supporting cast are largely boring caricatures, serving to be nothing more than fodder and exposition.
I will say however, that the film is hard to predict. The ambiguity as to whether or not there was a supernatural element to Jacobs’ madness is intriguing and makes the first half of the film an intriguing enigma. And, even when the predictable twist comes, the writer subverts it further and flips it on its head. I’ve never seen a direct mash of the supernatural and cult leaders, and both tend to scare us in different ways. A cult leader brainwashes, that’s where his terror lies. He doesn’t need to be supernatural. It is unique though, and a nice twist on a potentially tired genre. It also leads to a beautifully bizarre ending.
Alba, I’ve often said, is an awful actress, and unfortunately she’s at it again here. Her performance is so one-dimensional there isn’t a lot to say. She’s unconvincing, to say the least. Fortunately, Thomas Jane is pretty decent as the enigmatic and eccentric Jacobs, putting in just the level of scenery chewing needed to perform such a role. He’s not Bray Wyatt, but he does a decent job. Rabe is also passable as Sarah, if never fantastic.
Visually fantastic, and well directed by Janou, the film is unfortunately dragged down by some dodgy writing and less than stellar performances. In truth, you could do a lot worse on Netflix on a Saturday night. The film at least manages to bring a new twist to the cult leader genre, adding a supernatural element, and creating something bizarre and unique.