[21 April 2010]

By Michael Curtis Nelson

Faith, Family, and Firearms

America loves con artists. From The Music Man to Ocean’s Eleven, from Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” (filmed as Smooth Talk), to The Grifters, Americans love a good story about gifted ne’er-do-wells who can talk others out of money, goods, or perhaps even, in Oates’ case, their lives. America also loves stories about preachers, and since the line between religion and commerce, between faith in God and faith in the entrepreneurial spirit is so blurry in the states, the con artist and preacher are often one and the same.

Witness the protagonist of Godspeed, Robert Saitzyk’s film about a faith healer who suffers a personal tragedy and a spiritual crisis. Charlie Shepard (Joseph McKelheer) runs a small ministry in an Alaskan town, attracting followers through his putative ability to cure the sick. Charlie’s wife and young son are murdered in their home one evening while he’s off with the town prostitute.

When we next see him, he has left his flock behind to hole up in a trailer in the woods, subsisting on fish, hooch, and guilt. He’s brought out of his funk by Sarah Roberts (Courtney Halverson), a young woman whose mother Charlie tried unsuccessfully to heal to cure her cancer. But when Sarah brings Charlie to her family’s remote ranch, he’s confronted by Sarah’s brother Luke (Cory Knauf), who holds Charlie accountable for his mother’s death. There we see how the loss of faith can lead to despair, and explode into violence.

A portentous prologue announces Godspeed’s Big Theme. As a bloody man runs through the forest, a woman, in voiceover, muses over the “darkness born of the centuries—born from the pain it takes to live the day”, a darkness she says we all carry within us and which can gather, then burst forth. A somber tone thus set, with the introduction of each character in Godspeed, we have to wonder: is this the one who will go off? Hint: “all of the above” is one option.

After the primal opening, the scene shifts radically to The Shepard Worship Center, where Charlie proceeds to establish his ambiguous status as a faith healer. During the service, he calls an elderly woman, who suffers from emphysema, up to the stage. He holds her close, willing her disease into his own body so that God can heal her. Just when Charlie appears to have succeeded in easing her breathing, his nose starts bleeding, and he abruptly ends the service.

The woman returns to her seat and puts her oxygen mask back on. Was Charlie not strong enough to complete the healing, was he trying to no effect, or was it all a sham and the nosebleed a trick to draw attention away from the woman?

We never find out. Godspeed offers only tantalizing, incomplete glimpses of characters’ inner workings. The darkness of the voiceover, it seems, always wells up and gets in the way. Violence displaces the most interesting interactions in Godspeed.

Charlie’s telegraphed conversation with his wife hints that they share a troubled partnership in life and in the ministry. Except for a brief flashback, the murders cut off that plot thread. The verbal sparring at the ranch between Charlie and Luke, who has attracted at least one follower and appears to be headed toward establishing a ministry of his own, plays as a nascent battle between preacher and disciple. In a brief confessional moment Charlie recalls to Sarah the formative encounter that convinced him that he had real healing powers. Unfortunately, the implications of these revelations are left behind in all the blood and mayhem. Sarah is the only character who can express herself effectively through words. This makes for thematic consistency, but frustrating viewing.

One problem with building a film around brutality is that it attracts certain cinematic conventions, in this case, a plot thread straight out of B horror films. Charlie’s friend Mitch (Ed Lauter), from the Alaska Department of Wildlife, goes in search of the preacher after he disappears with Sarah. Do things ever go well when a lone lawman treks to a remote location to investigate a missing person? Isn’t there a reason why law enforcement personnel usually work in pairs? How can such a hackneyed sequence not color the rest of the film?

Saitzyk and company make excellent use of location shooting. Alaska itself becomes a character in Godspeed, which was filmed in Anchorage and Wasilla and environs. The night sky filled with stars and the northern lights, the dark forest, a pristine lake: these and other settings provide a suitably sublime backdrop to the film’s tragic plot.

It’s a propitious time for depictions of the 49th state. Sarah Palin has drawn renewed attention to the region of myth (sourdoughs, sled dogs, and the gold rush), manifest destiny (Seward’s Icebox, the great oil pipeline), and magical realism (almost anything could happen in the Sicily, Alaska, of the ‘90s series Northern Exposure). Alaska remains the place of big dreams and equally big nightmares, where themes match the grandeur, drama, and danger of the landscape. Vampire thriller Thirty Days of Night (2007) couldn’t take place anywhere else.

Its blend of family drama, fundamentalism, and brutality also makes Godspeed topical for our time of heightened hatred and violence justified on religious grounds.

The DVD is a barebones production, with no extras.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/123601-godspeed/