Christopher Smith’s latest delivers an overabundance of intriguing ideas, but few scares
In Consecration, writer-director Christopher Smith’s (Black Death, Triangle, Severance) first film in three years since The Banishing, the millennia-old conflict between Christianity and the Devil, between the Church and paganism, finds expression in the form of a thirty-something ophthalmologist, Grace Fario (Jena Malone). Grace’s younger brother Michael (Steffan Cennydd), a Catholic priest sent to an isolated convent on the Scottish Isle of Skye for reason or reasons unknown, has perished. A member of the local constabulary, DCI Harris (Thoren Ferguson), claims Father Michael died as part of an alleged murder-suicide on convent grounds.
Consecration, however, doesn’t open with Father Michael’s violent, unexpected death, but with Grace taking a casual afternoon stroll along a London street before being abruptly confronted by a fiercely determined, gun-toting nun. Smith, however, leaves the outcome of their face-to-face confrontation in doubt, gradually revealing the how, why, where, and who via an extended flashback over the next hour and a half. That film-long flashback also contains nested flashbacks, visions, and premonitions that unravel from Grace’s unstable, potentially unreliable point-of-view.
Grace, we soon learn, isn’t who we (or she) think(s) she is. Externally, Grace appears to be a relatively well-adjusted, successful professional, somewhat introverted and prone to keeping her own company over the company of others, but what most would otherwise “normal.” Once she arrives at the convent, however, looking for answers to her brother’s death that neither the Mother Superior (Janet Suzman) or the outwardly friendly Vatican-sent priest, Father Romero (Danny Huston), are willing to share with her, everything begins to go sideways. Grace’s identity starts to slip, dissolve, and eventually metamorphose into something else — or someone else — altogether.
Horrific repressed memories involving her abusive father return uninvited, along with a growing sense that the convent—which is about to be re-consecrated as a holy site after the alleged murder-suicide—won’t offer the safety or sanctuary Grace wants or needs, but instead pose an overt existential threat to her well-being. There’s also a history lesson or two involving the centuries-old ruins nearby, where crusading Knights Templars committed Church-sanctioned suicide for their sins by stepping backwards off a cliff and falling to the rocks below.
It’s more than enough, of course, to send even the most rational person running in the opposite direction, but the Grace we meet in Consecration isn’t as rational as her outspoken science-based beliefs would lead someone to immediately believe. The combination of the Church’s ambiguous actions toward Grace, Grace’s increasingly faltering mental state, and the real possibility that the struggle for her soul isn’t metaphorical, but literal, are more than enough to make Grace’s decision to remain at the convent understandable, even relatable on some level.
Drawing influences from both his past works—specifically Triangle’s time-bending permutations along with his preoccupation with Christianity, patriarchal institutions, and the destructive, repressive conditions both have created and maintained—Smith fashions old-school religious horror where the rooting interest isn’t with the representatives of the Catholic Church (as in, for example, the heroic priests of The Exorcist), but those oppressed by its authoritarian rule. The isolated location, the central conflict, and the connection to paganism suggests a connection to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, though Ken Russell’s intentionally subversive The Devils might be a closer analogue visually, if not thematically.
Scares, for example, in the vein of The Nun, are few and far between. While Smith doesn’t hold back on blood and gore when required by certain plot points, he’s far more interested in creating and maintaining a specific mood, a discomforting atmosphere, and a growing sense of existential dread. Smith is also interested in exploring where audience sympathies ultimately should lie. His answer might surprise some, but certainly not most (hint: It’s not the Catholic Church). That provocative idea alone makes Consecration a worthwhile expenditure of any viewer’s time.
Consecration opens theatrically on Friday, February 10th, via IFC Films and Shudder, and March 3rd on VOD.