For some reason, I thought that Missionary would try to paint Mormons (and Mormon missionaries in particular) in a pleasant light. I knew that it was a thriller, so it was unlikely… but the missionary characters are introduced so well and they seem like genuinely good people. I thought that maybe they would be the victims, that the iron-pumping man of God wouldn’t be the psychotic guy everyone would expect him to be. I mean, pretty much everyone thinks Mormons are crazy anyway. I hoped that Missionary would be different.
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Director: Anthony DiBlasi
Release Date: TBD
Kevin Brock (Mitch Ryan) is crazy. He’s a Mormon missionary, paying 400 dollars a month to go around on his bike, knocking on doors and trying to indoctrinate people into his church. When he’s not preaching the word of God, he’s lifting weights or obsessing over his holy books. What is it that drives him? Family. Family family family. The celestial family, actually, which extends beyond this realm and into eternity. It’s the thing he longs for… and the thing he will kill for.
Katherine (Dawn Olivieri) is a semi-single mother. She lives with her son, Kesley (Connor Christie), and not her cheating husband Ian (Kip Pardue). She works, goes to school, does mother stuff, and is generally overworked. So when two missionaries show up at her doorstep while she’s trying (and failing) to throw a football to her son, she doesn’t have time for them. But then former-athlete Kevin Brock picks up the football and tells Kesley to go long. Suddenly, these missionaries go from intruders to invitees, and they have a lovely time. By crazy random happenstance (or is it? it’s not always clear who caused what), Katherine and Kevin meet again and eventually things get a bit heated. Suddenly, Kevin doesn’t care all that much about the Mission. He cares about his celestial family.
Poor Katherine… poor Kesley.
I’m conflicted about the way Missionary uses religion. On a surface level, it doesn’t really seem like a film about religion, even though its antagonist is a religious nut. There are some scenes just between the missionaries, giving a very confined sense of the way they live and operate. I have no idea how realistic it is, but in those moments they didn’t seem dangerous. It seemed like Kevin was a clear exception. If he hadn’t found Mormonism, it would have been something else. Even so, the filmmakers chose for him to be a Mormon. They decided that he should be a missionary (and a Mormon one at that) rather than a paperboy or a member of the Klu Klux Klan or whatever. I’m not a fan of Mormonism, but I don’t see why they went there. Was it because the film was made in 2012 and Mitt Romney was running for president at the time? I don’t know. But it feels cheap. You don’t have to work very hard to convince someone that a religious missionary is unstable.
But even so, Mitch Ryan does a good job playing both sides of the coin. It’s kind of a shame that once Kevin becomes unhinged he never gets righted again, even for a moment, but I can’t say that Ryan’s performance didn’t make him seem completely bonkers. The camerawork, which is odd from the start (often behind people’s heads, obscuring large parts of the frame and keeping things out of focus) certainly keeps the tone unsettling. In fact, a lot of the acting comes from body language and voices. Not only are many scenes shot from behind, there are numerous moments where the camera cuts characters off at the neck. Sometimes it’s just hands that have to portray the feelings of the scene. And for the most part it works. It’s distracting at first, reminding me of a documentary I saw a while back where the directors were forced to hide their interviewees identities, but eventually I got into it.
Delusion is a powerful motivator. The revelations about Kevin’s past are par for the course (given his predilection towards violence), but a scene with an unexpectedly alive character allows for a fascinating conversation about stalkers. When Katherine is told to buy a gun and find out what Florida law will allow her to shoot Kevin, it was hard not to think of the “Stand Your Ground” law that’s been in the news so much lately, but that doesn’t lead to any broader statements about gun ownership or acceptability or anything. Guns aren’t really anybody’s biggest problem. Kevin, with his washboard abs and bulging biceps, doesn’t need guns to hurt people.
The problem with the violence, though, is that it keeps Missionary from really being unique. Once it’s clear that Kevin is crazy, the plot becomes completely predictable. The details make it more interesting, but it felt like there was something there that got lost in the genre turn. Even if it kept the odd camera-work and discontinuous editing when it became a straight thriller, it had lost some of what made it compelling. The scenes themselves were fine, and I was curious to see how things would turn out, but I wasn’t surprised anymore by a film that seemed like it could have surprised me. I wanted Missionary to be different, and it clearly wanted me to think it was.
But it’s not.