Ungodly is a new take on the serial killer genre. Wes Bentley stars, playing a
character so similar to the one he played in American Beauty that it seems like
the same guy some years later, fallen upon hard times. As in American Beauty, he
walks around with a camera all the time, filming everything while he looks for
the big project.
He gets the big project, all right. He films a serial murderer in the
act, and even manages to identify the man. Does he go to the police? No. Instead he
figures that the maniac will make the perfect subject for the documentary that
will elevate him to the top of that field. He thinks even Ken Burns and Michael
Moore will have to step aside and concede him to be the master of the genre when
he unveils his documentary, complete with in-depth interviews and
actual murder footage. Bentley arranges a meeting
with the killer, and the two men form an uneasy pact in which the madman agrees
to be interviewed on camera in return for Bentley's promise that his identity
will be kept a secret until he is caught or killed.
The idea behind Ungodly is not completely original. The script was probably inspired by a
Belgian cult film called C'est arrivé près de chez vous, in that the filmmaker
is deceived and manipulated by the serial killer in both films, causing the film
to be controlled by its subject. In both projects, the filmmakers are amoral and
are gradually sucked into more criminal liability of their own. That isn't the
only thing that lacks originality in Ungodly. The killer has the usual
flashbacks to extreme child abuse by his mother, who has since died.
But the script only starts with those familiar elements, and eventually uses
them to develop both unique characters and a surprisingly suspenseful and
complex plot. Because of his own miserable childhood, the killer
has a special soft place in his heart for children. He works with orphaned kids,
dying kids, sick kids, and neighbor kids, and in each case his philanthropy is
genuine and his contribution is worthwhile. Some people in his world think he is
a saint. But when it comes to grown women, he is a completely different person.
Basically he's the Will Rogers of murder. He never met a women he didn't like -
to kill. His formative years made him both a generous, kind man and a monster,
depending on whom he interacts with. In fact, since he has at least some
positives, and since we can understand what made him what he is, we can conclude
that he is probably a much better man in some ways than the photographer, who
not only tries to advance his career by allowing the maniac to commit more murders, but is also a junkie and an
alcoholic, and may even be capable of worse things to come. (Just how far he
will go is part of the film's hook.)
The script devotes a lot of energy to developing both of the main characters.
They are both interested in philosophy, both cerebral men, and that
leads to some interesting dialogue about some pretty heavy topics. ("I wish God
would strike me down," says the maniac, "then at last I could believe He exists
and is just.") In addition to deep characterization, the script also has some
surprising plot twists. The two men obviously cannot trust one another, so each
engages in various power strategies and cat-and-mouse games to gain control over
the other. Underlying all of that is the filmmaker's well grounded fear that he,
too, could be the next victim if the killer considers him too great a threat.
All of those elements would have been enough for a sufficiently juicy and full
plot with plenty of suspense, but the film also layers in quite a shocking and
inventive surprise involving the killer's dead mother.
Of course the film is a relentless downer. It's virtually a two character play,
and both of the characters, while interesting, are utterly detestable and
amoral. The scenes often degenerate into loud chaos and brutal violence
supported by cacophonous background sounds, making the film an extremely intense
and unpleasant experience. Even the film's greatest strength, the depth of its
portrayals, is a source of unpleasantness. After all, just how deep into the
mind of a serial killer would you like to be? And as depressing as the main body
of the film is, the ending makes the rest of the film seem like The Sound of
All of that notwithstanding, in my opinion it's quite an excellent film. In
fact, I found this film to be more engrossing than Mr. Brooks, the
similarly-themed film with Dane Cook and Kevin Costner, and by that comparison I
do not mean to disparage Mr. Brooks, which impressed me. It's just that this
film is deeper, more intense, and better acted. My biggest surprise of 2007 is
Mark Borkowski, who not only co-wrote the consistently interesting script, but
turned in a powerful performance as the killer. Although Borkowski has virtually
no experience as an actor, if you heard this film in the next room you would be
absolutely convinced that you were listening to a forgotten Harvey Keitel movie.
There would be no doubt in your mind. Borkowski doesn't look much like Keitel,
but he sounds just like him, moves like him, and interprets lines so similarly
that his performance seems like the work of a brilliant Keitel impersonator.
Although Borkowski seems to be in his forties, I saw nothing in his exiguous
IMDB entry to indicate that he was capable of this level of either acting or
writing. He has written one 28-minute short, and has one acting credit, having
starring in an obscure film seven years ago. To be fair, one IMDb reviewer said
he was brilliant in that film, and I can believe it, but I have no idea what
else he's done with his life in all these years.
But he surely did well here.