The Devil Outside
Visual poetry abounds in this story of a watchful young boy questioning his family's religious beliefs
“Life is mysterious, we don’t need to explain it. God doesn’t want us to question.” This is the advice a Bible-thumping mother (Forsyth) gives to her teenage son Robert (newcomer Carson), the quietly watchful kid at the heart of this disquieting but utterly engrossing second feature from Andrew Hulme (Snow in Paradise). Mummy rightly senses her son may be starting to question his religious beliefs. At school, teachers are filling his head with ideas of evolution and the existence of alternative theologies, while the scepticism of the scallywag (Daniel Frogson) who pilfers from the collection plate at Robert’s evangelical church is starting to rub off on him. Even his own body is challenging his faith, making him feel strange urges towards his mother’s curvy dressmaker's dummy.
Just as Robert begins to doubt, a log is thrown on his mother’s burning ardour for Jesus when a charismatic layman preacher (Stobbart, his wild eyes betraying his focused exterior) begins giving fiery sermons at their rather sedate church. He soon has the flock energised and out marching the streets of Nottingham delivering the Lord’s message with a psychotic intensity. Robert is desperately looking for a sign from on high to show him the way, and he finds it when he stumbles across a dead man in the woods who’s the spitting image of the creepy painting of Jesus he has hanging on his bedroom wall, and a resurrection doesn’t seem forthcoming from the rotten, fly-infested corpse.
Hulme has a keen cinematic eye. Like in the unruly poetics of Andrea Arnold’s work, the edge of the suburban sprawl – the neither/nor areas where the manmade is overcome by nature and life both festers and flourishes – is used to great effect. Eye-catching imagery litters every frame. A walk around an abandoned mining facility reveals a dark, deep chasm that might lead straight to hell as far as Robert’s concerned, and the misty woods in which he finds the corpse is straight out of a Grimm fairytale. An expressive use of rapidly edited montage, meanwhile, acts as a peephole into Robert’s swirling subconscious as he struggles against his faith and his burgeoning sexual desires.
As impressive as Hulme’s vision is, he can sometimes slip into cliché. Robert, for example, spends more time in wheat fields than a young Theresa May – even Terrence Malick would deem it overkill. But for every trite image there are a dozen arresting ones. There might even be a sly nod to Star Wars as Robert looks out his bedroom window and appears to see two moons in the sky, suggesting his Lincolnshire semi-detached home has been transported to Tatooine.
Tearing down religious dogma can be like shooting fish in a barrel, but Hulme’s approach is full of compassion for his young protagonist’s dilemma and there’s a sense he’s trying deeply to understand why people still feel the need to believe in the Bible’s tales of gods and demons. The film’s most powerful sequence involves an intense but moving sermon in which parishioners start bearing witness in an extraordinary mass confession, with the “sins” ranging from pornography addiction to severe depression. Hulme has admitted the film contains autobiographical elements, but you don’t need to read the film’s press notes to know its details ring true, and that’s what makes its religious skepticism all the more persuasive.
The Devil Outside has its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 22 Jun, with an additional screening on 23 Jun – more info here
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