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The Ungodly
cast: Wes Bentley, Mark Borkowski, Joanne Baron

director: Thomas Dunn

96 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Since rising to prominence in the fiction of writers such as Thomas Harris, the serial killer has undergone something of a transformation. Initially, they were presented as monuments to psychological dysfunction; men driven to terrible crimes by all-consuming and utterly baroque world views. They were vast cathedrals built not so much to the glory of god, but as object lessons in the protean and infinitely malleable nature of humanity. Harris' second book Red Dragon (1981), adapted for the screen by Michael Mann as Manhunter (1986) is still the benchmark for this kind of film. However, the serial killer has also birthed a parallel approach based on attempts to re-humanise the serial killer by embedding his motivations in a recognisable psycho-social context.

This door was pushed open by John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986), but the trend finds its ultimate flourishing in the TV series Dexter. A series whose writers, faced with the contortions necessary to maintain a character who is both a ruthless psychopath and a decent person who cares about the people around him, have constructed an image of human nature born not of psychology or the humanities but rather the relentless beating of the stick of expediency against the sides of the slop-bucket of soap opera. Thomas Dunn's The Ungodly (aka: The Perfect Witness) is a film that is trapped between these two strands as the director tries to both present serial killers as unknowable and unpredictable monsters and show us how we all have the potential to become one.

Mickey (Wes Bentley) is an out of work filmmaker. A recovering addict who lives with his mother, he fills his days by tracking down a serial killer in the hope of making a film about him. One day, he stumbles across Jim (Mark Borkowski) as he is killing a woman and captures the murder on tape. Seeing the potential for a behind-the-scenes documentary on the life of a killer, Mickey sends Jim a copy of his tape and blackmails him into providing interviews. Initially, Jim is taciturn and strange but after a couple of meetings, he begins to open up and Mickey finds out that Jim was abused as a child and that in addition to killing women, he also helps out sick children. It is, after all, nice to have a hobby.

When the visit a local diner, Mickey lets his guard down and allows Jim to get an idea of where he lives. Jim promptly kidnaps Mickey's mother and uses her to force Mickey to do as he wishes: the documentary continues but now Jim is in the director's chair. Jim makes Mickey his accomplice. Using him not only to approach the women he kills, but also as a source of insight into his methods and any mistakes he might have made. This pushes Mickey over the edge and he starts using again: first painkillers, then booze and then finally junk. But he also starts to interview Mickey's family and works an angle of his own. One that will take him down a path he did not expect.

The Ungodly is something of a frustrating watch as it is a film with decent ideas. For example, the script's language has a degree of elegance such as when Jim's sister Megan (Joanne Baron) refers to the letters Jim would write to himself after being abused as "neatly folded screams." The script also has some wit and self-knowledge such as when one of the killer's early poetical flourishes is repeated in a way that suggests that he had spent a while thinking it over in order to deliver it to the camera. So, Just as Michael Mann's recent film Public Enemies (2009) suggested that gangsters changed their behaviour in order to live up to their cinematic images, The Ungodly is making a similar point about serial killers: we expect them to have grandiose justifications for what they do, and so Jim is happy to deliver one.

Also interesting is the take on media involvement in the serial killer phenomenon. This is not exactly a new idea as Remy Belvaux's brilliant Man Bites Dog (1992) charted a similar process of bonding, complicity and encouragement to that of The Ungodly, but Dunn seems to draw the wrong lessons from Belvaux's film. Man Bites Dog completely humanised its killer. It presented him as an engaging, charismatic and fundamentally likeable person who just happened to be a mass murderer. We could empathise with his motivations and instincts if not his decision to act upon them.

In contrast, Dunn only goes part of the way. The Ungodly is quick to lay the blame for Jim's murders at the feet of his mother, but it also wants to keep him at arm's length as a forever unpleasant and profoundly unsympathetic character. We never completely understand him. His vaguely Freudian and vaguely religious justifications are poorly fleshed out and both lack the humanity to make them credible and the elegance to make them cathedral-like monuments to insanity. Because of this, we never really understand the relationship between killer and media as we did in Belvaux's film and the film's climax therefore attempts to draw on a store of emotional energy that is simply not present. Jim is simply too inhuman to fit into the dramatic space that Dunn requires him to occupy and this means that Mickey, by virtue of his understanding of Jim, also comes across as remote and inscrutable. Yes Mickey becomes a killer and yes Mickey's justifications are the mirror image of Jim's but these are justifications that are in no way embedded in the film we see or the characters we spend time with.

Technically, the film is also something of a curate's egg. Dunn knows how to frame a shot and there are a number of scenes that have some style and artistry to them but Dunn struggles with the bigger picture and The Ungodly feels poorly paced, inefficiently structured and all too willing to walk us through another murder instead of building the characters properly.

On the whole, The Ungodly is probably worth a look if you are a big fan of the serial killer genre, but otherwise I would give it a miss. I also feel compelled to point an accusatory finger at Metrodome for a genuinely lack-lustre release: the only extra is a trailer and the film's title sequence refers not to the 'The Ungodly', the title the film is released as, but to 'The Perfect Witness', which is the (better) title the film was released as elsewhere. For shame Metrodome. Very sloppy and disrespectful to an inexperienced director who may well have the potential to do better.
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