On abandoned abbeys, true stories, and the unnecessary brand expansion that brought The Nun into existence
The Nun Warner Bros.
Director: Corin Hardy
Screenplay: Gary Dauberman
Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Demián Bichir, Jonas Bloquet, Ingrid Bisu, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles and Bonnie Aarons
Rated R / 1 hour, 36 minutes / 2.39:1
September 7, 2018
(out of four)
Well that was certainly a long-winded way to explain a picture of a scary nun.
Expanding the mythology of a story - or as the case may be, inventing a mythology where there wasn't much use for one to begin with - can be a pretty obnoxious tendency. Especially in modern filmmaking (which is to say, modern brand-building). It's the kind of impulse that makes filmmakers do terrible things like "Let's find out how Han Solo got his last name, wouldn't that be fun?"
Grace notes become plot points, glancing images become whole new characters, self-contained narratives become generation-spanning chronicles. And usually what gets buried is whatever it was that seemed so interesting in the first place. It can be particularly noxious when it's handled the way it's handled in The Nun, the latest entry in what its marketing is unironically referring to as The Conjuring Universe. It's not as if the eponymous nun - who first appeared on Lorraine Warren's canvas (via her subconscious) in 2016's The Conjuring 2 - is simply made into a new horror-movie menace. It's that the very existence of the nun as a horror-movie menace is tediously explained, rule by rule and detail by detail. Director Corin Hardy and writer Gary Dauberman never allow any supernatural presence to set in because they're too busy providing backstory. (Backstory punctuated by jump-scares.) I feel like I know this demonic nun's life story better than those of my close friends. Who gives a rat's ass where a supernatural villain comes from? I can't imagine a less important angle. The nun's visage was reasonably creepy in its intermittent appearances two years ago. You know what's not creepy? An elaborate explanation of said nun involving occult rituals and scavenger hunts and World War II bombings.
This is like when the makers of Halloween 6 decided it would be a good idea to explain Michael Myers as the coronated heir of an ancient order of evil telepathic druids. This would be like someone making a spinoff of The Shining revolving entirely around the guy in the bear costume. (What is the man's name? Why is he wearing that bear suit? What was he doing in that hotel? Was he a Jazz Age Furry? Is he friends with Lloyd, too? Who was the other guy on the bed?)
That the cinematic universe from which The Nun sprang into existence went out of its way to justify its "based on a true story" bonafides only makes this movie's attempts at mythology seem more strained - and more out of place. By the time all is said and done, The Nun has connected right back to a previously seen moment from the original The Conjuring. Retconning the fictionalized reality of your franchise's original supernatural feature with a whole new (and more explicit) supernatural angle is certainly a choice - and one that's been made multiple times in The Conjuring's name (the two Annabelle films being the previous culprits). I suppose that's just the nature of this type of franchising; The Nun just seems like awfully flimsy connective tissue.
Of course, the easiest way to render all of these criticisms and hesitations moot is to just make a damn good horror movie, but Hardy - in his second directorial effort after 2015's occasionally gorgeous but ultimately frustrating The Hallow - most certainly has not done that. The atmosphere that sets in during the film's standout moments - the best of which (tunnel-by-candlelight) has already been overexposed by the trailers and marketing - never sticks. Too many muddled ideas and too much muddled exposition for anything coherent to ever emerge.
Set in and around the grounds of an isolated, crumbling abbey in the Romanian countryside circa 1952, The Nun fixes its attention on three primary characters: Father Burke (Demián Bichir), who's been sent by the Vatican to investigate the recent death of a nun; Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), a novitiate brought along as his de-facto partner in a de-facto murder investigation; and Frenchie (Belgian Toby Kebbell Jonas Bloquet), a groundskeeper and local jack-of-all-trades who discovered the body that set this whole visit in motion in the first place.
The filmmakers really have something in the abbey itself, which is a wholly unwelcoming place for Father Burke and Sister Irene. (And no doubt anyone else who might be inclined to snoop around, though no one, it seems, ever does.) That the abbey seems largely cut off from not just the outside world but even the church itself only adds to its hostile, borderline surreal ambience. The nuns themselves - when we get to glimpse them at all - are mostly silent figures. Almost apparitional. Their eerie silence and the overpowering darkness of the abbey's interiors are fertile elements for Hardy to exploit, but the script keeps getting in the way - constantly framing characters within clumsy narrative conventions and thematic devices that strip this whole thing of its inherent mystery. And so the film's sense of place - which we can distinctly feel in moments and fragments - winds up just as vague as the notions of guilt and possession, of good and evil, that pepper the characters' interlocking stories.
There's an alien quality to our surroundings throughout. A version of this movie that embraced that quality is one I might like to see. Instead, by the end of The Nun we know these grounds all too well, and it feels like we've begrudgingly gone through the last door in a haunted-house attraction that offered no new tricks we hadn't seen before. And even after all that, it's hard to determine exactly what the point of this nun - this evil, possessed, demonic nun - really was. With almost all supernatural terrors and movie monsters, their power is inversely proportional to how much we know about them. Better to be nun the wiser.