Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Joshua Overbay. Starring Chris Nelson, Luke Beavers, Shannon Kathleen Baker, Jin Park, and John Lina.
What if the wolf in sheep’s clothing really believes he is the shepherd? That is not unusual, many false prophets take themselves seriously. But what if the wolf really, deeply believes he is helping and pasturing the sheep and putting their interests ahead of his own even as the sheep’s lives become increasingly miserable? That is the angle of As It Is in Heaven, and for me that is a thought provoking and semi-unique take. Even Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher from The Night of the Hunter, perhaps the greatest film about a wolf in sheep’s clothing, knows he is first and foremost helping himself, even though he thinks he is doing the Lord’s work.
David (Chris Nelson) is not only convinced he is doing the Lord’s work, he also thinks that he is helping to prepare his followers for life as it is in heaven. Having recently taken over a doomsday cult after the unexpected death of their prophet Edward (John Lina), David believes he has been chosen by God to prepare the community for the rapture in thirty days, as predicted by Edward. Further complicating matters, Edward’s final act was to anoint David as his successor, passing over his son Eamon (Luke Beavers). Naturally, a sort of rivalry begins to form between Eamon and David; however, it is not motivated by jealousy, but a difference of opinion on what the cult was supposed to be. With David’s increasingly strict guidance as he mandates a thirty-day fast to purify everyone for the rapture, Eamon is genuinely concerned for the well being of the community, which is a family to him.
As It Is in Heaven is interested in much more than just a conflict between two ways to lead a doomsday cult. It explores the dangers of interpreting scripture without any guidance, the trust people naturally feel for a respected leader, and the confused emotions of the members of a religious sect through a period of upheaval.
David has all the fire and enthusiasm of a recent convert (which he is, having been baptized only one year ago), and along with that comes a stubbornness and arrogance that he knows exactly what God’s will is. Chris Nelson is excellent at portraying the passion of a man who truly believes his own words and that he is preparing the last remnants of the faithful for the second coming of Christ. He makes David surprisingly sympathetic to a point, until his actions become truly monstrous, at which point it is hard to know what to think of him. As Eamon, Luke Beavers conveys a deep respect for this way of life and a reluctance to do anything that might harm the community, but he balances that with increasing determination as he witnesses the costly consequences of David’s orders. As the newest member Abiella, Jin Park is reserved and portrays the conflict of someone who wishes to believe she made the right choice even as nothing turns out as she expected.
First time feature director Joshua Overbay beautifully films the community and its quiet rural setting. Opening with a couple fluid long takes, the camera slowly follows one member to the river for a Baptism, by which Overbay suggests an idyllic world where a community lives in peace. When that world is shaken by David’s leadership and harsh proclamations, the camera begins to shake as well. The effect is not overdone, and it subtly suggests the upheaval through which the community will soon go.
It has been remarked that Night of the Hunter ruins then redeems the favorite hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” the similarly themed and nearly as compelling As It Is in Heaven ruins then redeems not only its very flawed protagonist, but also the entire doomsday cult. Although the community could at first appear to be nothing more than a group of fundamentalist extremists with a monstrous leader, As It Is in Heaven portrays misguided, sympathetic characters who struggle to do what they believe is best. The result is gripping and tragic, and it underscores the film’s greatest irony: as these characters become more confident that they are doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, their society becomes less and less like heaven.
Information on viewing As It Is in Heaven can be found here.
Content Advisory: Mature themes including the death of an infant, a non-graphic murder, and implied off-screen adultery. Not Rated
Suggested Audience: Teens and up.
Personal Recommendation: A-