Ginger Nuts of Horror
Closer to God is the 2014 feature film directorial debut of Billy Senese. It addresses the looming moral and scientific quandary that cloning and gene therapy presents and is firmly grounded in current scientific research. Knowing this caused it to grab my interest even moreso.
Just last year, April 14, 2014, USA Today ran an article entitled “Stem cell research fuels more debate on cloning.” The article reports that “In a paper in the journal Cell Stem Cell, researchers took the nucleus of skin cells from 35 and 75 year old men, and produced cloned human embryos. From those they were able to generate embryonic stem cells, valued because they can then be teased into becoming any tissues the body might need.” They went on to say this was not the first time this was done which demonstrates the technology is repeatable. The fear that advocacy groups on both sides expressed was that without some form of legislation someone might try “to extend the technique to engineer a human clone.” Despite some hurdles that still remain, the science is no longer mere fiction; it is on the horizon. Knowing this sets the stage to fully appreciate this movie, IMO.
Rather than going with outlandish science fiction-like story elements or unforeseen supernatural consequences, Closer to God tackles the cloning dilemma on its own potentially frightening terms – the inevitable horrors of trial and error research on humans. It is a low key, low gore horror movie exposing us to the fear of an unknown “brave new world”. The film’s approach highlights the psychological and emotional distress experienced by the main characters while still appealing to logic and reason for guidance. It attempts to balance the complex feelings of both hope and fear, presenting us with a view of what it thinks is the answer to our troubles as human beings who inherit or acquire sickness and disease and suffer for it, while simultaneously, knowingly or unknowingly (I’m not sure which) revealing its doubts in the potential salvific power of cloning.
Horror fans who want a lot of gore and action will probably be disappointed unless they can also relax and enjoy a disturbing, steady burn film as well, at least up until the last 20 minutes when the world loses its center, someone pulls the master thread and everything begins to unwind beyond control in a sudden flood of violence. Though the violence is not to the level of what the gore hounds want, this final sequence kept me on the edge of my seat and had me leaning forward, a palpable sense of impending doom pulling me closer to my computer screen.
The cinematography and the musical score in the opening scene grabbed me and drew me in. An array of cool microscopic films, showing artificial fertilization, to cell division and mitosis, to fetal growth then leading into a C-section delivery and the measuring and documentation of the physical qualities of the infant give us an efficient overview of how we get to the beginning of our clone baby’s life. The music is relaxed but crisp and resonating, moving from ephemeral to a driving bass, pushing us forward by connecting us with the series of images we are bombarded with in a visual and auditory manner along with a thumping beat invading one’s chest. I felt confident when the music broke and the first dialogue began that it was going to be a good journey. I was not disappointed.
Right away the trials of public exposure and the pressing debate of whether cloning is morally right or wrong rises front and center. The main character, Dr. Victor Reed, is quickly forced to publicly reveal Baby Elizabeth and deal with the media assault and the pending interference of federal, state and local authorities as well as religious zealot protestors. Indeed, religious objections are the prominent threat presented externally and any government intervention seems to stem from those sources. Victor does his best to quell public outrage while he continues treating Baby Elizabeth in an undisclosed location. An insider leak forces relocation and the coming confrontation. In the midst of all this the past sins of the father are slowly revealed.
The caretakers of Victor’s property, Richard and Mary, have a child who is definitely not well and abnormal. Victor’s wife, Claire, has a couple of quick flashbacks of a sick infant that could possibly be a prior failed experiment. As the story builds we discover a very disturbing backstory that taps into the fears of every parent – that your child will be sick, malformed, genetically abnormal or worse. It is this past that will later overtake both the present and the hope of the future, forcing a brutal conflict.
Throughout the movie I found the acting to be perfect, despite all the main characters having either little big screen experience or this being their first. The characters are authentic, internally consistent and easily believable. The performances are genuine, drawing you into their reality. Victor, is the typical doctor. Stoic, measured, aloof. However, he is also fatherly through and through, but with a somewhat detached eye on the big picture. Yet, despite this, the trials he experiences bring about a true change in his character by the end of the movie. His wife, Claire, is well played for her part and provides the emotional counterbalance. The caretakers, Richard and Mary are faultless in their roles. Good ole people, uncomplicated and honest. Mary’s character particularly struck a chord with me, everything about her angst, frustration, jealousy and feelings of overwhelming dread and fatigue ringing true.
Ultimately, this movie has two very distinct emphasis. First, this film strives, very successfully I think, to approach this issue from a vantage point of human suffering, compassion, envy, hope, frustration and futility all wound tight in a ball together, never in simple black and white distinctions. This aspect definitely dug into the emotions and moved me throughout the movie and its tragic end. Secondly, this film presents a very clear expression of the opposing views of man concerning the ongoing debate over gene therapy and cloning technology. Here they wield a more heavy-handed duality - the reasonable supporters of science versus the fundamentalist religious zealots who oppose it based on the idea that man should not dally in what God established and controls. The hatred that springs from man so easily now rears its ugly head (on both sides, but particularly among the religious zealots who cannot imagine that a God who told man to exercise dominion over the earth might also allow him to discover and improve ways to understand and heal fallen bodies that inevitably slouch towards futility) and this hate drives the external conflict to the very end.
Internally, Victor experiences the classic Can we versus Should we doubts. At one point, talking to his wife Claire, he confesses “Why do I do it? All the difficulties. The awful mistakes. Ambition? Pride? The greater good? To tell the truth, I don’t know Claire. I never stopped long enough to ask.”
Though this movie very much seems to take a pro stance for cloning and gene therapy in its overall message, in its deeds the story struggles with it greatly. The child that Mary and Richard care for is, unbeknownst to all but Victor, the result of an earlier failed experiment. Ethan is his name and he embodies all the fears of potential suffering that failure through trial and error on human subjects would likely produce. He IS the sin of his father, Victor. A hidden sin Victor did not have the stomach to put down as an infant that has grown from something young and pained to be pitied, to a monstrous aberration that can no longer be controlled or managed. Ethan invokes conflicted emotions. Disgust and abhorrence at his actions and moments later sympathy at what humanity he/it still has.
Ethan is the true source of horror in this movie, though hate has its place as well. He is the twisted results of unchecked progress that has not paused to ask “Why are we?” and “Should we?” He becomes a vengeance unleashed, not just upon his father but upon those who have kept and cared for him and upon Victor’s innocent family and Baby Elizabeth who has been granted the health and hopes he was denied. Watching this tortured but demented little human being that you don’t even want to think of as a child unleash his rage against everyone near him and stalk the helpless is a sickening, dread inducing ride. And yet, at the same time you know he is also the victim, powerless to be more than what he has become. Fear, pity and revulsion all intertwine for a complex emotional impact at the end of the internal, human conflict portion of this movie.
Victor then challenges the protestors. He lifts up Baby Elizabeth and confronts their mindless hate and we see here that it is not from the idea of playing God with genetics that the movie gets its title.
“Is this what you’re scared of? You think she doesn’t have a soul? I promise you! She’s closer to God than any of you!”
It casts its stone of judgment against the haters who have lost sight of how their God actually commanded them to live and to act, a pointing finger on the wall revealing their guilt.
If anything, I think this movie does not make any absolute endorsement for cloning. It makes it clear that we are going to have to square with the technology and the fact that it will happen but it also warns proponents to think beyond the surface, to have open discussion with their opponents, and to ask deeper questions, questions that aren’t driven by hate toward each other for our opposing beliefs but ones that seek to find a common foundation where possible and consider second and third order effects, especially concerning the inevitable failures.