Nothing But the Blood opens with Father (Les Best) walking to an altar shot in black-and-white. He reads the story of Judas’s betrayal and then looks right into the camera. Best brings a great intensity as he sermonizes, telling his viewers that, “Throughout your life, people will come to persecute you… If you fight hate with hate, who really wins in the end?” It’s a powerful opening, in large part because of Best’s stellar performance. He steals every scene he’s in.
The opening is better because of the contradictions in Father’s life as he opens a new chapter of his Emeth Church. Nothing But the Blood’s protagonist, Jessica (the film’s producer Rachel Hudson), is a reporter in the small western town the new branch is opening in. She begs her editor for the story, and soon she’s interviewing Father’s son Michael (Nick Triola) about the nature of the Church.
According to Michael, at Emeth “the goal is to foster that relationship between God and our members.” He goes on to explain that Emeth is a home church to avoid the anonymity of larger churches. Jessica challenges him on Emeth’s record, bringing up the way the Church’s members stoned a divorce woman and burnt the home of a gay couple. Michael quickly breaks, yelling, “Those sinners got what they deserved.”
Those kind of quick character turns happen frequently in Nothing But the Blood. Emeth has a lot in common with some real life Churches, but even the congregations that are human garbage need to be savvy to grow. They don’t send the people who are frothing at the mouth mad to yell at reporters. Many hateful churches have very polished spokespeople to spin the stories. For Michael to make such a glaring error while Jessica applies minimal pressure makes his character feel underdeveloped, a straw man if there ever was one.
His brother Thomas (Jordan O’Neal) is a different story. He meets Jessica the night before the interview at a bar. The two almost hook up, but he leaves her at her doorstep. When her editor sends her to an Emeth meeting, she walks in on him in the bathroom, having sex with Georgine (Jordan Hancock), but soon after she and Thomas are starting a relationship of their own.
Thomas is the most interesting character in the film because he has the potential to change. Jessica is an Atheist because a priest in her parish was caught molesting boys and moved an hour away instead of punished. Michael, Father, and Georgine are drinking the Kool-Aid. The four of them are so set in their ways that they’re not going to change under any circumstances. They’re more delivery devices for ideas than people, Thomas’s conflict makes him feel real.
It’s not the center of the film, but the most interesting moment is when Jessica challenges Thomas, saying, “If you’re part of it, you’re part of the whole thing. Guilty by association.” It’s not a new idea, but one that’s got a finger directly on the pulse of the political moment. For years, people have argued about whether being part of a Church means you support all of its ideas, especially when so many Churches damn members of the LGBT communities. Similarly, the U.S. national discourse is centered around whether the police officers that kill unarmed Black people are “bad apples” or the product of systemic racism. (It’s systemic racism. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow if you don’t believe me.)
The way director-writer Daniel Tucker approaches this dangerous material in his second feature is admirable, but he cuts himself off at the legs with the simplicity of his character. Yes, I cheered when Thomas asked Father, “How exactly do you choose which of God’s rules you follow?” But it’s nothing anyone with a Facebook account hasn’t seen as a meme before. It’s bound to make Evangelical viewers angry and make other viewers shrug. The Other Lamb had a lot of success dealing with similar issues, in large part because it focused specifically on how Christianity fosters the reproduction of misogyny. That focus made the critiques in that film, which most viewers had probably heard before as well, razor sharp.
In addition to Nothing But the Blood falling short on the ideological front, it has failings as a film as well. While Les Best is excellent, the rest of the performers lack his polish and gravitas. The scenes are mostly in one shot with a stationary camera and dull backgrounds. As Joe Begos would put it, they look like they’re from “a Netflix show of the f***ing week” with almost bare, perfectly painted walls, barren of personality. A lot of time passes between these shots, giving Nothing But the Blood a feeling that it’s stopping and starting. The camera tilts frequently enough that the shot, normally used to communicate to viewers that something is off-kilter, is used so often it loses meaning. The music is frenetic at the beginning in a way that’s disconcerting, and too quiet in the end. Neither style fits the scenes the music is in.
All that said, Tucker and his crew delved into dangerous material bravely. It’s not the most nuanced or the most polished, but Nothing But the Blood puts its beliefs right in your face. It’s going to piss off the right people: the ones who hear churches covered up child molestation then ask why Christians are being held to unfair standards.
Wicked Rating – 5/10
Director: Daniel Tucker
Writer: Daniel Tucker
Stars: Rachel Hudson, Jordan O’Neal, Nick Triola, Les Best, Jordan Hancock
Release Date: August 4, 2020
Studio/Production Company: Lola Cats Production
Runtime: 89 minutes