“‘When younger…I believed myself destined for some great enterprise. My feelings are profound, but I possessed a coolness of judgment that fitted me for illustrious achievements. This sentiment of the worth of my nature supported me when others would have been oppressed, for I deemed it criminal to throw away in useless grief those talents that might be useful to my fellow creatures. When I reflected on the work I had completed, no less a one than the creation of a sensitive and rational animal, I could not rank myself with the herd of common projectors. But this thought, which supported me in the commencement of my career, now serves only to plunge me lower in the dust. All my speculations and hopes are as nothing, and like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained in an eternal hell…’” – from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”
The fictional “Frankenstein” stands as a great cautionary tale about the unintended consequences that may occur when man seeks to pursue human creation. The debate over whether it’s a good idea to continue that pursuit in reality has long intrigued mankind, and advances in medical science and technology that support such efforts as stem cell research continue to fuel the debate on a daily basis. What follows is oversimplification, but to distill the debate for this review some feel strongly that such work should continue because among other things it holds the potential to cure dreaded diseases like cancer; for others it’s at least an ethical quandary or at most a blasphemous attempt to play God that is morally reprehensible.
In just 84 captivating and suspenseful minutes Billy Senese (the gifted writer/director behind such riveting shorts as The Suicide Tapes – winner of the Best International Short award at the 2011 Fantasia Film Festival – and Intruder) and colleagues tackle that debate head-on through the work of genetic scientist Dr. Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs, a regular on stage and screens of all sizes – the films Country Strong and The Last Castle and the TV series Nashville are just three of his many credits – and also this feature’s co-producer with Senese, Jonathan Rogers and Jennifer Spriggs as well as the film’s casting director). Reed and his colleague (Jake Speck) see this as “a defining moment in science and in our progress as human beings,” as Reed tells a packed press conference announcing the birth of Elizabeth (Oliva Lyle), the first human clone. (No prizes for noticing that Victor and Elizabeth are the names of prominent characters in this film and Mary Shelley’s magnum opus.)
The news of Elizabeth’s birth unleashes a firestorm of public and government reaction, but no less importantly there are consequences on the home front for Reed, his wife Claire (Shannon Hoppe) and two employees at Reed’s estate, Mary (Shelean Newman) and her husband Richard (David Alford). That’s largely because Reed’s 10-year trial-and-error pathway to Elizabeth’s birth includes a secret that threatens to destroy everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.
Senese’s taut script, Evan Brace’s foreboding cinematography, Rogers’ razor-sharp editing and Thomas Nöla’s pulsating score are the vital foundation upon which Closer to God unwinds its intense tale. Add such contributions as Brian Parker’s utterly realistic production design and Doug Mallette and Daryl Stamps’ unnerving special effects as well as other elements and this film’s look and feel are pitched perfectly.
The acting hits all the right notes as well. The rational mask Victor initially wears is torn away bit-by-bit, revealing the emotional turmoil his character is in; Childs handles that reveal with such subtlety that when he’s forced to admit error to his wife (played with palpable anguish by Hoppe) the effect is heart-rending. Also heart-rending is the ultimately horrific struggle faced by Newman’s and Alford’s characters; they powerfully render a nightmare from which they and the pivotal character of Ethan (a remarkable job by Isaac Disney) have no chance to wake up.
Those in support offer moments no less compelling than those generated by the leads; a special treat is watching an appearance by consummate character actor John Schuck (Robert Altman’s 1970 film version of M*A*S*H* and TV’s classic McMillan and Wife as well as a host of other onscreen roles and Broadway to boot), who is now a Franklin, Tenn. resident. Middle Tennesseans populate the cast and crew list of Closer to God, which was lensed on such regional locations as the historic Oaklawn Plantation in Spring Hill. This feature, though, highlights the unsurpassed breadth and depth of local talent in front of and behind the cameras instead of merely calling attention to the creative community that spawned it. Nashville’s film and TV artists and artisans take a back seat to no one.
In his director’s statement Senese says that with Closer to God he wanted to take themes from “Frankenstein” and “reinvent them with a modern reality that we may actually face in our lifetime.” He has done that with a thought-provoking film that ultimately cuts to the marrow of our hopes and fears about harnessing human creation.
Closer to God (NR, 84 min.) premieres at the Nashville Film Festival in Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 this Thursday (April 24) at 9:45 p.m. A second screening is scheduled for Friday (April 25) at 2:30 p.m. Click here to buy tickets. The film is written and directed by Billy Senese with cinematography by Evan Brace, editing by Jonathan Rogers, music by Thomas Nöla, production design by Brian Parker, art direction by Rachel Edwards, special effects by Doug Mallette and Daryl Stamps, and costume design by Buffy Brooks and Velvet Elizabeth; the cast includes Jeremy Childs, Shelean Newman, David Alford, Shannon Hoppe, Isaac Disney, Jake Speck, John Schuck, Emily Landham, Oliva Lyle, Josh Graham, Joshua Childs, Piper Hoppe, Anna Garges, Jeff Boyet, Cris Cunningham, Glenn Cartwright, Jeff Lewis, Rebecca Lines, Denice Hicks, Chuck Long, Andy Kanies, Skye Arnold, Flint Adam, Samantha Fisher, Matthew Carlton, Janet Duensing, Jon Royal, Patrick Waller, Charity Spencer, Lisa Ensminger, Dean Hall, May Hwen Erin Ramsey, Sasha McVeigh, Greg Wilson, Linda McVeigh, Corey Caldwell, Colleen Barton, David Chattam, Wesley Paine and Barry Noland as well as several others. To stay in touch with the Closer to God filmmakers like the movie’s Facebook page.
*Photos from the set of Closer to God by Erika Senese and poster artwork by Jay Shaw courtesy LC Pictures and Senese Films.