There is something absolutely fascinating about cults and the psychology of cults. Of all the things that I could have spent a lot of time on in college in my Religious Studies courses, I was drawn to understanding and learning more about their religious history and psychology. American, in particular, has a deep well of cultic history that stems from our democratic view of religiosity and the Church.
As It Is In Heaven, the directorial debut of Joshua Overbay, is a rare fictional character study of a Christian cult. When this group in rural Kentucky is faced with the untimely death of their prophet, Edward (John Lina), a mere month before his predicted end of the world, a newer convert, Daniel (Todd Bagley), is chosen over the leader’s son Eamon (Luke Beavers) to lead them. Daniel, as told by Edward, must purify this small group of people to prepare for the end. He takes drastic measures to ensure their faithfulness and purity as the return of Christ, in their minds, is imminent. The story takes some frightening and terrifying turns as this little community becomes a pressure cooker of expectation and heightened interpersonal and spiritual conflict.
If it wasn’t clear before I will say it again plainly; I’m absolutely terrified by this movie. Many of these scenes conjure up the frightening descriptions of cults under Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, and Children of God. As someone who devoted multiple research papers to investigating these cults, the nuances are unmistakable. First-time director Joshua Overbay doesn’t take a sensationalistic approach to these touches, and makes them more dubious by handling them in such a relational way. There is a Malick-like touch to the imagery and the camera work that evokes the earnest faith and humanity of their characters, while also employing the narrative end game with an appropriate amount of gravity and realism.
What terrifies me the most is how the language of both the prophet leader and the followers does not stray far from the language employed in many churches. There is use and abuse of language like, “The Lord spoke to me and <insert thing I want to do but have no justification from anywhere but myself to do>.” It’s so scary to think that this subtle manipulation of something spiritual can lead to people abandon morality for the sake of “a word from the Lord.” I would say that this is an abnormality, but it’s not, and the story told here is not merely hypothetical, but real and cautionary.
You’re a lot closer to a cult than you think if you use God’s words and twist them to fit your agenda. I think any non-Christian would find this movie damning. Christians will find it haunting and chilling.