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‘Missionary’ Review: Assuming an Unfamiliar Position on the Psychological Romance Genre

By  · Published on October 30th, 2014

Freestyle Releasing

Psychological thrillers – especially those dealing with jilted lovers or obsessed stalkers – have a long history in modern cinema, and more often than not it’s the woman who snaps and resorts to violence, threats and bunny boiling to get “her” man back. Fatal Attraction is the most famous example, but there are many similar films that show us a weak-willed man who slips (into another woman) only to realize too late that he’s made a serious mistake. When women are stalked in movies it’s typically by strangers or men they have only the most casual of acquaintances with, but while all of this adds up to some interesting observations on gender politics in film we have a movie to discuss.

Missionary flips that convention on its head by allowing the woman to make the sexual misstep that triggers a young man’s possessive rage, but while many of the story beats that follow still tread familiar territory there’s another element that stands it apart from the herd. That’s right. I’m talking about Mormons.

Katherine (Dawn Olivieri) is a single mother separated from her cheating husband Ian (Kip Pardue) and trying to stay afloat both financially and emotionally for the sake of her son Kesley. Her attempt to help the boy practice some football basics is interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Mormon missionaries out spreading the word, and though she turns the proselytizing white shirts away at first she relents on their presence when they prove to be far better than her with a football.

A chance meeting with Kevin (Mitch Ryan), the younger of the pair, quickly descends into a carnal relationship that goes against her common sense and his faith, but when she decides to end the relationship in the hopes of rekindling things with her husband Kevin decides that he and God have other plans. Katherine will be his celestial wife, Kesley will be their son and the three of them will be bound together for eternity.

Making the obsessively deranged stalker a Mormon is a calculated move on the part of the script (by Bruce Wood & Scott Poiley), but the film deftly avoids denigrating this specific faith by showing other members and revealing Kevin’s psychopathy as pre-dating his entry into the Church. Instead the film seems to view the desperately open arms of any church and the publicly sanctioned “fantasy” world they curate as an enabling ingredient in Kevin’s mad life choices. His faith tells him what can and should be his, and he takes that message to a disturbingly literal conclusion. This is still the only film (I know of) to specifically feature a Mormon villain – at least one outside of the more traditional types of faith-based villainy – but rather than see that as an attack on Mormons it should be viewed as their inevitable inclusion into the category of villainous stock characters. Muslims, Russians, cult members, Wall Street traders, pimps and clowns will be happy for the company.

Mormon talking point aside, the film deserves attention simply for being a solidly-crafted thriller with strong performances, a (mostly) smart, slow-burn of a script and some sharp direction by Anthony DiBlasi (Clive Barker’s Dread).

Olivieri does excellent work her balancing both halves of her character with equal emotion and power. Her motherly affection is clear in her interactions with Kesley (Connor Christie) and the effort she puts into her physically-intensive job at a junk yard, and when she takes a moment to break down away from prying eyes the weight of her world becomes tangible. She’s just as convincing though when her body’s loneliness overrides her brain and heart and pushes her into Kevin’s arms, mouth and pants. It’s about the sex to a degree, but the comfort and release are just as valid and valuable.

DiBlasi keeps the proceedings well-paced allowing viewers time to feel the emotions and motivations at play here, and he manages the film’s momentum well as the narrative energy builds towards an unavoidably violent conclusion. It’s a brighter film than we’re used to from him, visually speaking, and he takes good advantage of it while crafting his small town, family-friendly America.

The script shows Kevin to be a bad guy who happens to be a Mormon – as opposed to a Mormon bad guy – and while it’s clear early on that he’s a young man with issues the insular and closed-mindedness inherent in faiths peeks through from time to time. The patriarchal nature of it all is made clear, and the old-school racist interpretation of “the mark of Cain” is evident in Kevin’s derogatory attitude towards a Black character. Eventually the genre’s conventions come calling leaving little room for character and nuance, and the third act crumbles into typical thriller territory taking with it our characters’ brain cells, but it levels the film’s effect rather than kills it all together.

Missionary will most likely be viewed strictly as the “Mormon Fatal Attraction” movie, but it deserves to be viewed as a surprising little slow-burn of a thriller. The specific faith of the antagonist is irrelevant as the target is bigger than any single religion – if you feel entitled to a woman’s love simply because you believe your god (or your culture, or your traditions) has willed it then you are the bad guy. So maybe you should just turn around, get back on your bike and get off our collective lawn.

The Upside: Dawn Olivieri; smart writing through first two acts

The Downside: Third act is over the top and characters suddenly turn dumb

On the Side: In the interest of full disclosure I was friends with a Mormon before seeing this film, but I have since severed ties now that I know what they’re really like.

Missionary opens in limited theatrical release and on VOD starting tomorrow, October 31st.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.