Movie Review: Nefarious

Nefarious is the best movie you’re likely not to see in 2023. Why that is the case has nothing to do with its production values—which are excellent—but because the content just so unashamedly exalts Christ, while at the same time avoiding the cringe worthy genre of what many “Christian” movies turn out to be.

Nefarious is a modern day take of C.S. Lewis’s famous The Screwtape Letters (1942). While Lewis used the printed page to convey his diabolical dialogue, Nefarious uses film. Set in an Oklahoma prison, Nefarious revolves around two central characters, Edward (a convicted serial killer on death row) and Dr. James Martin (a psychiatrist). James has been commissioned by the prison to prove that Edward is sane and so “fit to be executed”. Edward, however, is claiming to be demon possessed, and according to the state authorities, technically insane.

Somewhat surprisingly, the movie has been given an R rating, which is all the stranger when one realises that there is no violence, sex or swearing at all. Nor is the name “Jesus” even mentioned, although His presence is definitely there throughout the entire movie, albeit behind the scenes. When Christ is referred to by Edward it is by the title, “The Carpenter” which is a fresh and respectful angle to take.

What Nefarious gets Right

There is so much to appreciate about this film, and not just because it’s a good movie. Nefarious is a theologically orthodox presentation of God, the Devil, and the cosmic battle which occurs every day for a person’s soul. What follows is a list of the numerous highlights:

  • The Devil has extraordinary knowledge in that he understands many details about a person’s life, education and experiences. This information is passed onto a person who is possessed as an example of the Devil’s power. In the movie, this is portrayed by Edward knowing all about James’ life and especially the events surround his mother’s death at James’ hand (by euthanasia) and his girlfriend’s choice to proceed with having an abortion.
  • The possessed character of ‘Edward’ is not afraid of physical death but of eternal torment (Mark 5:7). Indeed, the demon inside of Edward—who identifies himself as ‘Nefarious’—tells the psychiatrist James that he is “done” with his host and it is time for them to choose another victim. In this sense, the demon inside of Edward wants him not only to die, but to experience as much pain as possible when he does.
  • The importance of names. The demon quickly identifies himself to James with a name deriving from the Persian word, “Nefariarmous”. When James dismisses its significance, the demon quickly becomes annoyed saying, “Names are important. They have power. They let everyone know who we are. Isn’t that right…Jimmy?”
  • The murderous nature of the Devil. The Bible consistently describes the Devil as being motivated by a desire to kill and destroy (John 8:44; 10:9-10; 1 John 3:11-15). When James asks Edward how many murders have you been involved in? His answer is “Innumerable. My work predates your concept of history.” This is precisely what one would expect the Devil to say.
  • One of the most interesting aspects of the script is its description of possession as a process rather than a one-off event. Edward describes it as a series of ‘yeses” which gives him increasing rights over the victim, and that there are stages or degrees of possession until the person is fully subjugated. In one line, Nefarious says, “My master is very generous with the toys he gives us to play with”, referring to how multiple demons can afflict a person once the Devil has gained entry.
  • Another aspect which the film gets right is the attitude of arrogance which pervades the demonic. As Edward says to James at one point, “You ignorant sack of meat. You think your atheism will protect you? O I don’t believe in angels or demons, heaven or hell. So, you can’t hurt me?”
  • While the film never glorifies the occult, it does hint at Edward’s being able to perform malicious acts, such as spontaneously breaking a light bulb. Once again, this is precisely the kind of thing Scripture affirms the Devil having the power to perform (Exod. 8:7; Job 1 & 2; 2 Thess. 2:9-12). These counterfeit signs and wonders only make a situation worse, resulting in more suffering, pain and ultimately, judgment.
  • Throughout the movie, the Devil is portrayed as seeking to tempt people with worldly pleasures. Indeed, central to the plot of Nefarious is the demon’s desire for James to publish a book about himself. In exchange, James is told that he will receive riches and popularity. This is precisely what the Satan did to Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:8-9).
  • It was good to see the movie address the issue as to whether demon possession can be equated with something such as “Multiple Personality Disorder”. Rather than discount it, the two are rightly viewed as being distinct from one another. This is a distinction which the Bible also clearly makes (i.e. Matt. 4:23-24).
  • Nefarious does a very good job at presenting the physical torture associated with being demonised and the act of being “de-created” from the image of God. (e.g. Mark 5) In the movie, the demon doesn’t allow Edward to eat a final meal and chooses the electric chair to achieve maximum pain and suffering for his victim.
  • As mentioned above, the movie confronts the issues of euthanasia and especially abortion in a powerful and confronting way. When faced with the decision of whether to stop his girlfriend from going through with an abortion, Edward says to James, “You could make the rest of your life about sacrificial love and you could play live-in therapist for the rest of your life.” To which James replies, “This is my life, I can live it however I want. Then Edward jubilantly responds, “YES James! I couldn’t have said it better myself!!”
  • In another emotionally compelling scene the demon says through Edward, “The creator creates and we destroy, and we do all of it through you…Can you imagine the agony the carpenter feels when we rip a child to pieces, inside its own mother’s womb? Because that’s what we do, James. You and us. We do that together!”
  • Then at the exact moment the abortion procedure is occurring, Edward raises his voice to say, “Can you feel it? Can you feel it James? It’s starting to happen…your unborn son. It’s now on our altar. Here it comes….in 5…4…3…2…ONE! AND ALL OF HELL REJOICES JAMES!!!
  • The demon inside of Edward correctly affirms his orthodox spiritual beliefs saying, “I know more theology than any human who has ever lived”. Again, the Bible would affirm such a statement (See James 2:19).
  • In a statement, which for many sums up the whole movie, Edwards says, “We hurt Him by destroying what He loves, which is you. You are nothing but a means to an end.”
  • Finally, after an extended list of woke achievements from James—e.g. eliminating racism, gender inequality, people can love who they want, diversity is no longer a dream, hate speech is no longer tolerated, and politically we are reclaiming the moral high ground—Nefarious says, “I think I love you James.”  He then goes on to further explain, “The average high school graduate reads at a six-grade level. You have basketball players earning $30 million dollars per year decrying racism, all while wearing sneakers made by slave labour. And here’s something for you. Right now, your world has forty-million slaves—more than the Romans had at the height of their empire—but do you want to know the best part though? Half of those (half!) are sex slaves.” Sometimes demons know more truth than fallen human beings.

Where Nefarious could be improved

I’m loathed to say anything critical at this point because movie making is just so costly and hard. And I’m sure that if I had the courage to do something similar then many would be quick to point out my many short comings. There were a few ways though, in which the movie could have been improved.

  • The extended dialogue is both a strength and in the end, also a weakness. Flash backs to Edward’s childhood—with stronger character development and a fuller explanation as to how he came to be increasingly demonised—would have been really good. As it is, while the content is excellent, it still feels a little wordy.
  • The ending with the talk show host felt a little cliché. Especially when the host is a real Christian talk show host and not an actor. In this instance, keeping up the veil of an imaginary world would have helped.
  • I don’t want to give away the ending, but it could have been delivered with an even greater punch. The character of James grew but he was constantly overshadowed by the superb acting performance of Sean Patrick Flannery.

We Need More Movies

Ultimately, this was an excellent movie and I just hope that we see more like then. There is such an opportunity for faith-based films to be produced and a market which wants to view them. Film is such a powerful artistic medium, capturing the public imagination and attention. Hopefully, Nefarious will become something of a cultural tipping point where artistically talented believers will see an opportunity to present Christ in the public square.

– Mark Powell