There's nothing ecstatic about the countdown to Judgment Day in "As It Is in Heaven," a lean, grim drama focused on a small religious sect in backwoods Kentucky.
The mood of restraint and enervation in Joshua Overbay's feature suits the story of a flock as it joylessly follows its shepherd into end times. The first-time director commendably avoids manufactured melodrama. But this journey into "Martha Marcy May Marlene" territory is never as tense and gripping as it should be, the incidents and most of the performances too tamped-down to spark a much-needed sense of animating friction.
In a cast of fledglings, only lead Chris Nelson generates sustained curiosity about his character, convincingly navigating the transition from wide-eyed neophyte to pitiless ruler. He plays recent convert David, the young man whom the group's leader chooses, over his own son, to succeed him. Increasingly conflating God's will with his own, David sets the disciples on a course of deprivation, ordering a monthlong fast to purify their spirits before the final reckoning.
As preventable disasters arise and fresh graves multiply, the passed-over founder's son (Luke Beavers) is, naturally, the first to question David's authority. It's only a matter of time — and background investigation — before their low-boil rivalry explodes.
Though he doesn't attain compelling narrative heights, Overbay does root the drama in the rural setting, his visuals assured. The screenplay by Ginny Lee Overbay (the director's wife) suggests the damage and want that could bring believers to such a place, wisely providing only a sliver of back story in a tale whose characters have sloughed off their former lives.
"As It Is in Heaven"
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.
Playing: At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.