The Devil Outside / Permanent Green Light

THE DEVIL OUTSIDE

In writer-director Andrew Hulme’s second film (after gangster drama Snow In Paradise, which I haven’t seen but will be sure to catch up with – no doubt on London Live – one day) our adolescent hero Robert (Noah Carson) finds the disconnect between his strict Christian upbringing (he isn’t even allowed to watch TV) and the lives of his classmates just about bearable, until an enthusiastic new preacher inspires in his mother a kind of religious frenzy, so that she starts binning his science books and leads him and the rest of the congregation in a parade through the high street to the cynical amusement of the locals.

Equally troubling, though in a different way, is his friendship with Marcus (Daniel Frogson) who, though forced to attend church by his Mum, is entirely unimpressed by Christianity and memorably dismisses the story of Abraham and Isaac presented to them at Sunday School as ‘a whole new level of bollocks’. Encouraging Robert to pursue his attraction to a girl in the congregation, he might be showing him a way out of his constricted home life; or then again he may just be enjoying his humiliation when it all goes wrong.

In any case Robert is far too deeply conflicted simply to walk away from all this. When he discovers the body of a bearded derelict in the woods he doesn’t tell anybody, but takes it as a sign of the Second Coming.

Although an ominous, unnerving tone hovers over this, The Devil Outside mostly reminded me of Joyce Carol Oates’ comment that she finds people talking about their religion embarrassing. Embarrassment (mortification might be a better word) suffuses this film, and even the film’s apparent faults contrive to feed its flames – Mark Stobbart’s preacher comes across as more creepily intense than charismatic, bringing to mind Mark Gattiss at his most camply sinister, and Keeley Forsyth as the mother transforms into an almost Gothic figure, pale features balefully glowing. You wonder if she’s going to go all Piper Laurie-in-Carrie on us.

Meanwhile Alex Lowe’s Dad seems to be overdoing those uncomfortable glances at the dinner table. Yet these possible misjudgements of tone contribute to a very apt air of awkwardness – a scene in which the members of the congregation are encouraged to confess their sins in front of everyone is especially excruciating. Let’s face it, only Americans can get away with this stuff.

The tendency to caricature extends to Robert, a bit too stiff to be true, and Marcus, who is also a little bit too much – yet this makes sense if we see him as a manifestation of the devil, forever goading the hero into unwise moves.

Of course to see him in those terms we have to make a leap of faith ourselves. At one point Robert scandalizes the family by saying that religion is just a big lie, but the film is more ambiguous. Perhaps the hell he goes through has been invented by religion and imposed upon him; or perhaps the metaphors of religion are as good a way as any of dealing with the spiritual and emotional confusion inside him.

By the end he appears to have split into two, so it’s safe to say that these questions remain open.

PERMANENT GREEN LIGHT

I saw The Devil Outside at the ICA. Were I to become a member – it was suggested to me at the box office – I would be able to see all ‘their’ films for free, or rather for £16.66 a month. Leaving aside the Satanic overtones of that figure, do I really want to be ‘wedded’ to the ICA in this way, economically obliged to avoid other cinemas, and spend more time in their toilets, which have gone gender fluid?

Not that I object to this in principle, but in practice all it means is that they have boarded up the urinal in the former Gents. Typical. They promise you a brave new world and all you get is a reduction in pissing space.

The various memberships on offer are colour-coded and I would, if I joined on the lowest rung, be a ‘red member’. That doesn’t sound like something you’d want to wave around, does it? Nevertheless I am conflicted: it is tempting, and the ICA have already been good to me – for a start they have provided me with a chance to see Permanent Green Light for a mere fiver. This is number 10 in John Waters’ 2018 Top Ten – might they even one day show his number 1, Bruno Dumont’s heavy metal musical about Joan of Arc’s childhood? I can only hope so.

Meanwhile there is this, the follow-up to writer-directors Zac Farley and Dennis Cooper’s first film – the very diverting Like Cattle Towards Glow. Permanent Green Light makes clear that there is only one cure for the hell of teenage embarrassment: total self-annihilation. This is what our protagonist Roman (Benjamin Surplice) is determined to achieve. He is fixated on the idea of blowing himself up, the violence of which idea is in marked contrast to the film’s approach, which is low-key, immersing us in an ambience of suburban blandness and boredom to which, perhaps, a controlled explosion is the only proper response.

Not that Roman wants to create a stir, or least of all to make any kind of political point – rejecting the idea of using a suicide vest as ‘too famous’, he just wants to disintegrate as thoroughly as possible and leave no trace of himself behind. His motivations are only hinted at – an accident that changed the way his brain functioned, a rejection from his best friend – but it is the enormity of the act itself that proves seductive to the friends who assist him, and to the viewer. Depending on the temperament of the viewer of course.

One friend, in love with him, does try to jerk him out of his idée fixe but his early extravagant comparison of Roman to ‘a sun’ already strikes an ominous note. Later, he promises to go along with Roman’s plan as long as he sleeps with him, and while this doesn’t seem to happen a scene of him masturbating in bed suggests that, one way or another, he is urging Roman on towards his climactic explosion.

Adolescence in films is usually portrayed in a way that indulges the teenage sense of drama: the landscape of the film becomes impregnated with the adolescent’s yearnings, their fantasies, their burgeoning sense of identity. Here the surroundings flatly refuse to acknowledge anything of the kind: a scene in which Roman plays a board game with a friend in his bedroom is true to the banality of suburban adolescence in a way that more realistic – or melodramatic – films simply aren’t.

Here the melodrama is elsewhere and unattainable (except through an extreme and improbable act) and unlike with Robert in The Devil Outside there’s no Heaven or Hell. But the film itself isn’t dull and neither (despite being a French film made by Americans) is it ponderously arty – rather, it is deadpan-funny and peculiarly, blandly seductive. Cooper and Farley were there and you could even talk to them in the bar afterwards but I feared self-destruction by embarrassment and went home with a sandwich from the Tesco Metro up the road.

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