Written and Directed by Jeffrey McMahon
Post tenebras spero lucem — Job 17:11-13
Written, produced, and directed by Jeffrey McMahon, Sleep in Heavenly Peace illustrates how most acts of God really stick it in and break it off. Just shy of hyperbole, the film pokes fun at “Red State” mentality, modern-day family dysfunction, and why not to use a hydraulic post hole digger to dig a grave in the middle of winter.
The film centers around Calvin Jackson and is set during the Christmas holiday season. Calvin’s family has taken an early yuletide blow with the death of the family dog. Being the dad, Calvin has to dispose of the animal in the proper “spouse approved” manner. Problem is, the ground is frozen solid; and to make matters worse, Calvin’s bitchy ass wife leaves him with an end-all ultimatum that balances the family’s future on Calvin’s next course of action.
I refuse to spoil the rest of the setup here. What poor Calvin must go through is nothing less than a Grand Guignol Gauntlet. The rapidly escalating succession of trials seems to have the malevolent goal of stopping Calvin from reaching his family within the preset time limit. Take the book of Job, mix with a dash of gore, marinate in rich satire, and you will begin to get a taste of what I am talking about.
The film’s unease would fail if it were not for the superb performances of the cast. Bowd Beal, in the increasingly difficult role of Calvin, makes the part look effortless and natural. Beal’s expressions and reactions never go too far, and given the physical limitations of the role, it would have been easy for some to play the film for mere sight gags. Beal and director McMahon take the high road here, limiting the gags to moments in time. A pause here, a look there. Never do they send the film spiraling out of control.
And total control of the film’s ever present pressure must be given to the oh so easy to hate performance turned in by Anastasia Zavaro as Calvin’s frosty wife. If it were not for her cutting words and chilly performance, the audience would not care a lick for Calvin’s plight. My only thought while watching the film was that if she were any more annoying and if I were Calvin, I would have called it quits about seven minutes in.
The affliction at the center of Calvin’s plight is historically a difficult one to film in a realistic manner. Sleep does quite well with this issue in most of the scenes. The effects by Niki Koumis are understated just enough as to not draw attention to themselves. This is a triumph for a film where the special effect is at the heart of the story being told.
At a quick 15-odd minutes, Sleep in Heavenly Peace does not overstay its welcome, but the creepy coda at the end of the film smacks a bit of heavy-handed gratuity. The rest of the film had exercised such restraint with its subject matter that the end seemed a bit unnecessary to me. I think I would have pulled the plug a few minutes earlier and kept the ending a bit more vague.
Sleep in Heavenly Peace does little to help break the myth of increased suicide rates with its depictions of familial guilt and the overbearing seasonal oppression that attacks us all each year. As soon as the first of the tinsel hits the tree, we feel that we have to dart around and let our purchases make up for all the crap we put our families through. “I love you” equals boxes and bows. The moral to Sleep may not give us any answers to this contradiction, but it does highlight the problem in a manner that is too painful to ignore.
4 out of 5
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