We’ve all got poo in our butts.
Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Willow (Angela Sarafyan) are the perfect High Priest and Priestess of their suburban California coven. They are madly in love with each other and the lifestyle they’ve embraced as outcasts from the mainstream monotheistic monolith to which the rest of the world adheres. Their disciples believe in their leadership so fully that they’ll appear on their doorstep at night in search of answers to their most private struggles. This makeshift family has served them well and they’d do anything to preserve it—even if it means nixing the annual Beltane bonfire so they can keep Angus (Nelson Franklin) from having to visit the hospital yet again. This year, however, their bond will be tested as Thorn reveals a truth too unforgiveable to bear.
I won’t say what it is. Just know it concerns a past he’s avoided for twenty years that’s been dredged up by an overzealous high school reunion organizer’s (Swati Kapila‘s Alexandra) incessant emailing. Will the coven accept this bombshell or vote to banish him from the group he’s led so selflessly? How will Willow take the news considering her undying fealty to Wicca and the countless souls it binds? The hope is that love prevails even if such a thought can seem naïve in a present-day mired by extreme reactions and sanctimony. The result is a spirit walk fueled by ayahuasca wherein Thorn must confront his mother (Barbara Crampton), Merlin (Ray Wise), and the sage wisdom of both a fallen pinecone (Aubrey Plaza) and weathered rock (Alice Glass).
If that sort of silliness sounds like a good time to you, Richard Bates, Jr.‘s latest film King Knight is going to make you very happy. I would usually count myself among that group and yet it wasn’t long before I found myself wondering when that silliness was going to conjure a joke worth laughter. There’s one that admittedly caught me off-guard with about ten minutes left, but by that time I don’t think any amount of humor would revive my interest since the premise always seemed less about laughing with the characters than it does at Wicca itself. And that’s just cruel and uncalled for—especially when the film mocking that lifestyle is trying so desperately to project an image of inclusion. Intent can’t save it either.
I’ll assume that Bates’ plan was to make light of vapid Californians embracing eccentric cultures to “find themselves” before ultimately adopting them with a contemporary spin. None of these people are stereotypical witches (save Willow). They’re loners who found a commonality that would allow them to both be social and find romance. Desmond (Johnny Pemberton) and Neptune (Josh Fadem), Angus and Echo (Emily Chang), and Percival (Andy Milonakis) and Rowena (Kate Comer) all found each other under Thorn and Willow’s wings. And they light candles, burn incense, and use Wiccan celebrations to get drunk and dance. Do they value this religion? Sure. Do they hold true to its customs? Yeah. But they’re all yuppie pricks in black robes. Their self-seriousness is supposed to be the joke.
By never introducing any other witches but these eight, however, they become synonymous with Wicca in the context of the film. If we are therefore laughing at them, we are in turn laughing at a form of paganism that is practiced and held as sacred by many people in the real world. Who then is the comedy for? I don’t think it’s Wiccans since nobody wants to willingly watch their faith be denigrated by popular culture. So that leaves people who already think the practice is a joke. King Knight becomes a conduit for their feelings that supplies confirmation bias they can then use as an example for why the whole thing is nonsense. That’s not satire. That’s exploitation. And realizing that had me checking out straight away.
I half expected the whole lot of them to abandon Wicca by the end so the joke could finally be placed in their laps and their laps alone. I also wished the authentic reality that people in this faith are inclusive and forgiving in ways that Christians and capitalists aren’t would be enough to forgive this specific representation in context with the practice itself, but it’s not. Their devotion is played for laughs via over-reaction. The idea that they trade in alcoholic and drug-fueled experiences is played for laughs the way a stoner comedy would. And the roles themselves are each pigeonholed into a stereotype of its own beyond their common witch cliché. The comic depth is that of a sketch gone on way too long.
It’s not poorly made, though. And the cast is game where sending up the culture through embellishment is concerned to prove everyone is on task with Bates’ sitcom humor that will probably land for those who enjoy that sort of thing—just be warned that it’s the extent of the value here. Cheap and easy laughs. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe my not being Wiccan has me reading what’s on-screen totally wrong and it does exude respect. I hope that’s true. Regardless of the premise, however, I don’t understand the appeal of the comedy either. One or the other would have saved the whole. Both sink it completely. But watch the trailer for yourself. While it misrepresents the pacing (this is a slow film), it captures the humor well.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival