Corin Hardy’s “The Nun,” the latest installment in “The Conjuring” franchise, delivers atmosphere and dread in spades, but fails to fulfill its potential by realizing any meaningful scares. Put simply, it was buried by its own ludicrous and rushed narrative. In the past couple years, inspired filmmakers have ushered in something of a high-brow horror renaissance, helmed by spectacular and meticulously crafted movies such as Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” Andres Muschietti’s “It” and John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place.” While “The Nun” certainly displays remarkable achievement in its cinematography and accompanying world development, it hardly attains the caliber of horror that the aforementioned films do.
The film begins by following French-Canadian delivery boy Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet) during one of his routine deliveries to a mountainside abbey in Romania, where he discovers the decomposing body of a nun hanging from a noose below the abbey’s entrance. Word of her death reaches the Vatican, and the Catholic Church commissions Father Anthony Burke (Demian Bichir) and Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) to investigate the nun’s apparent suicide — and determine whether the abbey has been corrupted. Upon their arrival, it is immediately clear that all is not well. The remaining nuns maintain an air of secrecy as they practice their perpetual adoration, holding their visitors at an arm’s length and commanding them to never stop praying, all in order to keep the evil at bay. As the sun sets, the gates seal and the nuns resume their vow of silence until sunrise. In order to leave, Sister Irene, Father Burke and Frenchie must brave a game of cat-and-mouse against an elusive and malicious nun (Bonnie Aarons) who has long haunted the convent.
For the most part, “The Nun” projects with an authoritative tone of unwavering terror. The cinematography features precisely framed shots and the compositions are awe-inspiring in their own right. In conjunction with striking lighting contrasts and deeply unsettling music, the film effectively creates a shadowy atmosphere that drips with foreboding, which makes the film’s reliance on jump scares all the more disappointing.
Undoubtedly, the movie is scary — but only on a superficial level. “The Nun” is a one-trick pony. To make matters worse, nearly every startling lunge and scream is predictable. That being said, I fell for nearly every one and jumped 12 times (a friend counted). “The Nun” does little to vary its horror techniques, mostly alternating between these jump scares and strategic camera pans to reveal something lurking in the shadows. Scares are only immediate and the movie never burrows into your mind to create a fuller sense of terror. Without a deep, cerebral sense of fear, the entire movie becomes reminiscent of watching a video of someone else going through an intense haunted house.
Perhaps the film’s greatest flaw lies within its convoluted and nonsensical plot, which stems from the movie’s indecision regarding a fundamental question: Should “The Nun” be a stand-alone film or simply a piece of “The Conjuring” universe? Much of the movie contains out-of-place scenes that reference preceding films without furthering “The Nun”’s plot. Various characters are given explained or implied backstories, yet this information is distracting because the film never revisits it. The pacing also feels off — although it features an epic battle between good and evil, there’s really no sense of urgency, flow or scale to any of its scenes. To hammer one final nail into the coffin, there’s a truly unnecessary plot twist at the end that may make audiences wonder why this film was ever made.
For a movie with only four central characters, there is a conspicuous lack of character development, which undermines some of the film’s most dramatic moments. Farmiga executes a wonderful portrayal of Sister Irene as she conveys an innocence and vulnerability that provides a startling juxtaposition with terrifying events. Long-time fans of Farmiga will find her performance reminiscent of (though far less cynical than) her work as Violet Harmon in the first season of “American Horror Story.”
Bichir hardly gets a chance to shine as Father Burke, who is dealt the unfortunate hand of having minimal screen time and too much exposition. Similarly, Bloquet’s portrayal of Frenchie is thwarted by an incoherent vision for his character, one who provides comic relief that simply feels unnatural in such a dark movie. While the actors generally meet expectations and add personality to their characters, much of the dialogue feels cliched and stiff due to the script’s inherent awkwardness.
All factors considered, “The Nun” is a visually stunning film that immerses its audience in an entertaining and macabre narrative, even if that narrative feels hollow and erratic. In striving to be both a stand-alone feature and part of a cinematic universe, it dilutes its own potential and snuffs out its own flame. Solid performances, consistent (albeit cheap) scares and a gripping mythology make “The Nun” an enjoyable 96 minutes, even though it pales in comparison to its predecessors in the franchise. If you hoped this movie would surpass “The Conjuring” in terms of scare factor and narrative, I’m sorry to say your prayers went unanswered.