Lots of bullied teenagers dream of having supernatural powers so they can enact the perfect revenge — the exact opportunity granted to Kelly (Elijah Nelson), whose nickname of “trash boy” was earned due to his unkind peers frequently dumping him into trash cans. Kelly has been a prime target for bullying his whole life because he has a mental health condition called Pica — a compulsive eating disorder where people eat non-food objects with no nutritional value. This condition is rarely depicted on-screen, but it was also seen earlier this year in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow.
When Kelly’s condition worsens, he ends up bedridden and his usual doctor tells his mother, Bernice (Natasha Henstridge), that he needs to see someone who can treat psychological problems. Later, Bernice sees faith healer Reverend Pfluger (Lance Henriksen) cure an older woman’s excruciating leg pain in the street, during a scene that makes you question whether or not this guy is for real. But when Chief Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond) confronts Pfluger, it’s revealed that his powers are real and they allow him to not feel pain — his own injuries heal and any pain inflicted on him by others is felt by the assailant instead. Red Elk warns Pfluger that this “medicine” does not belong to him.
Bernice asks Pfluger to help Kelly, who agrees, but the appointment results in Pfluger’s untimely death. He finally felt everything at once, likely all the pain he’s taken from others and any wounds he’s suffered himself. It’s a weird scene overall, full of dark humour with serious undertones. Despite the tragedy, Kelly feels better afterwards. He wants to eat normal food again and ends up looking healthier as a side effect, but that’s not all — he finds that he’s inherited Pfluger’s shamanistic powers, which immediately boosts his confidence and allows him to reconnect with his childhood friend Dominique (Kayla Carlson). When the group of bullies try to hurt Kelly now, they feel the consequences instead, which sends the message that we should treat others who you want to be treated.
The Unhealer is an intense and captivating film that demands your attention. It has a strong screenplay, written by J. Shawn Harris and Kevin E. Moore, that follows familiar narrative beats, but ultimately retains a killer amount of unpredictability that keeps you guessing. Martin Guigui’s direction is compelling and the central cast are perfect for their roles. Nelson’s nuanced portrayal of Kelly captures the highs and lows he feels as he’s corrupted by a power that doesn’t belong to him. Henstridge, known for starring in science fiction films such as Species and Ghosts of Mars, is wonderful as she returns to the genre, but this time playing a kind and loving mother. Another standout is Adam Beach, who portrays Sheriff Adler. He has a crush on Bernice and helps out Kelly when he experiences unspeakable loss at the hands of his bullies and unleashes murderous retribution.
Bullying and revenge are big themes in The Unhealer, but the film also explores abuse of power and how Indigineous cultures are often exploited for personal gain. It’s infuriating to watch the bullies do horrific and mindless things, but it’s interesting to see how your alliance to each character changes throughout the film, as it proves that we are all complex beings capable of both good and bad. It’s a dark story that preaches the message of reaping what you sow, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had in watching Kelly seek revenge in unconventional but highly entertaining and gruesome ways. Fundamentally, The Unhealer is a damn good time. It’s full of macabre, gory, action-packed sequences and is one of the strangest and most original, gripping, and heart-wrenching films I’ve seen in a long time.
The Unhealer screened at the virtual edition of Grimmfest 2020 between October 7th and October 11th
by Toni Stanger