The Shift

The Shift (2023)

The Shift opens with several things: firstly, a textual quote (“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart”) which, like all the quotes that regularly punctuate the film, is excerpted from the Old Testament Book of Job; secondly the image of a man emerging bloody, as though reborn, from the middle of a lake, intoning (in voiceover), “This is not my world… but I will find my way home and I will find my way back to her”, even as, still dripping, he fiddles with a device on his wrist and vanishes into thin air; and thirdly, after the title sequence, we see the same man encountering for the first time the woman for whom he will later be searching across many years and multiple worlds. In all this, Biblical themes, futurist gestures and romance are promised simultaneously, along with a time- and place-switching narrative where beginning, middle and end will be collapsed and confounded.

The man, Kevin Garner (Kristoffer Polaha, doing his best to make an essentially dull protagonist interesting), has just lost his job at a hedge fund firm, and is in a hotel bar, about to abandon his AA pledge and drink deep in despair, when Molly (Elizabeth Tabish) comes up and flirts with him on a dare from her female friends. In a move reminiscent of the meet-cute in Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), in seconds Molly will lay out their entire future together as a couple, adding, “and then there’s the bad thing that happens… life will happen and we’ll be tested… can we weather a storm together, Kevin?”. Unemployed, alcoholic Kevin, who feels that “literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, just happened”, is fully ready to start a new, different life path with Molly – and so in this brief moment at the bar, we get a telescoping montage of their possible romance, marriage and life together, surfacing unexpectedly exactly where Kevin was about to drown (his sorrows). The future, even with its nagging doubts, seems sealed.

This collapsing of time will continue through the editing, as a simple cut shifts the action to some years later, where Kevin and Molly are indeed married, even as it is clear that they have been sorely tested and are struggling to weather the storm. For now they are cold and distant towards each other. Their young son, though visible on a family portrait, has otherwise mysteriously disappeared from the picture leaving behind a gulf of unresolved grief and recrimination. There are bills to be paid, while Kevin is clearly on the point of losing his office job – again. Worst of all, on his way back early to their loveless home, Kevin is involved in a violent vehicular collision, and will wake up (if the rest of the film is not a dying man’s final dream) in a different, purgatorial world, even darker than his own, where an enigmatic figure calling himself the Benefactor (a mesmerising, scene-chewing Neal McDonough) will make Kevin a seductive offer that in fact he can refuse – but only at the price of seemingly endless pain and suffering.

Substantially expanded by writer/director Brock Heasley from a short film of the same title that he made eight years earlier, The Shift reimagines the story of Job, and its grappling with the problem of evil, through the palatable tropes of dystopian fantasy and parallel worlds – think Jamin Winans’ Ink (2009) or the Daniels’ Everything, Everywhere All At Once (2022). Here there are plenty of sci-fi trappings to dress events in the guise of genre: on the one hand a mechanical bracelet-like device called a Deviator that allows wearers (or ‘shifters’) to move themselves or others through different worlds in the multiverse, and on the other a new cinematic experience called a Vica that enables the viewer to flip through their multiple lives on screen and to experience different facets of their alter egos vicariously.

As the grizzled cinema owner Russo (John Billingsley) tells Kevin, Vica offers “what people want to see now, the dark stuff.” Yet from Molly’s early reference to being a regular churchgoer, to Kevin’s resistance of the mephistophelian Benefactor through prayer, to his gift to Molly of a pendant inscribed with the words ‘He Lives’, to the presentation of a colourless, godless, post-Rapture world, and even to the presence of the (arch)angelically named – if ambiguous – character Gabriel (Sean Astin), it seems evident that this is also a rather heavy-handed religious allegory about a lost man finding himself and spreading a little of his own light in the darkness, on a quest as much for redemption and resurrection as for his old life – or perhaps a new one – with Molly.

Indeed, before the film’s multiple unfolding introductions, the logo can be seen for Angel Studios, which caters to America’s religious right, and recently had its biggest hit with Alejandro Monteverde’s controversial, conspiratorial Sound of Freedom (2023) – and where that film openly appealed to QAnon believers, The Shift markets itself directly to people of Christian faith, including a mid-credits coda in which lead actor Polaha, addressing the camera as himself, urges moneyed audience members to ‘pay it forward’ and to buy future tickets to the film for those who can less afford them (a QR code is conveniently projected on-screen to assist in this purchase). This, he says, is to help evangelise and spread “stories like this” which “matter” – much, no doubt, as Kevin is shown in the film transcribing Bible narratives from memory to light a spark of hope in an alternative world where the Bible does not exist. 

The Shift

This direct pitch to the viewer is a self-evidently hucksterish – indeed, shifty – manœuvre, confounding evangelical zeal with hard commerce, and proving almost comic in its open cynicism, as its manipulative plea for further ticket sales is framed as a righteous act of selfless charity on the viewer’s part, not unlike the ultimate self-sacrificing gesture of Polaha’s heroic character Kevin. Still, perhaps to believers in the audience this will seem little different from the appearance of the donation box at the end of a church sermon – while those who have not drunk the Kool-Aid might see it as the campily kitsch culmination of all the film’s preachy posturing.

Along the way, there is the kind of messy Messianism that would not be out of place in the Old or New Testament, a superhero flick, or a Neil Breen film, guaranteeing The Shift different kinds of viewer crossing polarised paths and multiple dimensions to share a single screening space which, like a Vica, projects the best and worst of us all.    

strap: The choice is yours whether to see Brock Heasley’s feature debut as up-and-down romance, vehicular death dream, multiverse sci-fi or heavy-handed theodicean parable. 

© Anton Bitel