“You don’t like the ending?” one character plaintively asks another at the end of The Catechism Cataclysm, a horror comedy where God punishes a couple of wayward parishioners using some very mysterious methods. Indeed, the protagonist in question does not, and neither do I. The film is an 80-minute shaggy-dog story about the seductive power of storytelling and the weird places it can transport us; too bad writer-director Todd Rohal doesn’t take us any place worth going. While the ending to any such story is supposed to be irrelevant, The Catechism Cataclysm‘s capper is particularly enervating. Rohal’s silly tale about two estranged men that tell each other stories while on a canoe trip is mostly fun in a head-scratching kind of way. But once the film reaches its end, and shit hits the fan at a furious pace for no good reason, Rohal looks like he’s just rubbing the fact that his movie never really had an ending in his audience’s face.
Father William (Eastbound and Down‘s Steve Little) is a simple-minded and easily distracted priest obsessed with the stories and songs of Robbie Shoemaker (Robert Longstreet). Robbie is a loser roadie who still wears the same T-shirt he used to wear in high school. He doesn’t even remember who Father William is. And yet, Robbie agrees to go on a canoe trip with William because, as he later explains, he had nothing better to do. So William and Robbie rent a canoe because Robbie can’t bring himself to say no to William and because William’s fellow priests have asked him to take a vacation and try to become a little more serious about being a leader of the church community. Along the way, a guy’s head explodes and a pair of Japanese girls play techno music sampled from Katsuhito Ishii’s Funky Forest: The First Contact. Oh, and male bonding happens. And then some more weird stuff happens. And then Rohal has a country song indicate that God was actually responsible for all of the weird stuff that just happened. Logic apparently wasn’t a high priority on Rohal’s list of narrative strategies.
As with Robbie’s stories, The Catechism Cataclysm is happily pointless. None of Robbie’s yarns have a beginning or a real end, like the one about a businessman that tries to kill himself but discovers that any gun pointed at him won’t go off. This is the kind of routine you want to hear over a campfire. The details of it should be abstract so that you can try to visualize events all by yourself. But instead, Rohal shows us the businessman, the hotel room he’s in while he tries to blow his brains out, and much more. If this movie is about storytelling, then it’s certainly not committed to the idea of showing how words can make vivid images come to life.
Instead, The Catechism Cataclysm meaninglessly shows how scary it can be to live your life as a protagonist in a shaggy-dog story. Nothing seems to make sense, not even the most familiar cultural signifiers. The two Japanese girls (Miki Ann Maddox and Koko Lanham) who Steve and Robbie meet on their scatologically surreal picaresque journey call themselves Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, while the quiet black man (Rico A. Comic) they’re traveling with is naturally called Jim. This doesn’t ultimately mean anything and Rohal revels in that knowledge. It’s just a weird little flourish among many in his self-congratulatory, if sometimes funny, peon to mythmaking.
That is, it doesn’t mean anything until the film starts to wrap up and Rohal tries to give a teasingly anti-climactic moral to his story. When William finally breaks down and prays to God, his prayers are answered but not in the way he’d like them to be. Soon after that, a non-diegetic country music song suggests, with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, that, “If you stray from God’s straight and narrow path, he’ll fuck you up, so you better do some prayin’ while you can.” Apparently, God has a weird sense of humor and so should we. I wish that were reason enough to care.