It’s impossible not to feel conflicted watching Eugene Richards’ Thy Kingdom Come given its origins. In 2010, Terrence Malick asked Richards, a successful documentary photographer, to work with him on To the Wonder. His task was to head to a small town in Oklahoma and film townspeople telling their life stories to Javier Bardem, who played a priest in Malick’s movie. The footage appeared in small fragments throughout To the Wonder as a subplot for the priest, who was going through a crisis of faith while trying to help the film’s lead characters. Richards was so struck by the footage that he wanted to make his own film from it, and after seven years he finally got rights to use the material and make his own spin-off of sorts. It’s a success story for Richards finally getting to realize his vision, but his rosy outcome contains plenty of thorns.
Despite Richards’ repurposing of his footage, the fact that Thy Kingdom Come’s intention was to act as a B-plot for Ben Affleck choosing between Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams hangs over every moment like a dark cloud. This gives the project an origin that’s morally dubious at best, and if anything Richards’ film feels like a rescue mission. Bardem’s priest stays silent for the most part, sitting and listening to each person as they talk about their hardships: a mother suffering from chronic pain who only keeps going for her child, a woman who lost one of her three kids in a tragic accident, a man on the road to recovery after cheating death. This lets Richards give his subjects the space to be heard rather than treated with a blind eye. “There’s not many people that listen,” says one person to Bardem early on, a line that leaves a bad impression given that it’s been left on the cutting room floor since 2010.
Thy Kingdom Come makes a good effort to overcome its questionable nature, even if it’s not entirely successful. The testimonials are harrowing, with an attitude of contentment towards suffering that runs throughout (one subject, a former KKK member with deteriorating health, explains that his only purpose for existing is for people to see him and learn how not to live their lives). There’s also Bardem himself, whose performance becomes fascinating in how visibly shaken he looks by the experience, making it hard to figure out if he’s even acting at all. But Richards’ efforts to make his work for Malick stand on its own can’t escape the uncomfortable emotions that come up around this film, its conception, and its eventual outcome. That push and pull leaves Thy Kingdom Come somewhere in the middle, where it will likely remain as little more than an impressive curio for Malick fans.