If you have seen director Joe Badon’s insane and insanely good previous features The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Sister Tempest (2021), you still have no idea what to expect with his third full-length outing, The Wheel of Heaven (2023). Badon delivers another humorous, surreal feature infused with eeriness and shocking surprises.
Told in a series of vignettes that may at first seem random but that wrap together well, Badon uses his 2021 short film The Blood of the Dinosaurs as a leaping off point, with a children’s ominous-seeming TV show host named Uncle Bobbo (Vincent Stalba) and his young cast member Purity (Stella Creel) explaining, in their highly unusual ways, about fossil fuels.
The logline for The Wheel of Heaven reads, “A woman caught up in predatory relationships is thrown into a multi-layered world of choices after she discovers a mystical book in a thrift store,” but by no means should you try to fool yourself into thinking that The Wheel of Heaven unfolds in anything resembling a simple manner. Young Purity grows up, as portrayed by Kali Russell — Russell also portrays herself at times, including discussing her uncomfortability with a rape scene involving her character with Badon — and becomes the protagonist of a “choose your own adventure” novel read by mechanic Marge, also assayed by Russell, as are the characters spaceship commander Captain Corn, who is traveling to the center of the universe, and outsider artist Margaret Corn.
Each of Russell’s characters — including Russell portraying herself — are indeed choosing their own adventures, in their own ways. Spliced in between those vignettes are table reads with Badon and cast members, behind the scenes footage, fake commercials, and loads of mind-warping insanity. The character of Russell and Russell’s characters are all on existential journeys, and viewers will join them on their bizarre trips.
Badon is a multimedia artist who knows his budgetary limits and how to get the most out of them, whether for serious effect or for laughs. The Wheel of Heaven is ripe with weird humor, and though Badon’s cinematic work, including this effort, might be labeled “arthouse” by some, potential viewers who don’t normally gravitate toward that style of film shouldn’t let labels like that steer them away from the Badon oeuvre. The Wheel of Heaven won’t earn any critical pullquotes such as “Badon’s most accessible work to date!”, but for adventurous viewers who haven’t sampled his cinematic fare yet, it’s as batty and ultimately rewarding a place to start as any of his others. Creepiness and comedy collide with absurdity and philosophy in a colorful head scratcher that baffles while it entertains and, I daresay, informs.
The Wheel of Heaven screened as part of Nightmares Film Festival, which ran from October 26th–29th, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio.(4 / 5)