I can't think what kind of movie would merit the dumb-bunny title of this one, but it's not this one. True, there is a cute little girl nibbling at a peppermint ice cream cone near the beginning, as she's leaving a twinkly Christmas fair with her mom and dad. But as soon as all three of these people are mowed down by drug thugs from a passing hit wagon, the movie heads off in a grim, witless direction from which it never deviates.
The only one not killed in the plot-launching bullet storm is the mom, Riley North (Jennifer Garner). She's a sunny suburban bank employee who seems an unlikely wife for the sort of guy (Jeff Hephner) who'd agree to be the wheelman for a drug ripoff that's sure to infuriate a local crime kingpin. But she is, and he does, and by the time he's changed his mind about taking part in this caper, it's too late: the kingpin, one Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba), has already ordered hits on all involved.
A sympathetic detective named Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) urges Riley to finger her heavily neck-tattooed assailants in a lineup, and she does. But the system turns out to be terminally corrupt, and a bought-and-paid-for judge lets the 'bangers go (we see them chuckling). Riley is loudly outraged, so the judge orders her sent to a psych facility to deal with her anger-management issues. Nascent badass that she is, though, Riley never arrives.
Five years later she's back, with a bag full of guns, knives and knuckle-dusters and an impressive line in bone-cracking martial-arts moves. She warms up by hanging the dead bodies of three of Diego's goons from a Ferris wheel. Then she pays a visit to the bent judge, and leaves him really wishing she hadn't. As she battles her way up through the ranks of Diego's hooligans—snapping arms, bashing teeth, nailing hands to tables – she strains Diego's meager store of cordiality to its limits. "Put that bitch in a box," he tells an under-thug.
There is nothing else to this story (well, apart from some amusing payback Riley downloads on a snotty neighbor). It's a straight revenge thriller, which is fine—the movie might have provided a fun return to Garner's butt-thumping Alias roots. But the script, by Chad St. John (also responsible for London Has Fallen), carefully avoids interrupting Riley's progress toward a predictable Diego-nado with any intrusion of surprise. And director Pierre Morel, once the action master of District B13, can't keep all the scenes of set-piece violence from melting together into an under-lit puddle of mayhem.
There are no memorable characters to liven things up, either. After establishing Riley's maternal bona fides in early scenes with her soon-to-be-dead daughter (Cailey Fleming), the story locks her down into dead-eyed killing-machine mode all the way to the end. Gallagher and fellow cops John Ortiz and Method Man warm up the proceedings a bit, but most everybody else is a Hispanic hood waiting to be converted into a stain on a wall or a smear on the sidewalk. You know what's coming, and it's not really worth waiting around for.
This fifth installment in the Conjuring horror series has one compelling element: its star. Taissa Farmiga, of American Horror Story, is the younger sister of Vera Farmiga, who co-pilots the Conjuring mothership, and she has an ethereal sweetness that's just right for the role of a young Catholic novitiate forced to face off against, as they say, an Ancient Evil. In a movie so beholden to the horror tradition of stylish murk, Farmiga's bright face—which recalls that of Zoe Kazan a little bit—is a beacon that you have to hope will light her way to better films.
The Nun is autopilot horror. It feels throughout as if preset switches were triggering the rotating wall crosses, the overworked fog machines, the cheap pop-up terrors. The story, by Gary Dauberman, who's been imported from the Annabelle wing of the Conjuring empire, is unblushingly generic. After a young nun hangs herself at a 13th Century abbey in the spooky mountains of Romania, an exorcist priest named Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is dispatched from the Vatican to determine what's up. He is directed to bring along with him a novice called Sister Irene (Farmiga), who in addition to having not yet taken her vows.is also prone to weird dreams.
Upon arriving in-country, Burke and Irene make the acquaintance of a typical Transylvanian character – a French-Canadian peasant who calls himself "Frenchy" (Jonas Bloquet). Frenchy has a little carriage that immediately comes in handy and a shotgun that will soon enough.
The inside of the abbey (which is real—the movie was shot in Romania) is dark and authentically forsaken-looking. (There's a sign in the basement that announces "God ends here.") There are many long corridors, and many, many flickering candles, plus occasional ravens, demon hands clawing their way through walls, and a full-service cemetery with coffins open and awaiting you. There's also an ancient abbess who speaks from behind a black veil, and…well, it's all very creepy. Not least the titular Nun, even though we've seen her before in The Conjuring 2 and, briefly, in Annabelle: Creation.
The story of course hooks up with other strands of the Conjuring master narrative (and we also make the acquaintance of a new character who will be turning up to vomit snakes at us in some future episode). But it's awfully thin stuff for a 90-minute movie; and apart from the shameless jump scares, it's not all that frightening, either. Loyal Conjuring fans deserve better.