Are Religious Themes and Influences Becoming More Prominent in Recent Films?
This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Catholic World Report.
By Steven D. GreydanusIn The Adjustment Bureau Matt Damon plays a man who “gets a glimpse behind a curtain” that he “wasn’t supposed to know existed.” What he discovers is that the lives of men are governed by a master plan — a plan is facilitated by superhuman figures who walk among us, intervening where necessary to keep our feet on the appointed path.
The Adjustment Bureau is Damon’s second peek behind the curtain in the last several months. In Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, Damon plays a gifted psychic who is apparently able to communicate with the departed loved ones of anyone he touches. Near-death experiences of a realm of light inhabited by the souls of the departed are another theme: The film opens with one such experience, and a supporting character claims to have gathered evidence from countless such cases supporting the existence of an afterlife.
The Adjustment Bureau and Hereafter are among a remarkable number of recent and upcoming Hollywood films in some way invoking themes of spirituality, religion or belief. I’m not including foreign films like Of Gods and Men, Xavier Beauvois’s extraordinary French film about the 1996 massacre of French Trappist monks living in Algeria, now playing in limited release. Nor do I mean Christian-produced indies like The Grace Card or Courageous (from the creators of Fireproof). (There Be Dragons, Roland Joffé’s upcoming drama depicting events in the life of St. Josemarķa Escriva, is a blend of these two categories, part indie, part foreign film.)
I’m referring primarily to mainstream entertainment with name stars distributed by the major Hollywood studios. 2010 was particularly rife with such Hollywood religiosity, quantitatively if not necessarily qualitatively.
The year opened with a pair of dim-witted quasi-religious apocalyptic thrillers. Legion imagines God losing faith in mankind and sending angelic hosts to wipe out humanity, prompting Michael to rebel, defending humanity against Gabriel and his forces. In The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington wanders a postapocalyptic wasteland on a mission from God to save the last copy of the King James Bible while keeping it from those who would use it to create a false religion.
Hymnody, gospel music and scriptural quotations showed up more than one film. The Coen brothers’ critically and popularly acclaimed take on True Grit opens with a citation from Proverbs, and the characters’ dialogue is peppered with allusions to scriptural and biblical themes. The score makes use of several hymns, notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” sung over the end credits by Iris DeMent, but also “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and others. (The celebrated indie Winter’s Bone, a film with more than a few thematic links to True Grit, also features a hymn over its ends credits, “We’ll Understand it Better By and By” by Rev. Charles A. Tindley.)
Disney’s Secretariat bookends its old-fashioned sports story with a passage from the book of Job, and the characters’ matter-of-factly Christian milieu crops up not only in dialogue but in the use of “O Happy Day,” a gospel arrangement of an 18th-century hymn by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.
Stone, a muddled prison drama, stars Edward Norton as a prison inmate who talks about a New Agey religion based on perceiving the voice of God in sound waves to Robert De Niro, a parole evaluation officer and churchgoing Episcopalian who listens to Christian talk radio. Devil, a supernatural thriller–horror film with a story by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs), evokes a milieu of folk Catholicism as a background for a tale of satanic predation, guilt, repentance and redemption.
Only somewhat off the beaten Hollywood path, spiritual themes themes showed up in a couple of films with name stars distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek starred in Get Low, a low-key Depression-era comedy–melodrama about a guilt-haunted Tennessee backwoodsman who is told by more than one pastor that he can’t pay for his own sins, that he must ask for forgiveness. Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin and Anthony Hopkins starred in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, which uses New Age iconography to express the idea of faith in something beyond ordinary hedonism — faith that leads to peace for the one character who pursues it.
All of that, along with Hereafter — and the latest Narnia film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — was in 2010 alone. This year, in addition to The Adjustment Bureau, we’ve seen Anthony Hopkins in The Rite, perhaps the most conventionally pious Hollywood exorcism film ever made, as well as the most true to life in several respects. (For example, compared to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which conflated months of exorcisms in the real-life events that inspired the film into a single dramatic episode, The Rite conveys much more authentically the protracted battle that exorcism often involves.)
Soul Surfer, a fact-based sports movie, stars AnnaSophia Robb (Because of Winn-Dixie) as Bethany Hamilton, an Evangelical Protestant who became a pro surfer despite losing an arm to a shark attack at 13. The producers’ handling of the story’s religious appeal has been somewhat schizophrenic: There’s been been a media push to Christian audiences, but even innocuous religious elements have been second-guessed; at one point the words “Holy Bible” were digitally erased from the the cover of a Bible read by Bethany’s father (Dennis Quaid) in his daughter’s hospital room. (“Holy Bible” is reportedly back in in the film.)
Looking ahead, there’s the horror movie Priest, coming in May, starring Paul Bettany as a priest in an alternate reality in which priests are like Jedi knights in a Church army defending mankind against vampires.
Is there a trend? One can certainly find earlier examples of the sorts of films in question, though with less frequency. The Blind Side and The Rookie are precedents for faith-friendly sports movies like Secretariat and Soul Surfer. Screenwriter Mike Rich, who wrote Secretariat, also wrote The Nativity Story, and Secretariat director Randall Wallace directed Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers, a Vietnam war drama in which prayer and faith play more than passing roles.
Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense and Signs evinsce some of the same spiritual preoccupations as Devil. Tom Shadyac, a vague sort of Catholic whose latest offering is a documentary exercise in inspirational pseudoscience, I Am (now in limited release), directed Bruce Almighty and Evan Almighty as well as Dragonfly, a Hereafter-like ghost story that touches on near-death experiences and the power of “faith.”
Looming over the landscape is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the highest-grossing film of them all, and the most singular. For all the talk about “Passion dollars,” direct attempts to emulate the success of The Passion have been essentially nonexistent; The Passion may have raised awareness about a potential audience, but Hollywood remains unsure how to connect with that audience (as the disappointment of The Nativity Story illustrates). For every successful Blind Side, there’s an underperforming Secretariat, a sluggish Dawn Treader.
Many of the latest crop of faith-themed films, in fact, aren’t aimed at Passion dollars at all. If there’s any trend here, it isn’t one, but several.
Some of these films, like The Book of Eli, Devil, Secretariat and The Rite, try to meet believing viewers halfway, to offer a blend of mainstream entertainment and traditional piety. Others, notably thrillers and horror films like Legion (and probably Priest), use religious trappings as a convenient mythology, like vampires or elves, with little or no real religious interest.
Then there are those, like The Adjustment Bureau, Hereafter and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, that seem to want to explore questions of belief or spirituality, as it were, from the outside, or at least from outside a Christian framework. Where The Book of Eli and Secretariat make some effort to reach out to Christian viewers in their own language, The Adjustment Bureau and its ilk speak the language of the secular culture even as they try to articulate a message of faith, hope or — something.
Consider The Adjustment Bureau, starring Damon as David Norris, a charismatic but impulsive U.S. congressman from New York whom we find early in the first act on the brink of defeat. As he rehearses his concession speech in the men’s room at a hotel, he has a potent, seemingly chance encounter with a forward young woman named Elise (Emily Blunt). The concession speech he winds up giving is not the one his speechwriters crafted for him, and suddenly his political stock is rising again — but the girl is gone. (Spoilers follow.)
By and by, something happens. Whether it’s chance, fate, or part of a plan, a mysterious figure named Harry (Anthony Mackie), who keeps close tabs on David, nods off in the park. And David, who was meant to spill coffee on himself in the park and miss his bus — whom Harry was charged with causing to spill his coffee and miss his bus — catches the bus instead.
To his astonished delight, he runs into Elise, a reunion that should not have occurred. Before long, David learns that Fate is a reality enforced in the lives of men through through the agency of otherworldly figures in fedoras, and when men stray from the cosmic Plan, these Agents make adjustments as necessary. The work of an enigmatic figure called The Chairman (“the Old Man,” Dick called him), the Plan guides mankind in fits and starts from darkness toward enlightenment.
The Agents tell David that he must never see Elise again. Their seemingly chance meeting in the men’s room was deliberately orchestrated to give him new direction after his defeat, but it was a one-time thing. David, though, feels a powerful connection to Elise; he won’t be put off trying to find her, and such is his determination that the powers of Fate are hard pressed to keep them apart. For all their power, David learns, they’re not infallible — or omniscient. In fact, they don’t even necessarily understand the rationale for their own actions; they know it is written that David and Elise must be kept apart, but it’s awhile before David meets one who can tell him why — and the first explanation he gets is misleading.
Eventually David is told that he is destined for greatness — probably for the White House — and that a relationship with Elise is incompatible with that future. One Agent tells him that this is because Elise is too potent a drug for him, that his passion for her makes him reckless and self-destructive. Later, though, another reason comes out: Elise completes him; she is enough, and the inner fire that should catapult him to the spotlight of the world stage is fueled by incompleteness. A happy David will not save the world.
One might conclude from this that the Plan is more interested in larger outcomes than in human happiness or fulfillment; that the Chairman is concerned with the fates of countries, but not with the love of a man and a woman. Yet we also learn that the Plan itself as it is known to the Agents is subject to adjustments, apparently in response to human choices — and that the reason David and Elise feel such a powerful connection is that they were meant to be together in earlier versions of the Plan. David continues to defy the Plan, ultimately trying to take his case all the way to the Chairman. In the end, Harry suggests that perhaps the ultimate plan is that when mankind is ready, we ourselves, not the Agency, will write the plan for our lives.
Viewed one way, this appears to be another variation on the popular Hollywood-style quasi-gnosticism of Pleasantville, The Truman Show and The Matrix. In these films, the world as we know it is somehow false or perverse, and behind the illusion is the reality to which we are all asleep, that we are not really free. Mankind is not fallen and in need of redemption; what we need is to wake up, to rebel against the world order, to grow up and come into our own.
The creator or G/god of this world — Christoph in The Truman Show; the artificial intelligence in The Matrix — is not a good and loving father to be obeyed, but a tyrant against whom we must rebel in order to grow up and come into our own. This gnostic-like twist on Felix culpa — the salutary rebellion against a capricious God — crops up again and again, most recently in Legion.
But The Adjustment Bureau is more open-ended and ambiguous than many of these other films. The world of this film is real and good, and the agents really do aid mankind — who are definitely, as a species, fallen and wicked, not merely asleep — by guiding us away from destruction and toward higher levels of development.
There are even indications that the Chairman may be on David and Elise’s side all along, that the whole crisis is a test not only for David and Elise but for the Agents as well. For example, the play of sunlight twinkling through the trees in the park as Harry falls asleep, allowing David and Elise to reunite, suggests that this departure from the Plan was no chance accident.
Open-endedness and ambiguity are hallmarks of the filmmakers responsible for last years’ most remarkable faith-inflected film, True Grit. Notably, where nearly all the rest of Hollywood’s faith-themed 2010 output had at least one thing in common — they were generally popular and critical disappointments — True Grit was the outstanding exception, the Coens’ highest-grossing film to date, and a critical darling with an impressive lineup of 10 Academy Award nominations (though disappointingly no Oscar wins) including best picture, director, actor, supporting actress and adapted screenplay.
True Grit doesn’t fit any of the categories noted above: It isn’t aimed at believing audiences, it doesn’t grapple with faith issues from a secular perspective, and it doesn’t reduce religious themes to mythic trappings. It can be considered a genuinely religious film — not just a film about religious questions, like A Serious Man, but a film that we are at least invited to contemplate in terms of faith.
Coen skeptics — I tend more than not to be one myself — may easily doubt this judgment, given the Coens’ not undeserved reputation as filmmakers for irony, misanthropy and nihilism. True Grit has left more than a few critics and even fans squinting in perplexity at what appears to be an old-fashioned moral drama with flawed but sympathetic, capable characters, looking for some hint that the Coens were only joking. There are certainly moments of Coenesque absurdity, but the disdain for their characters that marks many Coen films is absent here, and the film credibly comes together as a narrative about grace and justice.
A new adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel rather than a remake of the 1969 film for which John Wayne won his only Oscar, True Grit tells the story of a 14-year-old girl, Mattie Ross (extraordinary Hailee Steinfeld), on a quest to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a drifter. “No doubt Chaney fancied himself scot-free, but he was wrong,” Mattie declares in an opening voiceover. “You must pay for everything in this life, one way and another. There is nothing free, except the grace of God.”
Certain of the rightness of her cause, Mattie is confident that Providence, among other things, is with her: “The Author of all things watches over me, and I have a good horse.” She also has two men, U. S. Deputy Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger LaBeouff (Matt Damon). Both justice and revenge fuel Mattie’s quest: She is determined to see Chaney hang, on her terms, in her county, for her father’s killing and not some other crime. (Spoilers follow.)
When Mattie finally comes face to face with Chaney, she shoots him — twice. The first time she only injures him, but — in a notable departure both from the Portis novel and the John Wayne film — later on, after he has attacked her, she gets a second chance, and kills him. Under the circumstances it may be possible to view pulling the trigger either as self-defense or as some species of unjust homicide, and that ambiguity colors the consequences of her act.
Later, Rooster bears the injured Mattie across the trackless wilderness under a darkening sky that fades to night. Critic Lee Siegel of the New York Observer, one of the film’s few debunkers, argues that the “fablelike starry skies” symbolize “The Indifferent Universe”; that the “point of the starry sky — as was the point of the Coens’ stylishly pointless No Country for Old Men — is to present the universe as amoral. It is as indifferent to who we are and to the stories we tell ourselves as it is to our fabricated categories of good and evil.”
While I tend to agree with Siegel about No Country, I think he is wrong here. Here I think we can look into that starry sky and see what Mattie does, the Author of all things watching over her. Beneath her is a good horse — and when the horse fails, there is a good man, a man at least partly redeemed from the wickedness of his past life, carrying her as far as he can. And when the man fails, there is the grace of God. Most explicitly, the grace of God may be seen in the crucial moment when a character utters a whispered ejaculation (“Oh Lord”) as he squeezes a trigger and makes an impossible shot, saving another man’s life and ultimately Mattie’s as well.
To find such themes in a Coen film is itself a gift, almost a grace. Hollywood’s sporadic attempts to reach out to Christian viewers with films like The Blind Side, The Book of Eli and Soul Surfer will continue; some of these films may even be good. And it’s a foregone conclusion that religious trappings will continue to provide a colorful backdrop for dumb roller-coaster movies.
Genuine religious interest, though, is not a commodity that can be pitched in an elevator or pushed by producers in response to box-office ups and downs. It comes from filmmakers like Nolfi and the Coens with a personal interest in religious questions. Such films will always be in the minority; for the most part, a religiously illiterate culture will produce religiously illiterate cinema.