The villainous Christians of independent films
At The Onion‘s AV Club – that’s the non-satirical portion of the site devoted to popular culture – Alison Willmore has an essay asking, “Are indie films unfair to Christianity?”
Noting that the “religion-baiting” film Red State “was just one of a crowd of films [at Sundance] to feature broad villainy in the name of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity,” Willmore asks, “If faith is still such an important part of American life, why is it met with such a lack of empathy in so many indies that theoretically go in search of a more sincere, less ‘Hollywood’ version of characters and stories?”
I haven’t seen any of the movies she mentions, so I’m not qualified to evaluate them or say much about the question of fairness in indie films in general. But her analysis of the way such movies use and abuse religion, and particularly Christianity, is thought-provoking. To me, the question of whether Christianity is being treated “fairly” is less interesting than the question of whether faith is being treated intelligently. What are independent movies missing that would make for better movies, not just better contributions to the national discussion about questions of faith and its place in public life? A few years back I reviewed the indie film Henry Poole Is Here at dotCommonweal. It had a positive attitude toward Christianity and faith in general, and it too premiered at Sundance. But while it was benign, it was also shallow and unrewarding. As I said at the time, “If you’re hoping for an independent movie with style and brains, something made for adults that takes religion seriously and challenges its audience? Then it might be time to start praying for a miracle.”
Of the films at Sundance this year, Willmore says, “These titles were enough to make some — to make me, certainly — squirm in discomfort at the easy targets they set up and then knock down.” Setting up easy targets makes for unsatisfying intellectual or artistic work, regardless of what those targets are.
Willmore’s piece offers plenty of food for thought. But I think she overlooks or at least underanalyzes one important reason that “that the born-again brute is on the verge of becoming a stock type,” as she says. Yes, it has to do with politics and a countercultural impulse on the part of filmmakers. But it’s also an irresistably easy way to inject some dramatic irony into your story. A character who beats his wife is reprehensible; a character who beats his wife and claims to love Jesus – or worse, claims he does it because he loves Jesus – is an obvious hypocrite, and audiences love to hate hypocrites. So the overuse of that device doesn’t surprise me much. What’s missing, as she notes, is “balance” – where are the characters whose Christian faith informs their lives in more complicated and perhaps even positive ways? We shouldn’t be willing to settle for Christian characters who are not hypocritical villains. How about complex, struggling, mostly decent characters who are also Christians?