Since a major focus of this blog is faith and culture, I thought I would try analyzing the past year from the perspective of Christian film. The “faith-based” film market has exploded in recent years, and everyone from indie filmmakers to large production studios like Sony are trying to cash in.
When discussing Christian film, the first task is to explain what exactly that even means. There are three major categories I‘d like to look at: faith-based films, films about historical Christianity (movies about the life of Jesus, in other words, even if they contain fictional elements/characters ) and larger market secular films that contain strong Christian themes/characters. I will assess each category before assigning a grade for the year as a whole.
ROUND 1: “FAITH-BASED” FILMS
The faith based film market was alive and well in 2016, much to the chagrin of Christian moviegoers who desire movies about their faith to qualify as good art. Thankfully, 2016 was not quite as bad as other years. Sure, God’s Not Dead 2 came out, and it was still profitable, but it never seemed to capture the electricity of the original. I’m hoping this means that audiences have already had their fill of this pandering, insipid franchise. The same descriptors could also probably apply to Miracles from Heaven, this year’s “noble” studio attempt at providing soft, un-challenging spiritual uplift (this one backed by Sony’s Affirm Films). It netted a respectable but uninspiring $61 million at the box office.
Priceless is a great example of how to do a faith-based film right.
And…that’s about it! There were a couple of smaller films that I really enjoyed. The human trafficking film Priceless was an effective thriller with an empowering message. And Hillsong’s innovative concert film Let Hope Rise was all-around sensational. Some predictable duds here, but this sub-genre is finally starting to get wise to the fact that Christians might actually want quality films that speak to them, rather than easy religious pandering.
ROUND 2: FILMS ABOUT JESUS
Speaking of quality, there was a plethora of engaging and thought-provoking films about the life of Christ in 2016. Though they weren’t all a slam dunk (remember Ben Hur? Yeah, neither do I), this was an impressive group overall. Risen gave us a unique look at Christ through the eyes of a Roman guard (an always-impressive Joseph Finnes) tasked with finding Christ’s body after it disappears from its tomb three days after his death. This novel take on a well-trod story starts out fairly standard but gets more intriguing as it goes on. By the time it was over, I had tears in my eyes, and they were well-earned. This is a well-written, acted and shot adventure yarn, with a redemptive message that is irresistible.
Another buzz-worthy film was The Young Messiah, which imagines what the missing
The Young Messiah is an intriguing, speculative look at Christ’s adolescence, continuing the recent trends of Jesus movies that blend history with fictional elements.
years of Jesus’ childhood may have looked like. Based on a novel by Anne Rice, the film is sometimes dull but deeply reverent. I left the film feeling like its events could have actually been the real story of Christ’s adolescence, and that’s no small feat. Gorgeous cinematography and great supporting performances from the likes of Sean Bean ensure a decent flick.
The best Jesus-based film of the year by far was Last Days in the Desert, a provocative look at the tail-end of Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and the devil, and the result is electrifying. McGregor may seem like a strange choice, but I think his sensibilities work well with the material. Director Rodrigo Garcia’s screenplay doesn’t provide easy answers; it asks difficult questions about divinity, questions that may make some true-believer uncomfortable. But for those willing to probe a bit deeper, the film is well worth your time. It probably helps that three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is predictably stunning (the crucifixion scene, in particular, may be the best ever put to film).
ROUND 3: MAINSTREAM FILMS
This category gets an all-around A+ this year. We thankfully weren’t lacking for filmmakers looking to tell quality stories with courageous Christians at their center. This category mostly tackles the “secular” world of film, or at least the high-budget, A-list director realm. The big success story here is obviously Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. The controversial director’s first film in a decade lived up to the hype, telling the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector in WWII who, due to his Christian conviction, refused to even hold a gun. He did, however, earn the Medal of Honor as a combat medic after saving the lives of dozens of his fellow soldiers during the battle of Okinawa. It’s an inspiring story, and Gibson tells it in an earnest, gritty and effective way. It’s a powerful story told in a powerful way.
While we’re talking about controversial filmmakers, how about Nate Parker and his slave rebellion epic The Birth of a Nation? Here’s a film that garnered major accolades at the Sundance Film Festival, only to make nary a dent at the box office or the awards circuit. Many blame this on rape allegations that surfaced from Parker’s past, but it’s hard to see the fault coming from the film itself (although it didn’t garner quite the critical praise many expected). It’s certainly a troubling film, but one that should inspire conversations about the nature of Christian resistance and how far God’s justice extends to our own actions. It’s certainly an excellent work of art all-around, but an immensely disturbing one. I’m not sure I am comfortable with the conclusions Nat Turner came to, in history or in the film. But the movie is saturated with scripture, and even seeing someone misuse the Bible doesn’t change the fact that the Bible is very much front and center for the vast majority of the film’s run time. I highly recommend it, though I will likely never see it again.
Scorsese’s Silence exemplifies the recent contemplative spiritual mode of many prolific filmmakers.
The final major film about Christian resistance in 2016 is Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Long in gestation, the legendary director’s film about Jesuit missionaries in 16th-century Japan is garnering high praise all around. I have yet to see it, but critics are calling in some of Scorsese’s best work, though, like Birth of a Nation, it may be a film you’ll only want to sit through once. It’s dense, challenging and absolutely essential. Still, seeing courageous Christians martyred for their faith should engender in Christians thoughts and prayers for Christians all around the world martyred for their faith every minute. This is an important story to highlight at a time in our history where violence against Christians has never been higher.
FINAL GRADE B+
Despite a few artistically bankrupt duds (both of the indie and studio variety), 2016 was an inspiring year for Christian film. From innovative concert documentaries to provocative looks at the life of Jesus and famous historical Christians, every believer should find something from this past year to strengthen their conviction, inspire their resolve or lift their spirits. And, in a world filled with hardship and pain, that’s something we could all use a lot more of.
“People in L.A. worship everything but value nothing.” So says Sebastian in Damien Chazelle’s miraculous musical romance La La Land. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a passionate jazz musician with dreams of opening his own club, but he’s stuck playing bland Christmas tunes in dingy restaurants. He’s frustrated by the lack of passion people around him bring to their lives, along with the fact that he himself can’t hold a steady job as he pursues his own dreams.
Mia (Emma Stone) faces a similar predicament. She gave up college and moved from her Nevada home to pursue acting, but, despite numerous auditions, she can’t seem to get a call back. When she meets Sebastian, she’s initially repulsed, but quickly she begins to warm to his charms and his zest for life. A romance blossoms, but it isn’t long before reality comes knocking for these starry-eyed dreamers. Can these two build a life together, sharing in each other’s’ burdens and ambitions? Or will the cold hand of failure and the everyday struggles of life tear them (and their careers) apart?
The central question of the film is, how does one continue to hold onto hope in the midst of resistance? How can you reach for the stars when life only seems to give you gravel? It’s a profound question, particularly in a year like 2016, when so many have felt beaten into submission by the woes of human experience.
For anyone feeling downtrodden, La La Land is the greatest Christmas present you could ask for. This is a film that will keep a smile on your face during most of its run time, a joyous celebration of the desires of the heart, and the perseverance of hope through all possible obstacles.
The film is love letter to two of my favorite things: movies and jazz. Chazelle already examined the passion of jazz music in the stellar Whiplash, but that film was dark and emotionally brutal. In contrast, La La Land is an infectious, upbeat and ear-catching marvel. This is the kind of film where you can feel the love of movie-making stitched into every frame, a film where the depth of passion and vision behind its creation is palpable and, frankly, astonishing.
La La Land is an infectious ode to Hollywood, jazz and impossible dreamers.
La La Land is billed as a musical, and a musical is really only as good as its songs. Thankfully, Justin Hurwitz’s tunes are mostly great. I’ve been obsessed with this soundtrack ever since I walked out of the theater (and am a particular fan of “City of Stars” and “The Fools Who Dream”). The dance sequences are also phenomenal, from the Fame style jaunt in the midst of an L.A. traffic jam that opens the film to a gorgeous tap-dancing sequence that hearkens to Gene Kelley and a dreamy flight through the Griffith observatory that is its own wondrous creation.
Thankfully, Chazelle’s dialogue is every bit as masterful as the songs. The writing throughout is funny, relatable and emotionally resonant. But what really takes the film to another level is the performances. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are no Astaire and Rodgers, and that’s what makes them so good. Their dancing is charming, their singing voices more than adequate. But, two struggling artists shouldn’t be masterful performers; it makes more sense that the characters would be rougher around the edges. To keep them from perfection is to keep them relatable (though still impossibly gorgeous).
That’s not to discount the marvelous work by the two leads. This is Stone’s best-ever role, proving once again her talent for giving nakedly emotional and absorbing performances. I’m a big Gosling fan, and this role shows off both his comedic and dramatic talents expertly. Despite the film’s flashy style, I never felt like I was watching “movie stars” on screen. I felt like I was watching Mia and Sebastian. These roles feel lived-in, and that extends to the supporting cast (including a surprisingly excellent John Legend).
La La Land’s ending is not exactly a happy one, but it feels authentic, just like the rest of the film. There’s not a false note in sight. It is in many ways a simple film, but it’s not simplistic. It has a lot to say about the importance of holding onto dreams, and even conveys the welcome message that being traditional and old-fashioned isn’t always a bad thing. Some may call La La Land itself old-fashioned. If that’s the case, then I say it’s hip to be square.
From its opening moments, it’s clear that Rogue One is going to be a different kind of Star Wars movie than what we’ve seen before. It’s a risky move from Lucasfilm: create a non-numbered film in the beloved sci-fi universe (sans opening story scroll), a prequel of sorts that attempts to answer one of the biggest questions from the 1977 original. How did the Rebel Alliance obtain the plans to the Imperial Death Star, the ones that Princess Leia hands off to R2-D2 and which eventually prompt Luke Skywalker to initiate the most famous explosion in movie history?
It’s a question worth asking, and a story worth exploring. However, it’s still easy to believe that Rogue One may be more of a cynical cash grab from Disney, who now owns Lucasfilm— a desperate attempt to wring more money out of a famous franchise. I am very happy to report that such concerns can be safely put to bed, because Rogue One is a lovingly crafted and thrilling tale, and one that fans of the franchise will almost certainly dig.
The film opens with Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) as a young girl, watching her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) get carted off by the Imperial Commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to assist in building a super-weapon that will turn the tide in the war between the Imperial Army and the Rebel Alliance. Jyn, however, successfully hides, and is rescued and trained by resistance leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).
When we next see Jyn, it is 15 years later, and she is “rescued” from an Imperial prison transport by resistance fighter Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his re-programmed Imperial droid, K-2SO, voiced by a quip-filled Alan Tudyk. Why does the resistance want Jyn? Because her father has been the principal mastermind behind the construction of the Death Star, and she may be the only one who can convince Gererra to help track him down and extract the location of the Death Star plans. To complicate matters, Imperial pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) has shown up, claiming to have a message straight from Galen regarding the Death Star plans.
Soon, Jyn is whisked away on a planet-spanning adventure to snatch the Death Star plans and save her father, if indeed he can be saved. Along the way, the resistance picks up some additional ragtag fighters, including the mysterious blind monk Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and his heat-packing protector, Baze (Wen Jiang). But time is running short: the Death Star has already tested its formidable destructive capabilities, and the shadowy presence of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) looms. Can they successfully storm the Imperial stronghold, steal the plans and turn the tide of battle once again?
We already know the answer to that question, and therein lies the tricky balance of a tale like this one. Can a story whose conclusion is forgone still manage to surprise us? Perhaps the biggest success of the film is that director Gareth Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy so successfully make this story feel essential. This isn’t just a paint-by-numbers, fill-in-the-gaps mid-quel. It deepened my appreciation of the original, and even fills in a major plot hole and long-time complaint that could be leveled at it. Why the heck would the Imperial Army build the Death Star with such a small but fatal flaw? By films end, that head-scratcher is given a very satisfying answer.
Rogue One is a thrilling adventure, and a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe.
Story-wise, Rogue One is a success, but what about all these new characters? For the most part, they’re welcome additions. I felt more emotionally connected to the characters here than I did watching The Force Awakens. Jyn’s love for her father is a particularly strong motivator, and the camaraderie the resistance fighters share is palpable. The heart of Star Wars has always been its characters, and this one is beating and alive. I particularly liked K-2SO, who adds some much-needed humor to the proceedings, and Chirrut, who is just a straight-up bad-ass, and has a connection with the force unlike any we’ve seen in this universe so far.
But, when I start to dwell on particular characters, I begin to recognize my biggest complaint with the film. There are lots of new characters introduced here, and it’s understandable that not all of them would get fully satisfying arcs. But why did the best characters have to get the short end of the stick? I was glad to see the amazing Yen get such a major role, and his character’s relationship with Baze is affecting. But his motivations are vague and, although he’s meant to be mysterious, I felt like I didn’t get to know him well enough to have a major connection with him. He’s mostly there to look cool, and come along on the adventure because…he has nothing better to do? Or look at Saw Gerrera; a major role played by an A-list actor, and yet he’s sadly under-utilized. I wish some of these other characters had been given the same care and attention as the Ersos or Cassian.
The film also suffers from poor pacing in its first third. Characters are introduced haphazardly, and scenes cut back and forth chaotically. It’s a bit hard to follow at first. But man, does Rogue One ever get going once it hits its stride. Krennic is a great addition to Star Wars villainy, a sniveling ass-kisser with a lust for power and a persecution complex. He’s just unhinged enough to be menacing, but even he cowers in front of Darth Vader, which fans we be thrilled to see return to the screen. The legendary Sith Lord’s screen time is brief, but you feel every moment. His character is brilliantly utilized, with just enough fan service to satisfy without overdoing it.
Rogue One is often filmed closer to a gritty war film that a traditional Star Wars movie; the bright colors of The Force Awakens are almost nowhere to be found. We instead get lots of handheld footage, some shaky cam and lots of muted colors. This is the right design for the divergent tone of the film, and Greig Fraser’s cinematography, along with the stellar production design, go a long way towards selling the film. The action scenes are sensational, sure, but I’m more impressed with how much it looks like A New Hope. From the costumes, to the way the X-Wings and Star Destroyers fly to the design of the Death Star, every frame is crafted like a work of art. This is a gorgeous film, and one I highly recommend seeing in Imax 3-D.
There’s just something about the joy of being in the Star Wars universe that Rogue One gets, and that is perhaps its greatest triumph. We get to see tons of new planets during the film’s run time, and several interesting and original creatures. I’ve always loved the backgrounds of Star Wars films, filled with characters and stories we will probably never know. There’s so much mystery and creativity to it, the kind that spans hundreds of novels, video games and TV shows to attempt to fill in some of the gaps. It’s the most lived-in universe in all of cinema, and Rouge One invites us into that space and doesn’t let go.
Rogue One is not the most polished of Star Wars films. In fact, elements of it can be downright frustrating. But man, is this one cool movie, and during the sensational climax and pitch-perfect ending, I felt my complaints melting away. This is a must-see for franchise fans, and one I’ll be happy to include in my Star Wars marathon rotation for years to come.
The best science fiction films are about so much more than their subject matter. They probe deeper, asking complex questions about what it means to be human, about what unites us and divides us, about the role (and limitations) of science in advancing humankind. Aliens, like zombies, are not really that interesting apart from their metaphorical trappings.
Smart sci-fi understands this. And Arrival is certainly that. In fact, it’s brilliant; a haunting and somber meditation on grief, love and the primal bonds that unite us. It’s also one of the most original sci-fi films in years.
Amy Adams stars as Dr. Louise Banks, a renowned linguist who is called in by Col. Webber (Forest Whitaker) to translate an alien language. The mysterious visitors have just arrived in a large, black oblong pod over a field in Montana, and 11 others have interspersed across the globe in places like Russia, Australia and China. This arrival predictably causes a global panic; mass looting and plummeting stocks soon follow. Could this be the end of the world?
Dr. Banks is teamed with theoretical physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner) to enter the local pod, which opens every 18 hours, and attempt to communicate with the tentacled creatures inside. What follows are weeks of visits with the creatures, as the team attempts to decipher a visual language that can best be described as a series of inky circles. The hope is to eventually understand the answer to the question, “why are they here?”
But language is a subtle thing, and fear does not invite subtlety or compromise. It’s not long before the various nations collaborating on communicating with their pods begin to get anxious. Why take chances with these guys? Are we simply standing by for our own destruction? What are these visitors waiting for, and why won’t they leave?
In the vein of The Martian and other recent films in the genre, Arrival stands out by making the science more important than the fiction. Dr. Banks’ linguistic process is intensely systematic and exhaustive. Much of the film consists of characters poring over notes, drawing and having complex conversations about the nature of communication. It’s all a bit heavy, and in less deft hands could come off as a bit dull. But writer Eric Heisserer and director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) turn the film into a complex jigsaw puzzle, with individual scenes that slowly piece together into a larger whole. It’s a slow but intoxicating burn.
Arrival is thought-provoking and intelligent sci-fi, and may go down as a genre classic.
The film might also fall apart if it didn’t give us cool creatures or environments. But the alien pod is a visual marvel, as are the creatures themselves (referred to as septapods). Separated from the humans by a barrier, they’re often cloaked in a mysterious mist, and the fact that we can’t quite make out their full forms leads to a constant sense of unease and suspense. They eventually become their own characters, with nicknames and highly intelligent ways of processing information. These are not just your average vague CGI space creatures. I also want to praise the sparse but effective sound design and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s chilling score; they give the film a great deal of punch it may have otherwise lacked.
Descriptions of Arrival may come off as cold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The film is incredibly emotional and achingly human, and that’s mostly thanks to Adams’ performance, the best of her career. She portrays Dr. Banks as both highly intelligent and a bit of an emotional wild card, someone who has an intimate connection with the septapods to the point where she can almost think like them. She feels deeply, and that can be both a strength and a weakness. As with Emily Blunt in Sicario, Villeneuve has a knack for drawing sensational performances from strong leading ladies, and that strength is used to grand effect here.
It’s tough to write about the film without giving away what makes it special. There is a twist, one that I was surprised I didn’t guess. Perhaps wiser film-goers will find in highly telegraphed, but I’m still thinking about the ramifications of it and what I would do if I was in a similar situation. It’s devastating and, at the same time, quite powerful. It’s up to individuals to decide if the film does enough to solve its grand mystery in a satisfying fashion. There’s a fine line between leaving us guessing in a good way and simply not giving us enough information to be emotionally satisfied, but I think it strikes the perfect balance.
The ultimate question of all great art is, “what makes us human?” Sci-fi is uniquely positioned to meditate on that, because it often includes a non-human entity to contrast. Arrival is no different, but it goes about the question through a lens I haven’t quite seen before.
Arrival’s subtleties and minimalist design may not satisfy everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ultimately goes down as a genre classic. In the realm of alien invasion flicks, it should certainly be mentioned alongside the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s a film that will inspire conversation, and it’s one I will be thinking about for some time.
Is this really happening? Am I really reviewing a Doctor Strange movie right now? Ten years ago, the idea of such a thing would have seemed a distant dream to comic book fans. But therein lies the insane genius of Marvel Studios. Everyone could have probably predicted an Avengers film at some point. But Guardians of the Galaxy? Ant Man?Doctor Strange? Fans of geek comic lore might bite, but your average filmgoer would raise an eyebrow and move on. Except that’s not what happened. Time and again, the comic giant has spun gold out of increasingly outlandish and obscure franchises. And Doctor Strange might be its wildest yet. Whatever the conditions that birthed the film, fans should be grateful: this is one of the trippiest and coolest Marvel films to date.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a wildly successful (and wildly narcissistic) neurosurgeon who injures his hands in a car accident. After burning through his money seeking increasingly exotic treatments and alienating his it’s-complicated lover Christine (Rachel McAdams), Strange hears whispers of a mystical society called Kamar-Taj in Nepal. With nothing left to lose, he ventures afar in search of healing.
But Strange gets much more than he bargained for, and is quickly introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being trained in the magic arts. He is taken under the tutelage of sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who helps him discover realities far beyond any his highly scientific and rational mind has previously thought possible. The Astral Plane, multiple dimensions and the ability to travel through space and control time. Together, this secret society of mystics helps protect Earth from an ancient and all-consuming evil. Of course, a former disciple (who else?) of the Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), thinks that this being is actually benevolent, and so he sets out to destroy the magic shield protecting the world and bring it into harmony with other already devoured universes.
Doctor Strange is a visual stunner, and takes the Marvel universe to some trippy new places.
Clearly, there’s a lot going on here, and it would be very easy for a film like this to get bogged down in exposition or extraneous details. Thankfully, director Scott Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill do a great job of keeping things moving smoothly. They also run with this material, really milking the creative potential of this downright, well…strange material. This comes across in the film’s humor (which, like other Marvel films, is gentle but still elicits belly laughs) and in its characters, which are memorable and creative. There wasn’t a major character I didn’t enjoy, or one who felt extraneous to the story or shoehorned in. Even the villain, who isn’t written particularly interesting, gets a pass thanks to the amazing Mikkelsen, who can do no wrong in my book. The film also seems to take lessons from past Marvel films in avoiding overt connections to the extended universe that often take us out of the story being told.
Of course, the main draw of the film is its visuals, and they are beyond spectacular. This is honestly one of the coolest looking films I’ve seen, and certainly the most visually engaging in the Marvel canon. The special effects work is simply second-to-none, and it gets my vote as the most creative since, probably, Inception. That is remarkably high praise, but when you see entire buildings torn apart and put back together, trippy 2001-esque voyages through space and action sequences that play with fast-forwarded, reversed and paused time, it may be hard to argue otherwise. Everyone who worked on the visual effects here deserve the highest praise (and an Oscar), and the film should be seen on the biggest screen possible.
In other ways, Doctor Strange is less creative. This is, in the end, another superhero origin story, and it doesn’t do anything particularly new with that arc. It very much feels like Iron Man, but with magic and sorcery instead of technology. Like Tony Stark, Strange goes through a redemptive character transformation, but it’s not on the same level emotionally as Stark’s was. Maybe we’ve seen this kind of story too much, or maybe Robert Downy Jr. is simply that good of an actor; he’s set the bar impossibly high even for a performer as all-around excellent as Cumberbatch. The film also fizzles a bit at the end, perhaps feeling a bit winded after throwing so much incredible stuff at us.
I’m certainly grateful that we’ve come to a place where a movie like Doctor Strange can not only actually get made, but earn a boatload of money and critical praise (yes, there was a Strange film in 1978; let us not speak of it again). The film takes the Marvel Cinematic Universe to some psychedelic and exciting new places. Now that we have heroes in heaven, outer space, the quantum realm and the astral plane, where do we have left to go? I don’t know, but if we keep getting films this creative and fun, I’m along for the very strange ride.
Hacksaw Ridge opens with a striking sequence. We hear the end of Isaiah chapter 40 recited over brutal images of war. We hear about God giving strength to the weary and allowing those who call on him to soar on wings like eagles. At the same time, we see charred and battered bodies flying through the air as they’re torn apart by the ruthlessly efficient weapons of war.
It’s a jarring juxtaposition, to be sure, but one director Mel Gibson knows well. The Passion of the Christ director has always been fascinated by religion and violence, and these motifs pushed to their limits in a film that bleeds passion from every pore. It has been 10 years since Gibson last directed a film, and by all accounts, Hacksaw Ridge was worth the wait.
The voice over we hear in the beginning belongs to that of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, giving the best performance of his career), a true-life WWII soldier who was the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor for courage on the battlefield (he saved more than 75 men as a combat medic). Those don’t seem like terms that naturally go together, but Doss’ life was a true example of living what you believe and sticking to your principles, no matter the cost.
We first see Doss’ aversion to violence as a child after he settles a scruff with his brother by whacking him in the head with a brick. Realizing his brother was nearly killed, Doss vows right then to honor God’s sixth commandment never to murder.
The film is essentially split into two halves, and the first deals with Doss’ relationship with his alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving), a veteran of WWI, and mother (Rachel Griffiths), as well as his courting of nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). After the bombing of Pearl Harbor (and after learning his brother has signed up), Desmond decided he must enlist for his country. But there are two inviolable conditions: he will never touch a gun, and he will not serve on a Saturday (as a Seventh Day Adventist, Saturday is his Sabbath). He will instead save lives as a combat medic.
Hacksaw Ridge is a stirring testament to the power of faith and the hope that endures even in the midst of horror.
Doss’ unwavering commitment to his pacifist principles obviously don’t sit well with his fellow soldiers. He draws the particular ire of Smitty (Luke Bracey), who sees him as a coward. Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) attempt to get Doss to leave voluntarily and, when that fails, Court Martial him (“You are aware quite a bit of killing goes on in war?” Glover asks Doss). But Doss does not back down from either his principles or commitment to serve honorably.
The film’s second half chronicles the battle of Okinawa and the U.S. military’s attempt to take it by securing Hacksaw Ridge. Here, we’re rather jarringly re-introduced to Gibson’s penchant for incredibly gory violence. Okinawa was true hell, one of the most violent conflicts of the war, and the depiction here pulls no punches. It is here we see the manifestation of a question Capt. Glover asks Doss earlier in the film: how can you stick to your principles when the only way to ensure your continued freedom to practice them is to kill those who are putting them under siege?
The battle sequences are truly horrifying, but they’re also some of the best ever put to screen. Gibson knows a thing or two about large-scale epic conflicts, and the chaos of battle is almost beautiful in its brutality. These sequences are bolstered by Simon Duggan’s crisp cinematography and Barry Robinson’s gritty production design. But make no mistake: the imagery here is particularly graphic; those with weak stomachs may want to sit it out.
Amid the insanity of war, it’s downright refreshing to see a man who “wants to put a little piece of [the world] back together again,” in Doss’s own words. His heroics are truly inspiring, but what raises the film to a higher level is the way it treats Doss’ commitment to his faith. Screenwriter Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkann do a bang up job of balancing the need to tell the full story of Doss’ devotion to God without getting preachy. But Gibson’s direction sometimes tips the film’s hand; he’s never been much for subtlety, and there are a few scenes that feel a bit overbearing in their religious imagery.
But, even in its most bombastic moments, Hacksaw Ridge is never anything less than riveting cinema. It’s a war film with a true conscience, made by a true craftsman. It’s inspirational without trying too hard. And, most importantly, it’s a passionate Christian work of art, the kind that we’ve been praying for. People don’t need a theatrical Sunday sermon; they need examples of men and women who served their God and their fellow man with unwavering devotion, humility and courage. This is about the finest example of that rare kind of life I can imagine.
Taxi Driver is celebrating 40 years, and since I consider it my all-time favorite film, it stands to reason that I may have something to say about it. I said a lot, actually, when I analyzed the film for a college paper. I can’t imagine I could ever say it any better than I did then, so I decided to publish that paper here. It’s long, but I couldn’t bear to cut very much; I’m proud of this work, and grateful for everyone involved in the making of the film for crafting and enduring and thought-provoking classic. A 40th Anniversary Blu-ray is set to release Nov. 8.
Ever since it was first released in 1976, Taxi Driver has been hailed as one of the greatest films of all time, and its director, Martin Scorsese, has stood the test of time as one of the world’s great directors. The film garnered four 1976 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, and won the prestigious Palme d’Or prize at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival. Today, Taxi Driver is ranked number 52 on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 American films of all time, along with other Scorsese films Goodfellas and Raging Bull. In their book The Greatest Movies Ever, Gail Kinn and Jim Piazza rank it as the 15th greatest film of all time, American or otherwise, and the influential director and astute film critic Quentin Tarantino cites it in his top three. It’s safe to say that Taxi Driver has had an indelible and important impact on the history film. The film, however, is ethically troubling for several reasons. In portraying the seedy side of New York City, the film shows pimps, child prostitutes, graphic violence, and harsh language in a raw and unfiltered manner. Additionally, in its portrayal of the mental deterioration of a war veteran driven to madness by the world around him, the film can be a tough one to watch. In analyzing this film from an ethical and theological perspective, it is important to first analyze the “auteur” of the film as well as both the positive and negative ways in which this film has influenced the culture around it.
Many film critics and historians would consider Martin Scorsese to be one of the greatest living directors, if not the greatest. Raised on strong Roman Catholic roots, Scorsese desired to enter the seminary until he decided that his passions would fit much better in film. One of the forerunners of the “film school generation,” he graduated with a film degree from New York University in 1964. His first major film was Mean Streets, a film that would establish many of the themes and styles that would become hallmarks of most Scorsese films. The film world would never quite be the same again.
Robert DeNiro, delivering his legendary performance as Travis Bickle in a scene from Taxi Driver.
In his body of work, Scorsese often presents lonely characters, outsiders who find themselves in an unfamiliar social context that they are unable to overcome. In this way, Scorsese reflects the fact that, contrary to what we often believe, society can have ultimate and final victory over the individual. In Taxi Driver, that society is reflected by the city itself. Travis Bickle, a Vietnam veteran, returns to the real world and is disgusted. He finds that he does not fit in with the rest of humanity. “Loneliness has followed me my whole life,” Travis says. “Everywhere. There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.”
“GOD’S LONELY MAN”
This “God’s lonely man” theme has become a hallmark of Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, the lonely man is Jake LaMotta, a man who has been trained in the boxing ring to feel nothing but rage. When he is confronted with real life, he does not know how to turn off that rage, and thus he treats all of his friends and loved ones as he would an opponent in the boxing ring. Similarly, in The King of Comedy, the lonely man is Rupert Pupkin, a struggling comedian who, despite his best attempts to cope with life’s tragedies through humor, is unable to realize that the rest of the world isn’t laughing. Even Jesus Christ, in Scorsese’s controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ can be considered a “lonely man.” The burden of living a sinless life is one that no other person on earth shares or has ever shared. The expectations on him were tremendous, and no one was ever lonelier that Christ, during that moment on the cross where God his father forsook him. The difference here, of course, is that, while it may seem like society got the better of him (he was brutally crucified by the government), in reality Christ conquered the societal pressures around him by conquering death itself.
Another important theme that runs throughout Scorsese’s oeuvre is the concept that our occupation, or “calling,” will inevitably define who we are, for better or worse (often worse). In Taxi Driver, Travis’s friend, the Wizard, puts it like this. “A man takes a job, and that becomes what he is. You become the job.” In Travis’s case, the “job” of night taxi driver, which he takes because of his insomnia that he assumingly incurred from Vietnam, allows him to come into contact with the “animals” that “come out at night.” He sees the corruption and depravity of the world around him, and, as a result, feels that it his destiny to change the world around him for the “better.” Travis reflects upon this “destiny” when he says “My whole life has been pointed in one direction. There never has been any choice for me.” Unfortunately, his methods, while perhaps well-intentioned, are destructive and violent in the extreme, and the audience can’t help but wonder whether his destiny was something else (to die in Vietnam, perhaps)?
This (sometimes dichotomous) relationship between occupation and individuality is evident in many other Scorsese films. In Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta’s career as a boxer defines who he is; there is almost no separation between LaMotta in the ring and LaMotta in real life. His occupation has, in a sense, written his life’s story, and this leads to alienation and misery as his life crumbles around him. Once again, The Last Temptation of Christ provides another great (and more positive) example, as Christ, despite the temptation to remain fully human, to come down off of the cross and live a normal life, embraces his destiny to be the savior of mankind. Ultimately, it is not his temptation, but, rather his ability to live a sinless life in spite of that temptation, that defines him.
One of the more interesting techniques that Scorsese uses in many of his films is the subtle rejection of traditional gender roles. While men may have the physical power, women often hold the emotional and spiritual power, and it is this power that often leads the men to destruction, or at least the threat of it. In Taxi Driver, Travis first sees Betsy and immediately singles her out as a potential exception to the “scum” around him. “She appeared like an angel out of this filthy mass,” Travis narrates. “She is alone, they cannot touch her.” When she first appears, Betsy is wearing a white dress, and is shot with high light in comparison to the other people walking down the street. In this way, Betsy takes on a sort of angelic presence in Travis’ (and the audience’s) mind. When Betsy ultimately rejects him, Travis decides that, if love cannot help him escape the sickness of the world around him, perhaps violence can. Betsy has become the catalyst through which Travis heads on his path of “destiny.”
From the very beginning of his career, Scorsese has had an eye for women. He has seen them as strong, independent and powerful, as well as dangerous. In one of his first feature films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Scorsese explores the theme of female independence and empowerment through the character of Alice, who is determined to not let the memory of her deceased husband haunt her. She wants to live a full life without the shadow of a man hovering over her. In Raging Bull, women hold a tremendous power over Jake. To him, women are something to be conquered, and, once they are, he wants to move on to the next. But, Jake discovers that it isn’t as easy as he might have hoped, and his wife leaving him for good at the end of the film proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, tossing him into a bottomless pit of despair and loneliness that he cannot escape. In Goodfellas, Henry Hill’s wife, Karen, holds a tremendous power over him, convincing him to try and leave the mob life for good. She is often presented as a stronger character than Henry, helping him handle the mob business with a clear and rational head. In Shutter Island, the deceased wife of Teddy Daniels holds a much more sinister power over him, providing the impetus for his paranoid, schizophrenic delusions. Scorsese takes things a step farther in The Last Temptation of Christ, where Mary Magdalene inadvertently puts the redemption of all humanity at risk. She holds a kind of sinful power over Jesus, the kind that tempts him to run away with her and live an ordinary, fully human life.
Ellen Burstyn in a scene from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of Scorsese’s earliest flims, viewed by many as a feminist classic.
A SPIRITUAL FILMMAKER
In discussing Scorsese as an “auteur,” a critic would be remiss to reject his spiritual background and Roman Catholic roots. Scorsese himself once said “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.” Indeed, while his films are not overtly evangelistic (in fact, they often seem quite the opposite), it is impossible to provide a full analysis of Scorsese’s work apart from this Catholic lens. The way in which this background is expressed is through the culture that he and his characters inhabit—the culture of the streets. As Scorsese narrates at the beginning of Mean Streets, “You don’t make up for your sins in the church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.” Throughout his work, Scorsese presents a kind of religion of the streets— a spirituality that comes from the natural world of human relationship, rather than from a confession booth. He presents a world that is undeniably corrupted by sin, and a humanity that is fallen. When it comes to God, there are no easy answers for Scorsese, and grace is rarely a way out for his characters, particularly because most of them choose such destructive paths to begin with. In Taxi Driver, Travis hopes that “someday, a rain will come and wash these scum off of the streets.” He realizes that humanity needs a redemptive rain to come and wash away our sins, but he is not sure where this rain will come from. There is often a kind of terrible grace amidst the chaos of this world, a grace that, while we may not be able to always see it, is there nonetheless.
Another spiritual theme inherent in Scorsese’s films is the notion of Catholic guilt, a concept that he has struggled with throughout his life. Catholic guilt is the concept that many Catholics and lapsed Catholics feel an especially heavy guilt because they place so much emphasis on personal responsibility for their salvation. Thus, the threat of hell (or purgatory) becomes more and more real as Catholics shirk their responsibilities, such as partaking in the Eucharist and making frequent trips to the confessional booth. This guilt and fear of hell is expressed by Charlie in Mean Streets. “It’s all bullshit except the pain. The pain of hell. The burn from a lighted match increased a million times. Infinite. Now, ya don’t fuck around with the infinite. There’s no way you do that. The pain in hell has two sides. The kind you can touch with your hands and the kind you can feel in your heart, your soul, the spiritual side. And ya know, the worst of the two is the spiritual.” Many Catholics fear the pain of eternal separation from God, but are unable to reconcile this fear with the way they live their lives. Perhaps Richard Blake put it best when speaking of characters in the work of Catholic filmmakers such as Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. “Their struggles are rarely couched in spiritual terms, but they are inevitably religious quests within milestones along the way marked by Catholic images. The Catholic imagination is more than Catholic, more than sacramental—it is profligate. It sees the workings of grace everywhere.” Perhaps this grace can somehow be found even amidst the moral depravity of the world that Scorsese’s gangsters, drug dealers and lunatics inhabit.
When examining film from a cultural perspective, it is important to ask how the viewer’s social situation influences the way they experience a movie, and vice versa. Throughout his career, Scorsese has had to wrestle with this question more than most filmmakers. Taxi Driver, in particular, had a much larger impact on the audience and society than the filmmakers had perhaps intended.
THE TIME AND PLACE OF TAXI DRIVER
Taxi Driver is a film that is best admired and appreciated through the social context in which it was originally created. Under that lens, the primary issue the film raises from a cultural perspective is the after-effects of the Vietnam War on veterans as well as society in general. After the war, which brought terrifyingly brutal technology and plenty of painful new ways to die to the art of killing, many of the veterans arrived home completely shell-shocked. Many of those who didn’t came home and ended up like Travis, feeling along, afraid, and lost in the a world that had seemed to pass them by. The first film that dealt with this theme more directly was Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, but that film was not released until 1978, while Taxi Driver was released in 1976. The war had officially ended in 1973, and the question that a film like Taxi Driver would have raised would have been “Is it too soon to talk about this?” Scorsese’s answer was a resounding no. Perhaps 1976 would have been too soon to release a war film as raw and violent as The Deer Hunter or Platoon, but the strength of Taxi Driver is that it was able to directly address the issues and fears relating to the aftermath of Vietnam without ever showing the war or even mentioning it directly. And yet, the effects of war are everywhere; not only in the minds of Travis and his fellow veterans, but in the streets of New York City, where horror and disgust over the war has brought about a new generation full of cynicism and amorality. As a nation, we may have felt unprepared to deal with these issues, but that doesn’t mean that they should have been swept under the rug. What great filmmakers like Scorsese have done throughout history is turn the mirror on society, forcing us to come to important revelations about ourselves even in the midst of pain and fear.
Robert DeNiro in a scene from The Deer Hunter, the first film to directly tackle the legacy of the Vietnam war.
Another important cultural issue facing Taxi Driver upon its first release was the nature of the violence in the film itself. Indeed, the graphic shootout (even by today’s standards) at the end of the film threatened to give the film the dreaded “X” rating (now NC-17), which would have completely killed its chances at making any money. It was not until Scorsese and the film’s cinematographer Michael Chapman decided to de-saturate the color to make the blood appear less red that the film was allowed to be released with an “R” rating. Certainly, many who watched the film when it was first released (and even today) would have been horrified by this scene, and would have questioned the necessity of such graphic violence in the film. This troubling violence is further exemplified in the scene where Travis attempts to assassinate the political candidate Charles Palantine. While he fails in his attempt, viewers might question the ethics involved in the scenes leading up to the attempt, which seem almost glamorous in their depiction of Travis as he buys guns and knives, lifts weights, and concocts quick-draw contraptions for his small army of weaponry. With Taxi Driver, Scorsese once again brought up the age-old question, “what are the effects of art on society?” While the filmmakers certainly may have had artistic reasons for including graphically violent content in the film, it nonetheless serves as an important to consider one’s audience and the potential effect on that audience before partaking in any artistic endeavor.
The filmmakers of Taxi Driver learned this lesson the hard way when John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981 in Washington, D.C. The attempt came about as a result of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster, who played Iris, the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver. He watched the film fifteen times in a continuous loop, and began to stalk Foster and purchase weapons. In the film, Travis brutally kills the pimps and mob bosses that have been taking advantage of Iris in an attempt to “save” Iris and provide her with a normal life. Hinckley hoped that assassinating the President would place him in the history books, and would impress Foster. The assassination attempt was not successful, but Hinckley seriously injured Reagan and several other staff members who were next to the President at the time. Certainly, Hinckley’s obsession with Foster came about as a result of viewing Taxi Driver multiple times, and thus, the relationship between art and life became all too real. At the trial, Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity, a verdict that outraged many. As a result, Congress and a number of states rewrote laws regarding the insanity defense, and some states abolished the defense altogether. In this way, Taxi Driver had a direct impact on the legal process. While this might be considered a positive effect of the film, it is all too easy to forget that, if Hinckley had been a better shot, the price paid for this effect could have been much higher.
ANALYZING THE THEOLOGY OF TAXI DRIVER
Taxi Driver is a thematically and spiritually complex film that defies simple categorization. This makes it a rather difficult to provide a theological analysis for. The theological analysis, as provided by Robert K. Johnston in Reel Spirituality, consists of two axes: the experiential axis and the critical axis. The experiential axis involves the concept of “transcendence,” a discovery in film of something beyond ourselves, something that demands our total involvement and has practical consequences for our lives. While consuming popcorn and watching an explosion-filled summer blockbuster, it can sometimes be hard to think of film as transcendent. Nonetheless, film is a medium that has changed peoples’ lives, and viewing film through the lens of transcendence is necessary to appreciating film as not just entertainment, but an art form. The concept of transcendence is divided into two definitions: “transcendence (the human)” and “Transcendence (the Holy).” Taxi Driver, with its graphic and disturbing content, might not seem like an ideal candidate for this kind of analysis, but, as Johnston writes, “any filmic story that portrays human experience truthfully has this spiritual capacity.” Taxi Driver is no exception.
Johnston writes that movies are first experienced and then reflected upon. Taxi Driver is a film that demands, first and foremost, to be experienced. Everything from the jazzy Bernard Hermann score, to the lush cinematography, to the tight script and Robert DeNiro’s indelible performance is designed a primarily emotional response from the viewer. Upon first viewing, the film does not relinquish any particularly divine revelatory moments. But, upon repeated viewings, the film has revealed to me a distinct concept of transcendence at a human level. I realize that, like Travis, I often feel like “God’s lonely man,” particularly as a Christian. I feel like I do not belong in this fallen world that is filled with so many different kinds of evil and corruption. I too, desire a way to “wash the scum off of the streets.” On a deeper level, the film has shown me that even my actions that I consider to be based upon noble or holy intentions can sometimes be harmful or destructive to others. Travis’ goals of cleaning up the streets and saving Iris from child prostitution were based upon noble intentions. But, while he did “save” Iris in the end, he only did so by killing people. And, while the film ends with Travis being praised as a hero, all he has really done is become that which he tried to fight. Despite the fact that I may disapprove of Travis’ actions, they serve as an important reminder that ideology is not always equivalent to action.
A poster that expertly depicts the self-imposed isolation of Travis Bickle. Currently on my bedroom wall, it’s my favorite poster I own.
Transcendence (or “the Holy”) supports the idea that movies are a window through which God speaks. The trick about this holy transcendence is that God chooses a variety of means through which to speak to a variety of people. As Johnston puts it, “the experience can not be programmed.” We are not aware of when and where God will choose to speak to us, or what he will say. Throughout history, God has used artistic media, created by sinful humans, as a vessel through which we can experience divine revelation. Transcendence operates on the idea that grace is everywhere. As Johnston puts it, “God discloses himself through experiences, objects and people in our life.” Admittedly, I did not feel this type of transcendence upon first viewing Taxi Driver. And, even after watching it multiple times, I still did not experience a so-called “God moment,” nor did I expect to. I thought I had experienced everything that the film had to offer. However, a recent viewing of the film spoke to me in new ways, ways that only made sense in the context of holy Transcendence. In Travis, I began to see more than just a crusading, perhaps insane war veteran. I began to see his general disdain for humanity in the context of my own life, where I often self-righteously look down upon others for being sinful without acknowledging my own need for forgiveness. There is a scene where Travis, driving by a broken fire hydrant that is spewing water all over the road, rolls up his window to avoid the water. Like Travis, I often roll up my window, thinking that I am in the right and that it is only everyone except me who needs this redemptive rain. Through Travis, God has shown me my own hypocrisy and my need to prostrate myself at his feet, realizing all the while that I am a sinner who is just as much in need of a savior as everyone else on this planet. I wasn’t looking to find this “God moment,” least of all in a film like Taxi Driver, but it came to me nonetheless.
The horizontal axis of Johnston’s theological analysis is the “critical axis.” This axis relies upon a theological reflection of a film, rather than the experience of the film itself. According to Johnston, a critical response should first be measured by the film itself. After the initial experience, the film can then be reflected upon in a meaningful way. This reflection is of two general types: “staying within the movie itself” and “learning from a theological partner.” Staying within a movie itself seeks to find a standard for theological judgment within the movie itself, and does not appeal to outside ground for critique. Scorsese is the kind of director who wants his films to speak for themselves, so staying within the movie itself is a good critical route to take when analyzing Taxi Driver.
Staying within the film allows a critic to analyze the themes as they appear in the context of the film alone. Some of the themes that I analyzed in my “auteur” critique would work well in the context of staying within the film. Revisiting the “God’s lonely man” theme, a critic can see how this theme is conveyed throughout the film. Scorsese uses the camera to great effect to convey this theme. In a scene where Travis is facing his final rejection from Betsy over the phone, the camera slowly trucks to the right and focuses on a long, empty hallway. The camera stays on this hallway for an excruciatingly long time as we hear Travis being rejected. Through the movement of the camera, Scorsese conveys Travis’ odd-man-out status, and his emptiness and loneliness over his rejection. As an audience, we often feel like Travis, empty and hollow, trudging through a world that seems to refuse to reveal our purpose for existing. Another example of Scorsese using the camerawork to reveal the spiritual implications of Travis’ psychological state occurs in a famous shot towards the end of the film. Travis has just killed several pimps, but he himself has been shot and gravely injured. As the police walk in to examine the scene, Travis is sitting on a couch. He puts his finger to his head as if it were a gun, suggesting that the police put him out of his misery. The camera slowly begins to dolly backward and zoom out, moving out of the room and surveying the carnage and destruction that Travis has caused. The camera continues to move out of the building to reveal a large crowd gathering to see what the commotion is. The camera continues to rise and zoom out, until it is high in the sky. Like Travis, the camera is becoming increasingly detached from the world as it moves closer to the afterlife. Travis looks like he is going to die the way he lived; detached from the world, without a reason for existing. Of course, he doesn’t end up dying, and is even hailed as a hero. The audience wonders, however, whether Travis’ heroic status will only isolate him further from society, especially given that he now has to live with his “noble” actions—actions which amounted to little more than mass murder. These reflections, even though they are based upon style, do not reveal themselves upon first viewing, but instead must be analyzed after the initial viewing experience, in conjunction with thematic and theological reflections.
Like all great art, Taxi Driver does not provide its audience with any easy answers. Through film, Scorsese attempts to convey the fact that the world is a messy, sinful place, and it is often difficult to find God in the midst of our own depravity. A critic can examine how he conveys this messiness through his use of theme. In particular, through a discussion of “God’s lonely man,” the nature of our destiny, and the influence of society on our individuality, he conveys that our desire to do good is often oppressed by the evil in the world around us, that we are often on our own in a world of darkness and that the fires of hell are awaiting those who cannot find the light. This messiness can also be seen by examining the real-life social and cultural implications of the film. In particular, the film’s influence on John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Reagan proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that not only is the world a messy place, but art, for better or worse, can sometimes influence the larger culture around us. In the midst of all of this, however, God can still use the power of art, created by sinful people, to influence peoples’ lives for the better. On a human level, Taxi Driver provides a kind of transcendence that allows us to re-examine not only our motivations for our actions, but also our actions themselves, and how they can influence others for either good or ill. On a holy level, I have personally experienced the power of Transcendence through Taxi Driver. The film has allowed me to re-examine my Christian mindset and realize that my faith walk is often filled with judgment and hypocrisy. From a critical theological perspective, Taxi Driver is perhaps best examined by “staying within the film.” Scorsese uses the visual design of the film to convey Travis’ status as “God’s lonely man,” as well as to convey that perhaps there is someone out there who is keeping a close eye on all that we do. In the end, sin has caused a big mess, and it’s going to take a big God to clean it up. In the meantime, we need to be patient and hope that, someday, God will deliver the world from injustice and save us all from ourselves. It only took a depraved, vigilante New York City taxi driver to help remind me of this.
In case you were wondering, yes, Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score is the best ever. Here’s the evidence:
The Birth of a Nation is not a subtle film. That should be obvious from its title, which is cribbed directly from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 classic (and incredibly racist) epic, which helped revitalize the Klu Klux Klan by painting them as the heroes, saving vulnerable women from the nefarious and lecherous blacks. More than 100 years later, and a decade in the making, Nate Parker’s breakout hit is about as much a rebuke of that narrative as a film can be.
Parker himself plays Nat Turner, the real-life slave and preacher in Southampton County Virginia who, fed up with white cruelty and oppression, led a small but violent rebellion against white slaveholders in 1831. His posse killed more than 60 people, and in retaliation slaveholders killed hundreds of slaves and hanged Turner in a very public execution in the hopes of preventing further insurrection.
Nation will probably draw lots of comparisons to the recent Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, but the films are actually quite different. Steve McQueen told his slave story through a detached, historical, almost cold lens, but Parker’s vision is filled with barely suppressed seething rage, rage which boils over by film’s end. It’s a slow, vicious, unnerving burn, closer at times in tone to Tarantino’s Django Unchained than McQueen’s somber, stoic masterwork.
The other major distinction here is that Parker is not the polished storyteller that McQueen or John Ridley (screenwriter on 12 Years) are. This is Parker’s directorial and writing debut, and in many ways it shows. The first half or so of the film contains awkward pacing and distracting visual flourishes. This segment features flashbacks to Parker’s childhood before running ahead to his adult life. He lives at a plantation under the gentle ownership of Samuel Turner (an almost unrecognizable Armie Hammer, who does great work here). Turner lives with his mother and grandmother, and seems to be eking out a respectable existence as a slave (as much as can be expected, anyways). But he soon sees that not all slave owners are as magnanimous when he sees the damaged Cherry (Aja Naomi King) being put up for auction to a crowd of lecherous whites. He convinces Samuel to buy her as a present to his newly married sister, and soon a romance blossoms and Cherry and Nat are married.
The Birth of a Nation is an important film that asks its audience to stare blankly at the horrors of slavery while wrestling with some uncomfortable questions.
But it’s not long before Turner, a man of deep abiding Christian faith, begins to make waves as a biblically literate and passionate preacher. He is soon asked to travel with Samuel to preach at plantations across the county. He soon realizes, however, that it’s not God’s love the slave owners want preached, but obedience to their masters. Their slaves are lazy and weak, they say, and they need some “divine encouragement” to keep them in line. Turner dutifully follows the rules, but, as he begins to witness the horrors at these neighboring plantations, his preaching begins to change. He reads his Bible and sees that, for every verse used to condone slavery, there’s at least another crying for freedom for all men. So he begins to preach grace and freedom in Christ, and this is something many folks, least of all Samuel, don’t like one bit.
The film is an undeniably Christian work, the most explicit mainstream film about faith since, probably, The Passion of the Christ. The script is absolutely saturated in scripture as Turner preaches and explores the line between God’s mercy and his judgment. This lends the film a great deal of emotional sincerity, and reveals a hard and fast condemnation of any man who would use God’s word to oppress and demean. Parker’s passion shines through here, and there is a ton of great conversation material here for both believer and non-believer alike.
Of course, all this material is building to something, and the set piece moment is the revolt itself. This is a tough film to chew on, filled with brutality and murky moral messages, and that uncomfortable conflict is driven home in the bloody finale. By most standards, it’s hard to say that Turner did the right thing. He killed people. Did God really condone his violence, as he was so convinced? I don’t have an answer to that question, and admitting that is somewhat terrifying. I’d like to retort that the Lord says vengeance is his and his alone. But, then again, I’ve never been a slave. How long can one hold onto that promise, knowing that he’ll likely never be free and never see the men who treated him so cruelly punished? Never has a film confronted me with such uncomfortable, but essential, questions.
That, I believe, is the theme of the film as a whole. Uncomfortable, but essential. Despite its pacing problems and occasional bombast, this is a ferocious, overwhelming and unsettling experience. Its dizzying cinematography creates an unpredictable rhythm, and Henry Jackman’s extraordinary score wisely contrasts somber spirituals with relentless African drumbeats. Turner’s intent is to take the horrid violence of slavery and shove our faces in it, forcing us to look upon it in all its horror.
Is The Birth of a Nation ultimately a stirring work of art or an awful, insensitive racial tirade? Is its ultimate message inspirational or intensely problematic? Can a film perhaps occupy so many polarities at once and still come out as a successful product? I can’t answer these questions, but I strongly encourage you to check out this remarkable film and decide for yourself.
Making a film about the worst oil spill in U.S. history is not exactly an enviable task, particularly when such an event killed 11 people and captured the national media attention for months. Thankfully, the film in question is helmed by Peter Berg, who has already proved himself adept at faithfully capturing harrowing true-life stories on screen (see Lone Survivor and the upcoming Patriots Day). Bolstered by an incredible cast and sensitive handling of the material, Deepwater Horizon proves a more-than-engaging watch.
The film spends its first chunk analyzing the conditions that led to the disaster, as Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and other crewmembers head out for a 21-day stint on the eponymous offshore drilling rig. But soon after landing on the rig, crew leader Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) begins to question the authority of the British Petroleum big-wigs on board (headed by John Malkovich’s Vidrine). Why did the inspectors leave so soon? Did they have enough time to properly inspect the cement foundation? A pressure test produces mixed results, but it’s generally agreed upon that Jimmy’s fears are unfounded. Of course, we know that isn’t the case, and such a mistake would soon make history.
It is a credit to Matthew Michael Carnahan’s and Matthew Sand’s script that this portion of the film immerses the audience heavily in technical dialogue and terminology without losing us. Every step of the process is gripping, but we hang on every detail because we want to know exactly how this disaster came about. Of course, the film recognizes that the blame rests on the shoulders of BP, which skipped important safety checks due to playing catch-up on a rig that was already many days past schedule and millions of dollars over-budget. But it wisely shies away from politics; the BP execs are not painted as villains, and really, their decisions were the kind of banal, bottom-line, profit-first decisions companies make every day. But they happened to make these decisions on an oil rig, and the consequences have reverberated in history.
Deepwater Horizon is a harrowing portrayal of a true-life story anchored by understated performances.
When the rig does blow, it does so spectacularly. Seeing a massive metal and concrete monstrosity become a warzone is a relentlessly intense experience. Men are caked in mud and oil, debris flies through the air like bullets, and even the water is on fire. Enrique Chediak’s steady cinematography allows us to see the action and chaos clearly; this is thankfully no queasy-came shake-fest. The crew’s scramble to reach the lifeboats and escape the hellfire in one piece is undeniably tense.
But what really grounds this film are the performances. Wahlberg does an always-admirable job, but it’s the supporting cast that provides the film’s heartbeat. Malkovich, Russell and Kate Hudson (as Mike’s concerned wife), in particular, practically disappear into their roles. They’ve never looked less like movies stars, and that’s a high compliment, especially when playing real-life characters that may not be particularly well-known.
Deepwater Horizon is ultimately a pretty straightforward survival story, although it is made with superb craftsmanship. It ends with some real-life footage of Mike Williams and others preparing to testify on their experiences. I’ve no doubt that, in the right hands, a film dealing with the rest of the story involving the fallout of the spill and the 87-day journey to contain it would be just as harrowing. If Deepwater Horizon occasionally feels like it’s only telling part of the story, it’s suitably gripping from beginning to end. Besides, that’s what’s sequels are for, and we all know how much Hollywood digs those.
On the surface, Hillsong: Let Hope Rise appears to be your average behind-the-scenes music/concert documentary. And, in many ways, it is. We get the story behind the Australian worship band’s unexpected rise to global fame, the members’ relationships to one another and their families and intimate peeks into recording sessions and live shows. We see the struggles of touring, the cost of artistic genius and the stresses of living life in the limelight.
But this documentary is much more than your average concert doc. It’s billed as something beyond that: a “theatrical worship experience.” The goal of the film is not just to inform and entertain, but to draw people into worship and intimacy with the God of the universe, without having to leave their theater seats. An ambitious goal, to be sure, not to mention a novel one. It’s a testament to the power and intimacy of Let Hope Rise, then, that it accomplishes everything it sets out to do, and more.
Impeccably directed by Michael John Warren (who made the Jay-Z documentary Fade to Black), the selling point of the film is the extended musical sequences, many of them shot at a concert at the Los Angeles Forum (though a concert in Manila gets some focus as well). Here we see the aching intimacy and raw power of the performers in their natural setting. But these folks aren’t in it for the applause or the fame: as all the band members make clear, they exist to make the name of Jesus famous. This is the glue that holds the group together, and we witness that throughout the film. In all their interactions with each other, with their families and with their fans, the members of Hillsong United are a mighty testament to how God’s love looks like lived out in the day-to-day. Not that they’re perfect: they doubt, they disagree, they regret things they’ve said and things they’ve left unsaid. But it’s truly inspiring to see the band, which started as a worship band at Hillsong church in Sydney, selling out arenas around the world and yet remaining so incredibly, almost supernaturally humble.
Better than most music documentaries (and certainly most Christian films), Let Hope Rise conveys the beautiful idea of calling, that we all have something in this life that God is calling us to do. Joel Houston never planned on touring with a hit band around the world; it kind of just happened. He simply saw a need and walked into it with humility. Many band members say they can’t exactly explain this idea of calling, because, in some ways, following God’s will for our lives goes beyond rationalization. When you’re answering God’s call and living out his will for your life, you just know.
Exploring this intimacy with the band members off the stage only adds to the power of their worship experiences on the stage. We’ve seen the struggles they’ve had in coming up with the perfect lyrics (which are designed to be sung, not just listened to, Houston says) and the perfect melodies to allow people to draw near to God at one of their shows. We know how achingly hard they’ve worked to bring this kind of intimate experience about.
Let Hope Rise is billed as a “theatrical worship experience,” and is entirely successful in its ambitious goals.
Now, filming a concert doesn’t mean that an audience watching it on a screen is going to feel the impact of the show in the way that those attending it live might. But, in this case, I think every emotion resonates. This “theatrical worship experience” is something truly special; I felt an immediate connection to these songs I’ve sung in church and heard on the top of the charts for years. I felt the palpable presence of God in that dark theater, and that’s something very rare, particularly in the world of Christian films, which often settle for trite religious platitudes and sentimental spiritual pandering—rarely uplifting, and hardly ever inspiring. There’s not a hint of falsehood with Hillsong: when it comes to Christianity, these folks are the real deal, and a great example of what living a life sold out for Jesus can really look like. This authenticity, rather than the quality of the musicianship or the production values (though those are both stellar) is what makes the concert sequences so exhilarating (Taya Smith’s performance of “Oceans” is, naturally, a highlight, though seeing people around the world sing “Mighty to Save” in different languages was my favorite moment in the film). As one band members says, “Without Jesus, the band would be nowhere, because I honestly don’t think we’re that good.” This kind of authentic worship may have the power to sway those who have grown deeply cynical toward the church or worship music in general (Seth Hurd wrote for Relevant on how the film affected his attitude toward worship).
I chuckle, then groan (or maybe it’s both at once, a chuckle-groan, if you will) when I hear critics of bands like Hillsong United dismissing them because of the fact that (gasp!) they’re successful and make money and sell lots of records. It’s as if they’re expected to donate every cent of their success to charity and live in complete poverty (ironically, there’s no pressure for successful secular artists to do this, for reasons that probably warrant a separate blog post). But there should, I believe, be a healthy skepticism of fame and fortune when it comes under the banner of Christianity. Thankfully, the members of Hillsong avoid that trap by focusing entirely on their message and giving the praise and the glory back to Jesus: the band members discuss the tension of calling attention to themselves so they can direct it back to God, and I think that can be a potentially healthy (or potentially dangerous) space in which to wrestle. But Hillsong emerges from that battle triumphant. In all the ways that matter, they’re still that tiny little worship band from a tiny little church in Sydney. There may be more people listening and watching than ever before, but the invitation remains the same. “Come to the foot of the cross and worship with us, and you will leave changed.”
I, for one, didn’t want Let Hope Rise to end. As it turns out, the presence of God is a pretty awe-inspiring place to be.