Courageous Review: Cinema As Proselytism
While standing at a urinal after the movie, I found myself in the middle of a conversation
between two very small Vietnamese men who were on either side of me.
"That made me cry," one said.
"Me, too," the other responded, "it was a good one."
"The message now lives in my heart," the first one responded with closed eyes.
And just over our shoulders another man, also Vietnamese, pushed open the door to the stall he had been relieving himself in, and with his fist pumping in the air, began to chant the movie's catchphrase, "I will, I will, I will!" The two men pissing beside me each took up the refrain, as did an elderly man with a little knapsack on his back who had been washing his hands at the sinks. It was a creepy, cultish moment and I felt as if I had just slipped through the rabbit hole and hurried out of there without bothering to wash my hands.
The movie that inspired this weirdness was Courageous, a film that was conceived "after much prayer, creative brainstorming, more prayer, wise counsel, and still more prayer." It's the fourth film made by Sherwood Pictures, the movie-making wing of the Sherwood Baptist Megachurch in Albany, Georgia. About half of the cast and crew of Courageous were volunteers culled from the congregation, and although it cost only two million dollars to make, it grossed over nine million in it's first weekend of release, as well as inspiring a bunch of men to start chanting, "I will," in a Cineplex bathroom.
I live amidst a relatively secular culture, and to see such religious effusions sparking from a movie in downtown Toronto was more than a little disorienting.
Regardless, the first thing you should know about the movie is that although it's exceedingly conventional, it isn't an atrocity. We've seen plenty of Hollywood offerings that are just as corny, simple-minded and dubiously acted. The production values of this movie are decent and the directorial hand competent. Courageous is the sort of thing that I could imagine myself watching on TV if I was home sick with a fever. Feeling vulnerable, alone and too weak to change the channel, I'd be content to be swept along in it's wholesome and surreal river.
Watching, I thought of the perverse normalcy of "Twin Peaks," and found myself expecting to see some darkness arise from the tranquil surfaces of the American Idyll. Slightly alien in tone, it was as if the movie had been made in a foreign country by people trying to decipher the American Dream that beat within the Christian heart by listening to
old, time radio serials and watching a handful of sitcoms and cop dramas.
At any rate, there's nothing subtle about the movie, and you understand everything you need to know about each character and the narrative arc they're to fulfill at a glance. It will challenge your critical faculties about as much as a child's puppet show, and depending on your point of view, that's either a good thing or a bad thing. The plot, although overly dense, is largely incidental, focusing on the twists and turns in the lives of four male cops and their card-carrying Hispanic sidekick. Set in Albany, Georgia, a whole bunch of stuff happens to these guys as they navigate the tempesting waters of life, including a few car chases, a gun fight and a personal tragedy, all serving to lead them in a straight line, as if by providence, to sign a resolution to become better fathers and leaders of their families. In short, the mission statement of the film is that although it takes a lot of courage to be a police officer, it takes more courage to raise your children in a God-honoring way.
Well, alright then.
You will see women in this movie, but you won't really notice them. They play a subordinate and supportive role to their men, existing primarily as creatures to be lovingly guided through the world by firm, masculine conviction. It's not overtly offensive, but it's there, and like the conspicuously inclusive yet still condescending racial portraits that are sewn into the story, it gives the movie the fantasy glow of a true believers utopia.
Alex Kendrick co-wrote (with his brother, Stephen), directed and starred in the movie. He's a charisma-free zone, this man, and he projects the everyman affability of that neighbour down the street whose name you can never remember. There's something doughy in his appearance and in the stubborn, wooly, I-Know-It-In-My-Heart convictions he espouses without exhibiting an overabundance of curiosity or empathy toward the complex world around him.
Suburban rather than urban, Courageous take place where familiar scenes unfold before us like Christmas cards or country music videos. Space and decent prosperity abound and unobtrusive flags wave optimistically from tidy porches. Life is good, but for the muscular black drug dealers who show up every once in awhile to provide things for the police to do.
It's probably not fair to judge the movie as a work of art, for it's clearly designed to serve a didactic purpose, soliciting agreement from it's audience rather than discussion. The film itself, apart from it's existence and the way that it was made, isn't particularly interesting--it's a bible study lesson made manifest in cinema, instruction disguised as entertainment. What is interesting, though, is the ready-made audience that awaited this film.
On the weekend of its release (September 30th) this Indie movie beat out the three
Hollywood films, including 50/50 and Dream House, that also opened that weekend. It's very much worth noting that the budgets for those films far exceeded that of Courageous. Further, Courageous also had the best theatre average of any wide release. As an economic system, Sherwood Pictures has created a model that defeats the more scattershot approach of Hollywood, exploiting a predictable, niche audience that's often overlooked by the entertainment industry. Sherwood's movies are propelled by volunteers and can avoid union dues, actor wages and other expenses that burden mainstream productions. There's something simultaneously inspiring and disquieting in this, I think. The movie-- a nation unto itself and true to her constituents-- extends the hand of the church further out into the world, serving as a contemporary, sophisticated means of proselytism.
The mainstream critical reception of this film amounts to little more than a scattering of disinterested mumbling. It's a Movie-Of-The-Week built for the big screen and nobody seeking art is going to find a home in Courageous. But if you look at how the movie was rated by the people who saw the film, you'll see an overwhelming, even irrational, enthusiasm.
They loved it.
They wanted and expected to love it, knowing that it was a good, Christian movie with a good, Christian message. No chance of nudity, no swearing and just enough gun play ( in the service of justice) to make it feel "gritty" and like they'd actually stepped outside of the lives they inhabited. There's a kind of genius behind this movie, but make no mistake, it's not an artistic, questing genius, but a protective, self-interested one that seeks to reassure the flock it already leads.