Deliver Us from Evil

Scott Derrickson is a thoughtful Christian filmmaker. This fascinating and frank interview (abbreviated in print – the video version is very much worth the time) challenges us to consider how Christians can make art that is both true and good. And though Derrickson has ventured into sci-fi and will tackle the (Marvel) comic book world with the soon to be released Doctor Strange, his preferred canvas is horror. Hence, this is one Christian director whose movies are not being screened for churches.

Deliver us from evilMy wife and I just watched Derrickson’s 2014 release Deliver Us from Evil. It is a police drama with, shall we say, a twist. Or two. Sargent Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) is a lapsed Catholic serving the Bronx. A string of inexplicably odd cases lead him into a relationship with a tough and hard drinking Jesuit priest, Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez), who insists sainthood is not about being a moral exemplar but being a life giver. And that is what he proceeds to do. Without apology the priest speaks an honest faith into the life of the struggling cop, and it shakes him deeply.

We have been lead to believe that good theology and good apologetics are not to be found in a major Hollywood release. That is far less true than we might imagine. They are certainly found here. At one point, Sargent Sarchie is explaining why he has no room for God in his life. He says,

You see, Father, as we speak, every day, out there, someone’s getting hurt, ripped off, murdered, raped. Where’s God when all that’s happening? Hmm?

Father Mendoza is nonplussed by this. He responds:

In the hearts of people like you, who put a stop to it. I mean, we can talk all night about the problem of evil, but what about the problem of good? I mean, if there’s no God, if the world is just “survival of the fittest,” then why are all the men in this room willing to lay down their lives for total strangers? Hmm?

As an apologetic approach that isn’t ground breaking, but Mendoza speaks as one who believes, but does so without being pushy or in any way condemning. A saint is a life giver.

The story is well told and engaging. The dialog is smart and the images well drawn. There is a good pace that keeps the viewer engaged. And so the film’s 28% Rotten Tomatoes rating is a surprise, but not inexplicable. Some reviewers fault him for his dependence on horror conventions. I can’t evaluate that. But I suspect that the fault most find and don’t speak is that Derrickson takes the reality of evil seriously. The demonic for him is not merely a convention of the genre; it is the reason the genre exists. Horror is the place to confront and expose and consider a reality that we in our churches prefer to dismiss and ignore and disbelieve. That he takes it seriously is something that some critics can’t comprehend.

I find his serious take a challenge. Unlike Sargent Sarchie, I don’t spend my days staring into the worst of human behavior, or what Father Mendoza calls ‘secondary’ evil. I need to be reminded of the reality of what he calls ‘primary’ evil. Therein lies the real enemy. Our senses only take in part of what is real. Our battle in this world is not against flesh and blood, and it is good to be reminded of that.

The NY Times movie reviews are always worth reading if only for their ratings info at the end. For this movie, we read

Deliver Us from Evilis rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) because it has gore and cursing and is disturbing as, you might say, hell.

Disturbing as hell, for sure. But encouraging, too, because, in the end, hell does not win.

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Eddie’s Dad

Recently we watched a movie called Eddie the Eagle, a 2016 biopic about an unlikely Olympian ski-jumper, Michael “Eddie” Edwards. It was an okay movie, part Cool Runnings and part Rudy, both of which were better. This was okay for a Saturday night movie night. (If it matters to you, spoilers follow – but honestly, if you’ve seen either of the above movies, the ending has already been given away.)

Eddie the eagleEddie, as in all underdog sports movies, has a dream that seems unlikely, impossible, and foolish. And, again, as in all underdog sports movies, Eddie has a father (or a mother, if the protagonist is female, my daughter-in-law points out) who does not believe in him and reiterates throughout the film how disappointed he is in his son’s outlandish and impractical ambitions. Predictably, Eddie succeeds, opening the way to the dramatic and ostensibly emotional finish where Eddie’s dad meets Eddie at the airport after his triumph with “I’m Eddie’s Dad” embroidered on his sweater and “I’m proud of you, son” on his lips. And everyone goes, “Ahhhh.” Including me.

Until I thought about it.

Throughout the film this dad has ridiculed and derided his son incessantly. BUT, because the son is successful, he has now earned his father’s love and support. Really? This father who has never hugged his son now hugs him because he is a success. The father’s affection is linked to the son’s performance and, as my son would say, “That’s messed up.” What would have happened had Eddie returned a failure? What if Eddie’s dreams had crashed and burned? What then, when he would have needed love and acceptance and a hug even more? I hate to think.

I’m so grateful that a father’s genuine love is not dependent upon a son’s success. I’m so thankful for the love of a heavenly Father whose embrace is ready even when I severely fail. I’m comforted knowing that even if the dreams of this old and crusty sixty-year-old never materialize or if they end in smoke and flames, I have a Father who will still see me as his beloved son. And I don’t need to ski-jump to earn it.

Stranger Things

I like The Walking Dead (insofar as I can watch it for free and on my own time on Netflix and not have to pay for cable). Like any story, in this an imaginative world is created in which certain rules apply. In The Walking Dead those rules involve creatures that are dead, but not dead. They will eat you, but are slow. They are stupid, but deadly. There are ways that someone can become one of these creatures and the rules for infection are clear and consistent. At the same time, aspects of the natural order are in place with which we can identify. Gravity pulls things down. Gasoline explodes. People bleed.

Within that world, are placed genuine human beings. The value and fascination of fantasy or science fiction is the ability to place real people in contrived situations to see what that might reveal about human strength and character, weakness and brokenness. Within those worlds, we expect and accept oddities of nature. But we expect the humans to be real. It was therefore with some dismay in The Walking Dead that I watched Rick and his crew walking so hopefully and trustingly into The Sanctuary having had such a wretched time in Woodbury. It was too much for me to imagine that real people would be so gullible a second time. I can take zombies, but I expect gravity to always pull downward and for the people to be believable.

Stranger ThingsRecently many of my most trusted friends have been raving about Stranger Things, a Netflix Original production set in a fictional small town in 1983. It has inklings of Stephen King and ET and Goonies all working around the search for a boy who has disappeared. I have seen 6 of the 8 episodes, and risking minor plot spoilers, I must confess that my disappointment in the show has to do with what feels like unreal human decision making and actions. In saying this, I mean no disrespect to my dear friends, and perhaps I’m missing something important. Perhaps we simply have different tolerances for the suspension of disbelief. This one crosses mine.

I can accept monsters from other dimensions. I can accept the idea of telekinesis and telepathy. I can even accept, if pushed, that a 12 year old boy is able to keep a homeless girl hidden in the basement of his house for a week without his family having any clue of her presence.

It is harder to accept that chief of police Jim Hopper would actually CHOOSE to break into the national laboratory, AND that he would be successful, AND that he would get out alive. Even harder is to believe that Nancy, a teenaged girl, in the dark and misty woods where a dying deer has just mysteriously disappeared into a creepy, gooey hole in a tree, would without her friend Jonathan by her side, crawl into the creepy, gooey hole in the tree in the dark and misty woods. Sorry. A real person would not do that.

I will finish the show. I love mystery and I love the people who have loved this show. I want to find out how it ends (hoping that in fact it DOES end after the eighth episode). But I’m saddened when creative people are careless with the rules which make their characters real.

People (Not) Like Us

There is great joy in being a follower of Christ. And yet, the more I study the Gospel of Luke the more I am reminded that to be serious in such discipleship will occasion moments of great tension. The Kingdom Jesus brings is different in many key ways from the worlds in which we have been immersed. It should not surprise us, therefore, that his words can bring DIScomfort as easily as comfort.

In Luke 14, for example, Jesus attempts to remove the blinders from a man who had hosted a dinner party.

“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Luke 14:12-14)

My wife and I like to think of ourselves as hospitable. But, if I’m honest, I must say that it is HARDER for me to be hospitable to those unlike me. And what is hard, I often avoid. I live with that tension.

I was reminded of the call toward those not like us in the comments from a friend who was reflecting on the movie Spotlight which I’ve referenced here, here, and here. She challenges us to the uncomfortable task of loving, listening to, and trying to understand those different from us, particularly those damaged by abuse and other forms of injustice. Her comments (shared in part here, and with permission) encourage reflection.

They need our love and our support and the only way they are going to have it is when we aren’t afraid to confront the elephant in the room [abuse]. Unfortunately, it’s easier to close our eyes and disassociate from everything that makes us uncomfortable. And I realize this is part of human nature. But I also believe that often so called non-Christians stand up for far more than those of us who call ourselves Christian. We get so focused on historical facts of the church and we are quick to debate theology but we change the subject and refuse to discuss the real issues at hand. We don’t want to discuss abuse, depression, addictions, family issues, or things that aren’t ‘churchy’. This drives people towards hopelessness for where else can they go? We tend to shy away from people that we view as weird or different, and although we claim to love everyone and be grace filled, we avoid those with big issues.

Christians just want to play it safe, to stay in the comfort zone where everything is peachy and…happy all the day. The reality is that there are some not so wonderful things transpiring under our very noses, marriages that are falling apart, children who are hurting because of a divided family, people who contemplate suicide or those that have addictions, people who have been victims of sexual and domestic abuse. We call ourselves family, and promise to stand beside them, to be a ‘hope’ to the community. So, why not discuss it? I think if we got more comfortable with transparency, and tried to get to know the story of those that may be different, we would see an extremely positive affect on our communities.

As one who finds it easier to close my eyes to everything that makes me uncomfortable I need, and am grateful for, these words.

Caveat

Several years ago, the movie buzz was all about the Christopher Nolan film Inception. The positive talk was so great that when I finally saw it, I was disappointed. The law of overly hyped expectations kicked in and what was probably a very good movie fell short of my expectations and felt unsatisfactory.

So, I understand how a movie loving friend of mind who went this week to see Midnight Special upon my recommendation came away dissatisfied. I had unreasonably raised his expectations.

So, for any future viewers, keep in mind that it’s really not all that good. You may in fact be wasting your time and money. There’s nothing special about it after all. In fact the 17% of Rotten Tomatoes reviewers who did not like it are probably right.

There. That should do.

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Kudos to those who correctly identified the movie that was mentioned but unnamed in Monday’s post. It was, as several of you guessed, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Buried Cinematic Gems

In early 2001, my teen-aged son and I went to see a movie just then getting its wide release. It was showing in the Hollywood 20 Theaters in Sarasota, in the smallest of the building’s theaters. He and I were among the few in attendance. The movie had not been marketed much at all. Few knew much about it, most had never heard of it. I wanted to go because of something I had heard about the music, but I knew nothing about the movie itself. My son went just because that was what we did.

We left the theater thinking that we had just seen one of the funniest, oddest, most entertaining, and most intriguing movies we had ever seen. It went on to gross $45 million and to be nominated for two Oscars, but on that weekend, people were drawn to other fare.

On a recent Friday my wife and I went to see a movie we had long been waiting to see. While others were enjoying Jungle Book or mindlessly considering the dawn of justice in Batman V. Superman (yes, my bias is showing), we had our own private viewing of Midnight Special. This movie is part thriller, part Sci-fi, part drama, and full of life. It is thoroughly entertaining and, like all movies by Jeff Nichols, sufficiently ambiguous to demand a second viewing, something we’ll gladly give. Plotwise, the most that can be safely said is that a father who has kidnapped his 8 year-old son is pursued by a religious cult and the US Government toward a magnificently creative and mystifying showdown. Along the way, the movie explores issues of belief and reality that encourage conversation afterword.
Midnight Special
But we were two of four in a 190 seat theater.

That was Friday. For Saturday’s normal ‘Pizza and Movie Night’ in our house I had picked up from Redbox a movie called Brooklyn. Though nominated for three Oscars, including best picture, many people have not heard of it. There is no super-hero in the title and it is neither a sequel or a prequel. It is a romance, yes, but it is more. What struck our family as we watched it was that the customary romance plot lines never appeared. It felt REAL. There is a beauty to watching and identifying with emotional and cultural struggle in characters about whom we begin to care. Art takes us into the experience of another, or others as a class, and we can feel what they feel in ways that nothing else can. Brooklyn does this.
Brooklyn
These were gems that don’t get enough attention. I will still see the blockbusters. If there is a Star Wars or super-hero or dystopia movie, my wife and current teen-aged son will not let me miss it. And they can be fun. But it would be sad at the same time to miss these buried cinematic gems.

[Three cheers for any who can correctly identify the un-named movie which introduced this post!]

Roman Catholic Response to Spotlight

Steven Greydanus (decentfilms.com) is a film reviewer whose point of view I greatly respect. I commend him to you. He is also a Roman Catholic. His take on Spotlight (a movie we’ve discussed here and here) as a Roman Catholic is worth noting.

Recently, this was posted to Twitter by a Father Kevin Cusick:

Spotlight places in @DecentFilms top 10: I found it a bit shallow on abuse cause, superficial in treatment of Church

Greydanus (@DecentFilms), over several tweets, responded with this:

FWIW, Catholic response to #Spotlight has been positive. http://bit.ly/1RNfhC7

As with any historical film, one can take issue with Spotlight on individual points (I do).

It’s important to recognize that Spotlight presents subjective experiences/opinions of characters…

…who helped expose abuse/coverup. Sadly, these journalists etc. were mostly alienated from the Church…

…because church leaders and others in the Church didn’t take responsibility for cleaning up our own house.

If church leaders had done their job, we would control the narrative. They didn’t and we don’t.

Despite their anti-Church animus, the [Boston] Globe reporters did us a service. The film is their story, not ours.

His full review is here.