Kevin Smith’s Red State had an infamous, three ring circus-worthy world première at Sundance this past January, complete with Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church—the nation’s hardest working in-real-life trolls and the inspiration for the violent extremist group in the film—picketing outside. As far as spectacles go, it wouldn’t be outdone by anything else in the year’s Park City offerings, even if many left in a huff when Smith auctioned the film off to himself after the credits rolled. But as far as religion-baiting went, Red State was just one of a crowd of films there to feature broad villainy in the name of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity.
This year’s festivalgoers were also introduced to: Patrick Wilson as Joe, the oppressive born-again husband of Liv Tyler’s former addict Shana in The Ledge; Pierce Brosnan as Dan Day, the head of a megachurch who conspires to cover up an accidental murder he committed by pinning it on one of his followers in Salvation Boulevard; and Eddie Marsan as James, a man whose faith doesn’t keep him from beating, pissing on, or raping his wife Hannah (Olivia Colman) in Tyrannosaur. Compared to that lot, Red State’s Abin Cooper, the hate-filled, murderous pastor of the fictional Five Points Church played by Michael Parks, looks practically on the level. At least he’s open about his insane agenda.
Themes emerge from every film festival, unplanned connections and similarities inevitably appearing when you’re watching a wide range of features. You only need squint your eyes at a schedule grid and they’ll surface: Lesbians of color! Prep-school angst! Documentaries of questionable veracity! It’s not as though someone decided, “This will be the year of the abusive evangelical!” But taken together, these titles were enough to make some—to make me, certainly—squirm in discomfort at the easy targets they set up and then knock down. They invite the question: Are indie films unfair to Christianity? Has churchgoing become the new camera-pans-over-pristine-suburbia cliché—a shiny surface soon to be revealed as disguising roiling transgressions? In The Ledge, there’s a scene where Joe rolls up his sleeves to reveal tattoos as he divulges a dark past that’s literally hidden under his conservative button-down. In Tyrannosaur, the Christian charity shop at which Hannah works is a way to get away from her terrible home life, but faith itself provides no shelter for her. It’s just another obscuring layer on top of the awful truth of abuse.
We’re obviously living in the midst of a raging culture war, and independent film, though a diverse world, is still mainly blue-state, never more so than at the well-meaning liberal bastion of Sundance, where so many of the docs are about social issues, and some of the breakout hits will play in New York and L.A. and quite possibly nowhere else. It’s a reassuring bubble where crowds are bound to be receptive to anything taking on conservatism, the religious right, and prejudice, and given the state of our social and political climate (just last month, Michele Bachmann suggested that recent natural disasters were a warning from God about government overspending), these targets are guaranteed to carry a charge. So it’s not a surprise that the born-again brute is on the verge of becoming a stock type, but neither is it a pleasant one, given how little is offered to balance it out.
Indies by definition exist outside the mainstream studio system and the strictures with which its bound, and while faith-based films are still a niche, Christianity itself isn’t, with around 75 percent of Americans identifying themselves as part of a Christian denomination. So one could argue that films like the ones listed above are critiques of the dominant culture—though not the dominant culture of cinema, given that most multiplex movies, the ones that are seen by the broadest audiences, avoid religion entirely unless it’s of the ancient Greek or Norse variety and will enable some kickass slow-motion fight scenes. And it’s hard to imagine any other religion, even Islam, taking it on the chin so regularly in the media, being used as shorthand for hypocrisy and repressed rage without provoking protests of cultural insensitivity. If faith is still such an important part of American life, why is it met with such a lack of empathy in so many indies that theoretically go in search of a more sincere, less “Hollywood” version of characters and stories?
Part of the problem is that, like Chekhov’s gun, a character’s faith isn’t generally introduced in a film unless it’s going to have something to do with the eventual outcome. If religion is just a normalized aspect of someone’s life that he or she is not going to have challenged, including it on screen could be seen as a loose end. But that means that when you see films with themes of contemporary religion, they’re either there to fill in preexisting and frequently negative assumptions, or religion is what the film is explicitly about. Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground also had its première at Sundance this year, and served for some as a counter-example to the fish-in-a-barrel representations of the likes of Red State and Salvation Boulevard. It’s definitely gentler and more balanced than those films, an adaptation of Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir This Dark World exploring a woman’s shifting relationship with faith from childhood into an early marriage into motherhood. It’s fine, but it’s also the kind of representation of religious fervor that a typical indie audience would be most comfortable with, not just because the character Farmiga plays, Corinne, eventually grows out of her affinity for the tight-knit Christian community in which she’s lived for years, but also because Farmiga seems so cannily in control throughout the film, never giving over to belief, only visiting and surveying it in an almost anthropological fashion.
The increasing nichification of pop culture means that it’s becoming easier and easier to find things that speak specifically to your particular taste and views without having to sift through everything else. Pandora can create stations based around your favorite bands, Netflix will surface movies and TV shows it thinks you’ll enjoy based on what you’ve been watching, Google will tailor its search results to what it thinks you want based on its algorithms and your search history. Indie films are niche themselves, shaped by their anticipated audiences and what will resonate with them—particularly the glossier indies that exist between the strict arthouse and the major multiplex. In its extremes, Christianity is used as a justification for discrimination, intolerance, and general ridiculousness, but for indies to run with that as the primary characterization of the religious affiliation of the majority of the nation is to reinforce stereotypes and to, maybe worse, end the conversation and attempts at understanding. (This cuts both ways: I’ve heard arguments sparked by The Tree Of Life about whether you need to be Christian to buy into the ending, and where the line is between a film that’s religious versus one about characters who have religion.)
If faith only shows up as a means of keeping people down or as a way for someone to hide an underlying cruel/greedy/lying/delusional nature, if the idea that a character can be sincere in his or her beliefs and get something from them is impossible, then indie film becomes the equivalent of the smug belligerent atheist kid on campus who’s always trying to organize debates about the existence of God with Christian groups, and who ends up coming across as just as annoying as any sanctimonious proselytizer. Personally, my hopes are pinned to the recently announced The Book Of Mormon adaptation: Trey Parker and Matt Stone may be experts at skewering the preposterous aspects of organized religion, but they’re also willing to admit that out of faith can come positive things.