Heaven Is For Real is a corny cross-promotional cheapie designed to hawk assorted Sony products and properties (Spider-Man count: one action figure, one lamp, four posters) to megachurch audiences, though apparently nobody bothered to tell Dean Semler. The perennially slumming cinematographer (Dances With Wolves) composes the film chiefly in horizontals dominated by swaths of blue, creating visual rhymes between expanses of American flatland and the tight interior of a small-town church. His frames are headroom-heavy; nobody gets cut off at the hairline here, and close-ups tend to be one-fifth subject and four-fifths space. What that means, for the lay viewer, is that Heaven Is For Real looks classier than it has any business being and creepier than its producers probably intended.
Take, for example, a pivotal early scene, in which evangelical everyman pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is told by his moppet son Colton (Connor Corum) that the latter had visions of the afterlife during his appendectomy. The heaven sequence is standard Sunday school watercolor material, with twinkling stars, translucent angels, and a silhouetted Jesus. The conversation that bookends it, though, is a different thing altogether. Father and son are at a playground, teetering up and down on a seesaw. The camera is mounted at the fulcrum, which means that Todd and Colton appear to stay in place while the background appears to move. Additionally, both are framed dead-center. Take away the special effects that illustrate Colton’s tale of meeting Jesus and the praise-radio-ready music, and what you’re left with is a moment straight out of a psychological horror film.
Occasionally, it seems like that’s the movie Kinnear is acting in. Buried within Heaven Is For Real is the germ of a great story, involving a small-town pastor who experiences a personal crisis after being confronted with seemingly incontrovertible proof of the afterlife. The paradox of faith is that it’s most meaningful when founded on unknowns and unknowables, and Colton’s visions cheapen Todd’s beliefs by confirming them. To director/co-writer Randall Wallace’s credit, the movie fitfully engages with this theme, including a scene in which Burpo’s church board (which features Thomas Haden Church, who has a small and completely credible role as an evangelical businessman) excoriates those who’d turn to the Bible for facts instead of guidance.
Unfortunately, Heaven Is For Real isn’t really a movie about religion so much as an attempt to appeal to the broadest possible audience of conservative evangelicals. There are spectral fallen Marines smiling in dress uniform and paeans to paying for everything yourself and the power of small-town American can-do. (Note: The movie was shot in Manitoba to take advantage of Canadian tax credits.) T.D. Jakes gets a prominent producing credit, and Burpo’s church in Imperial, Nebraska is depicted as multi-racial and multi-cultural, though 2010 census records indicate otherwise.
There’s also a lot of the overstuffed, patronizing storytelling which tends to mar movies made for the evangelical market. The first two scenes begin with explanatory titles, both of which identify the setting as “the present day.” There is a smug atheist psychiatrist who operates out of a college alumni hall, allowing the movie to pack all of its awkward swipes at academia into a single scene. There are the obligatory flashes of white, used to indicate flashbacks in bad movies and bad TV shows alike. Yet, throughout, there are also moments—like the backwards dolly through an empty church or the shot of Colton standing in a darkened hallway, watching his father—that hint at the movie that could have been.