Redeeming Love is a kinky power fantasy in the halfway convincing disguise of wholesome faith-based entertainment. Based on the 1991 international bestseller by born-again romance novelist Francine Rivers, the film applies the magic-hour glow of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation—complete with majestic sunsets, cute canine companions, and at least one terminal illness—to the unbalanced love story between a long-suffering sex worker and the pious farmer who thinks he’s ordained to make her his wife. However it does at the box office this weekend, it’s going to absolutely slay at youth-group movie nights to come, where pastors’ children will fidget in their seats, their inevitable races to the altar hastened by two and a half hours of horny holiness.
Faithfully adapted from its enduringly popular source material (Rivers co-wrote the screenplay herself), the film is set in the California of 1850—a time and place it approximates with all the gritty verisimilitude of an amusement park’s Old West district. The ironically named Angel (Abigail Cowen) is the most coveted of the women at the local brothel in the ironically named Gold Rush town of Paradise. She was sold into prostitution as a child—just one hardship of many in her unyieldingly tragic backstory, which the film gradually reveals through a series of flashbacks punishing in both the miserable misfortune they depict and the minutes they tack onto the runtime. Needless to say, Angel has been disabused of her faith; we know this thanks to an early scene of her symbolically chucking a cross into a stream.
Enter Michael (Tom Lewis), as squeaky clean of conscience as he is of hygiene. He might be the most chicly well-groomed farm boy of the 1800s, with perfectly shaped facial hair and not a grain of dirt under his nails. Michael prays for a wife, and God obliges by putting Angel in his love-at-first-sightline. Her occupation makes her unlikely marriage material for a good Christian boy, but Michael is up for a challenge, paying for the pleasure of her company in a non-euphemistic sense and burdening her with nightly proposals she repeatedly rejects, probably because this resolute stranger possesses the charisma of an understudy in a Bible college production of Oklahoma! “No man is going to own me,” she sensibly declares. God help any viewer naive enough to believe her independent streak will survive his persistence.
Redeeming Love has none of the sub-professional production values or hysterical culture-war dog-whistling of a Pure Flick. (Though the villain, a pedophiliac baron named The Duke, does firm up his ungodly bona fides by performing forced abortions). The film is more like the cinematic equivalent of Christian rock, vaguely approximating the appeal of a sweeping Western romance for the churchgoing crowd. The performances range from serviceable to surprisingly solid, with an overqualified Logan Marshall-Green bringing a relative depth of emotion to his supporting role as Michael’s widowed brother-in-law, a more complicated character than just about anyone else on screen. Taking a breather from journeyman jobs like the last xXx sequel, director D.J. Caruso lends the project a handsome Hollywood sheen, setting montages to the secular sounds of Kacey Musgraves and bathing everything in a beatific light. (The epigraph, Shakespeare’s insistence that “All that glitters is not gold,” reads like an inadvertent self-critique.)
Still, there’s something icky about this love story. It hinges on a fundamental power imbalance: Angel literally can’t say no to Michael’s evening visits (even if all he wants during them is to press her constantly about the life he can give her), and when she finally does accept his proposal, it’s while lying bruised and battered after one of her employer’s thugs beats her within an inch of her life. At best, Michael has a serious savior complex. At worst, it’s some God-fearing mutation of the whole Madonna-whore deal, maybe a desire to make one into the other—to assure that the “finest girl west of the Rockies” is his and his alone. Rivers claims to have modeled Redeeming Love on the Book of Hosea, but in what way is Angel, trafficked from a young age, a sinner in need of redemption? She’s a faultless victim, not a lost transgressor.
What we’re seeing, in the end, is a kind of merging of courtship and missionary work: a denominational Harlequin romance where getting the girl and saving her soul are one and the same. Isn’t the pushy determination of a smitten boy who refuses to take no for an answer a kissing cousin to tireless evangelizing? Those not charmed or aroused by the story of a woman who eventually relents to the entreaties of a preachy suitor, if only as an alternative to the nonstop misery she’s otherwise experienced, will be left to acknowledge the screaming void where the chemistry should be. There’s no real tension here, because Michael is a boringly incorruptible saint, waiting patiently for the woman he doesn’t know but loves all the same to come around. Maybe there’s an accidental critique in Redeeming Love, a twin portrait of seduction and conversion as acts of just steadily wearing someone down.