Continuing my series of reviews on 2014’s films made by Christians (the so-called “faith-based” films), last night I watched Persecuted, which was released theatrically this summer. I want to get right to the point about this film.
What I liked about Persecuted:
Christians are finally become more technically proficient in the way we shoot our films, or at least in hiring people who know how to shoot a film. Persecuted looks pretty good – being shot, framed, and edited well. The cinematography was by Richard Vialet, and editing by Brian Brinkman. I’m glad films made by Christians are finally starting to look as professional as secular films.
Christians are also finally finding the funds to shell out on quality performers. In this case, the film has some familiar faces – including veteran actors James Remar in the title role, Fred Thompson as Luther’s Father father, Bruce Davison as the sinister senator, and Dean Stockwell as Luther’s ministry accountant. [Sidenote – as a fan of Quantum Leap, I sure hope Stockwell was well paid for taking what was such a minor role.] I’m also glad that Christian films are finally starting to be more professionally acted. We must be learning something about the production side of things, which is good.
Finally, Persecuted is not a bad thriller. It’s not necessarily a good thriller, but it’s not bad – certainly not bad enough to deserve the ridiculous 0% ranking that the film has gotten on Rotten Tomatoes.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t put the film much higher.
Why wouldn’t I go very high with my own RT score?
There are several reasons, and they mostly fall on the shoulders of writer/director, Daniel Lusko.
Technically, while the film was shot well, there was entirely too much darkness in this film. This – coupled with the dark soundtrack – made it irritating to watch. Perhaps – since the film ends in the light of day – the darkness was an attempt at symbolism? If so, it didn’t work. Not at all. Honestly, it came across as an attempt to cover a low budget (which I can’t really say, since I curiously can’t find the budget of the movie reported anywhere.) Regardless of the reasons, it was just unpleasant to watch – the speeches given in darkness with a single spot on the speaker; just about every interior shot was in darkness, again with very focused lighting; it could have potentially been more powerful to have dark deeds being done in the light of day.
Second, the casting. As much as I appreciate the career of James Remar, he was simply not the right actor for the role of John Luther. Not even close. Here’s why:
First, he’s supposed to be the son of Fred Thompson? Really? How old was Fred when he had him? Ten?
Second, Luther’s wife appears to be about forty, and according to his IMDB page, Remar is nearly sixty. Yes, older guys can marry younger gals and have children at an older age, but it just seemed too much of a stretch.
Third, considering the mistakes Luther makes in misguidedly trusting the people around him, he should have been a much younger man. It would have made a lot more sense to have him as a very forty-something successful evangelist who is in over his head, thus trusting the counsel of the sinister senator, buying the accolades and weird backstage pep-talks of his second-in-command, and being stubborn about his faith to a fault, so that the experience teaches him humility. As it is, I’m not sure what Luther learns over the course of the movie.
But I can forgive miscasting. The thing I have a hard time forgiving is more philosophical.
I’m so incredibly bothered that someone would have the nerve to make a fictionalized movie with the title “Persecuted”, imagining possible future persecution of a fictional evangelist in America, while Christians are actually being persecuted in Iraq, North Korea, Central Asia, and many other places around the globe, right now.
I’m amazed that the filmmakers decided they needed to create a fictional story about John Luther, an American pastor, being hunted down by the U.S. government for refusing to support “The Faith and Fairness Act”, a multi-cultural religion law, when there is an actual American pastor who has been held in prison in Iran for the past two years for the crime of sharing his Christian faith, a person whose story is much more compelling and heart-breaking, because it’s true.
The more I think about it, the more bothered I am by the film’s fictionalized storyline, and not for the reasons the filmmakers hoped. On the film’s website, we’re asked to be challenged by Persecuted “to consider how (we) would react if—and when—attempts are made to limit (our) own religious freedom.”
But the film doesn’t really do that at all.
Rather, the film looks at one man who – standing up for his faith – refuses to support a pluralistic religion bill that his senator friend (apparent friend) is proposing, and has his life and ministry torn apart as a result. It seems to me that the film is more a lesson on being wise about the people in whom we put our trust, and not so much about limits on our religious freedom.
So, to back off the philosophical problems I had with this film, I’d like to go back to the writing. I really, really had a problem with the writing in this film, and it was mainly because the film made several promises it didn’t keep.
First, there were the flashbacks to Luther’s conversations with his
granddaughter daughter. In those flashbacks, a relationship was set up between Luther and the girl, but we never saw her again. Why make this relationship a big deal, but never give the audience the payoff? You mean to tell me that in the end it’s more important that we see Luther surrounded by his ministry’s board than his family? What that tells me is that the characters didn’t matter – just the Point the filmmakers were trying to make. It was a setup with a disappointing lack of payoff.
Another promise that wasn’t kept was with the senator. Here he was – the big scheming senator – the guy who was putting Luther through all this hell – the main antagonist – and he’s offed in a heartbeat by order of the president, and Luther’s nowhere nearby when it happens. Are you kidding me? This is the guy that arranged Luther’s whole predicament, and he doesn’t even get to be a part of the climax? It should have been the senator, deciding to get his hands dirty, chasing Luther up the mountain. It should have been the senator that Luther is FORCED to kill to protect the FBI agent. But no, it’s this nameless strange assassin – the dog on the senator’s leash – who is in the climax for some inexplicable reason. What a misfire on the filmmaker’s part.
This brings me to ANOTHER set up lacking a payoff… when the FBI agent was talking to Brad Stine’s character – asking him suspicious questions about the senator, it seemed like the FBI was quietly investigating the senator,but it was dropped, never discussed again. Why? What was the point?
The lady in the ministry van, who loans Luther a phone, and then she’s gone?
The drug addicts who witnessed Luther being set up. We see them for a moment, and then they’re gone?
The young priest who drives Luther away from the bad guys, uploads the incriminating video, and then he’s gone?
Luther’s shot in the friggin’ back – with a hole in his spine – but he still drives away and fights to the bitter end?
I could go on, but the longer I’m thinking about this movie, the sloppier it seems. So, rather than continuing to nitpick the problems, let me look at my five standards for filmmaking by Christians, as written about here, to see how Persecuted stands up.
Films made by Christians should take risks.
Considering that Christian filmmakers haven’t tackled the political thriller genre that much – unless you include the end-times movies – I’d have to give props to the makers of Persecuted for trying a unique mashup of genres. However, it’s unfortunate that the film was rather paint-by-numbers political thriller, with no genuine surprises or twists to surprise or shake the viewer. This was unfortunate, and meant that ultimately, the film was not very risky.
Films made by Christians should challenge the audience.
If the audience was the “faith-based” audience, there was no challenge here. Yes, the filmmakers stated that they wanted to challenge the audience to imagine a time when we’re losing our religious freedoms, but it didn’t succeed. Perhaps because it was so focused on one man’s story, and he was put there by his own lack of judgment in the character of those around him, it just didn’t feel prophetic or even relevant. If anything, the core audience who saw this film were probably the folks who already think that politicians are sitting in Washington trying to figure out how to bring about the destruction of all Christendom.
And the character of John Luther is supposed to challenge us in our faith, but with all he’s going through, Luther remains robotically steadfast – which is admirable in real life, but disappointingly uninteresting in a character in a film. After discovering his father’s unfortunate death, the only crisis of faith Luther appears to have is standing on the cabin porch and screaming, “Are you not true to your name?” and then he’s back to the business of surviving, with nary a tear shed. His father was executed, for heaven’s sake! Because of the choices that Luther made! The man should have a moment of brokenness at some point, but he never seems to arrive at that point.
Art is Art, the Pulpit is the Pulpit
This film preaches all over the place, with a disturbing mixture of Christianity and conservatism. It would have been more appropriate to call the movie Didactic: The Movie. That’s all I have to say about that.
Films made by Christians should raise important questions
On the one hand, it could be argued that Persecuted raises the question – what will happen if your government turns against you? But is that really an important question to raise? Our country is so polarized that the question is a hot button question, feeding the paranoia of the kind of Christian who think Left Behind and God’s Not Dead are brilliant movies just because they talked about God in a nice way.
But for those Christians, I don’t think it’s the kind of question that really needs to be raised. Ragamuffin came a lot closer to asking the right questions – looking unapologetically at the personal struggles of a Christian icon. Believe Me – using self-depreciating humor – made Christians look at themselves and ask important questions about how well we think things through. Mom’s Night Out, asks Christian moms at the end of their rope to consider what really matters.
These “faith-based” films all asked more important questions than this Persecuted, a film which wants to be a lot more important and relevant than it really it is.
Christian films should tell good stories
I think I’ve already shown that Persecuted falls woefully short of this. If the filmmakers had cast a younger lead, if they’d followed through with the promises they made, and if they’d filmed a few more scenes in the light, it might have been a stronger story. Unfortunately, it failed.
A test I always put to a faith-based film is to ask this question – would I be happy to show this film to friends who don’t attend church? Showing Persecuted? Nope. I wouldn’t do it.
And in conclusion – while I don’t put a lot of stock in the RT rating system when it comes to “faith-based” films – I think we, as Christians, should pay attention to what the secular reviewers say – since we should desire our films to reach beyond our Christian subculture. I find it fascinating that the highest rated “faith-based” film I could find at Rotten Tomatoes was Phil Vischer’s 65% scoring, “Jonah: A Veggietales Movie.”
The lesson I take from that? Christians need to make more movies with talking vegetables.
And by the way, if you don’t, you should really listen to the Phil Vischer Podcast. It’s the most intelligent, reasonable, and entertaining culture-examining podcast by Christians that you’ll find.
Even if Phil does insist on playing that annoying ukelele.