June 17, 2009 / Filmwell
Criterion’s May release of Wise Blood (1979, John Huston) makes available the flawed but fascinating artistic meeting of two uncontested American masters, novelist Flannery O’Connor and film maker John Huston.
Rotten Tomatoes shows us that Courageous has a 29% rating with critics (translation: “Awful!”) and a 95% rating with audiences (“Oscar! Oscar!”).
Let’s take a closer look at the opinions of various authorities to see if we can find something more informative than a ripe—or rotten—tomato. (I’ve highlighted some noteworthy lines in bold.)
With each outing, the [Kendrick] brothers not only enjoy a bigger budget and better production values, but become more adept in their handling of characters, relationships, and the difficult theme underlying all their films: conversion. While the film’s church-based roots and the tendency toward didactic, schematic storytelling are still in evidence, Courageous is their most ambitious and watchable film to date.
Right from the start it’s evident how far the filmmakers have and haven’t come. Courageous opens with an unexpected grabber that establishes a main character as a competent hero, in the process introducing themes of fatherhood and self-sacrifice by showing rather than telling—all while demonstrating technical chops to boot.
While that opening raises the bar significantly over previous Sherwood productions, in the aftermath, as a pair of cops drive away from the scene, their on-the-nose dialogue underscores the moral as they muse whether they could have matched the heroic paternal devotion just witnessed. A lighter touch would have been more effective — more like a movie and less like a sermon illustration, or more precisely a church-produced drama.
Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. Sherwood Pictures is, after all, a church-based ministry as well as an indie film company. Perhaps a certain “‘Davey and Goliath’ for grown-ups” vibe is simply part of the Kendricks’ milieu, and even what their audience expects. Still, their films aspire to the condition of Hollywood genre pictures, and while they’re not there yet, they’re moving in the right direction.
Courageous literally preaches to the converted, delivering ham-fisted messages of responsibility to the most receptive audience possible.
Courageous is essentially about fundamentally good, moral men proudly accepting the mantle of fatherhood, but its conception of good parenting is relentlessly and predictably patriarchal. A closing monologue that delivers the message of the movie in a shiny little box explicitly posits fathers as the visual representation of God within their families and homes. Courageous pays lip service to the importance of mothers, but doesn’t have much use for women, except when they gaze admiringly at the men they love while those men fully embrace their roles as household spiritual leaders. But it isn’t enough for the manly men of Courageous to inhabit the role of God at home: They must inhabit other untenable roles as well. A scene where a father takes his 15-year-old daughter to a fancy restaurant alone and gives her a heart-shaped ring granting him veto power over all her dates for perpetuity would come across as creepy even if the daughter didn’t later lovingly admire her ring in bed like a gold-digger adoring her sugar-daddy’s gaudy gift. Courageous deifies fatherhood and fathers when it would be better off treating its central striver like a flawed human being instead of a paper saint.
As usual, evangelical society has produced just another film that preaches to the choir and will be thrown into the church library as “acceptable” family entertainment for years to come. Heaven forbid we learn how to craft an actual artistic film that can present a moral message in the subtle, complex style of C..S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. But wait, C.S. Lewis was Anglican and Tolkien was a Catholic. Maybe it’s just not in the evangelical DNA to understand that there is more to making a good film than a sermon.
As you practice better Story craft, consider trusting the power of Story. Trust it to do what it does best, without dragging seemingly federally required Churchy Content into it. … Ultimately, doing so doesn’t trust God…
(I’m not quoting any passage from this review, because in their 2,100-word “review,” I didn’t find a single comment on whether the movie was well-made. I only found descriptions of content, and descriptions of how the film’s message was relevant to the “reviewer.”)
… the back half is even weaker than Fireproof in terms of sudden story arcs and skimped-on resolutions. … the homiletics really get heavier and heavier (substitutionary atonement dialog FTL) until a final scene of Alex Kendrick himself (supposedly in character, but hardly) delivering a fiery Author’s Message sermon from his church’s real-life pulpit. I wanted to flee.
The Kendricks are now legitimately good film-makers. They can direct actors to give natural, believable performances. … So why can’t they SEE how awful the third act is? … Do they have to slather pedestrian music with EXACTLY ON THE NOSE lyrics on montages of resolution? Do they not giggle at the closing scene? They don’t have the “novices making church films” defense any more.
Stanley Kaufman once wrote of Ingmar Bergman, “we must resign ourselves to his virtues because he is plainly too fond of his vices to overcome them, or even see them as such.”
Given the clear sincerity and earnest work put in by the filmmakers, it’s hard to know the best way to respond to all this. The social issues and family challenges it seeks to raise are certainly worth exploring. Small, independent dramas on family life are a rarity in Hollywood’s current obsession with franchise-driven blockbusters and it’s refreshing to see stories of this scale and interest on screen. The importance of fathers in family life and their responsibilities is always an area in need of our attention. Yet it’s hard to muster much enthusiasm when the film fails to engage or embody any of these areas well.
Courageous rejects nuance and the cross-bearing pilgrimage of the Christian life for artificially neat resolutions to the prayers of its one-dimensional characters. Sherwood continues to make films with God functioning primarily as a tool for our lives—whether he’s helping us win football games, repair our struggling marriages, or helping us find a job within seconds of a cry to the heavens. Brief, passing references to the gospel are only seen useful to convert a skeptic, who in a few tearful seconds somehow embraces the faith. Despite all the sermonizing dialogue — the story’s form and emphatic message has all of its focus on us and our accomplishments, not Christ and his work for us. In what could be page out of a John Elridge book, the “manly” vocation of police officer is used as the icon of fatherhood. Violent shootouts and car chase stunts ensure being a godly dad also looks as glorious as possible. Even the poster image calls to mind the slow-motion hero shot popularized by Michael Bay. As for the women, they are given little to do than look on approvingly.
The result is that Christians and their “good works” become the message, overshadowing Christ and the gospel.
Earnest, corny and — with regard to one officer giving his teen daughter some sort of heart-shaped chastity-related promise ring — borderline creepy, Courageous endlessly expounds on the importance of God in men’s lives but fails to answer the more pressing question of why religious sagas such as this treat subtlety as a sin.
(CCC, BBB, VV, DD, M) Very strong clear, evangelistic Christian, moral worldview with very real conversions … no foul language; some intense but not bloody action violence includes man chases stolen truck to rescue child, police shootout, gang members beat initiate; no sexual activity, just some hugging…
COURAGEOUS has extremely poignant, heart-wrenching moments, mixed with some of the funniest scenes ever made.