Filmwell Forum: Courageous


The conflicting (and sometimes conflicted) opinions on Courageous, the new film from the makers of Fireproof and Facing the Giants, may prove to be a far more interesting drama than the movie itself.

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.)

Steven Greydanus, Christianity Today:

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.

Nathan Rabin, The AV Club:

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.

Free Methodist Feminist:

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.

Justin Hanvey, Speculative Faith, in a letter to the filmmakers:

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…

Adam R. Holz, Plugged In (Focus on the Family):

(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.”)

Victor Morton (Rightwing Film Geek) at artsandfaith.com:

… 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.”

Anthony Parisi at The White Horse Inn blog:

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.

Nick Schager, Village Voice:

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.

Movieguide:

(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.

  • http://twitter.com/dakern David Kern

    “Some of the funniest scenes ever made”. 

    Well now I definitely have to see it. 

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      I hope that the “funniest scenes ever made” include the “gang members beat initiate” scene, the police shootout, and the “just some hugging” scene.

      • M. Leary

        We all know the funniest “gang members beat initiate” scene in a Christian movie is in Cross and the Switchblade. Movieguide should know this stuff.

    • http://twitter.com/vjmfilms Victor Morton

       “Funniest scenes ever made”

      There are moments when matters of taste become matters of fact. COURAGEOUS does not have any scene that remotely qualifies as one of the funniest “ever made.”

      I say that as someone who, though disappointed in the film overall, thinks the Kendricks have a good sense of humor and comic timing when they choose to display it — “I love you”; the fireman in the mirror in FIREPROOF. But SOME LIKE IT HOT, Gracie Allen, STRANGELOVE, Buster Keaton, Mel Brooks, SPINAL TAP, Woody Allen, BRINGING UP BABY, the Marx Brothers, WC Fields — these guys ain’t remotely in that league (not that they’re trying to be or have to try) and such hyperbole really is unfair to the achievements they HAVE made.

      • Martin Stillion

        Maybe it’s an editing mistake by Movieguide. They meant to say “the funniest scenes ever made BY THE KENDRICK BROTHERS.”

        • Jeffrey Overstreet

          It’s certainly one of the funniest lines ever published by Movieguide.

  • Jason Panella

    I’m upset that no one is talking about the hugging. My children will not be seeing this. 

    • http://twitter.com/vjmfilms Victor Morton

      Hugs Not Drugs

  • Jeffrey Overstreet

    I’m glad that Movieguide pointed out the movie’s “Very strong clear, evangelistic Christian, moral worldview.” So often, we only get movies that have a “clear,” but not “very strong,” worldview… or one that’s “clear and evangelistic,” but not “Christian”… or “moral and Christian,” but not “evangelistic”… or “very strong” but not “clear”… or “evangelistic Christian” but not moral…. Just the other day, I was wondering when I would finally get the whole package of a “very strong clear, evangelistic Christian, moral worldview.”

  • Phil W

    I can’t understand why Nick Schager thinks the promise ring part is creepy, but the Free Methodist Feminist critique hurts the most. Maybe I think she’s right.

  • Abraveheart21

    I am glad Jason pointed out the hugging in this film. Clearly I will not be letting my infant son or my “Wife” see this heathenry. 

  • Mark

    I’m fascinated by the idea that a chastity ring has become creepy to Christians.  When did this happen?

    • Peter Chattaway

      When have chastity rings (and purity balls, etc.) ever *not* been creepy?

      • Mark

        Peter, I guess I live in a different world.  I’ve never known anyone who thought of chastiy rings as creepy.  I must admit that I had to look up purity balls and was relieved to find out it didn’t mean what I first thought it did.

        • Peter T Chattaway

          Rings per se are not necessarily creepy. It’s the symbolic marriage-like attachment between the girl and her father that edges the rings into purity-ball territory.

          • Mark

            Interesting Peter.  I had never thought of them in that matter.  From a professional standpoint just about anything that gets a dad involved in his daughters love life is a good thing.

            I am a fraud here however, I haven’t seen the movie. 

  • Anonymous

    “29% rating with critics and a 95% rating with audiences” — What does this say about listening to film critics?  (in general, not specific to any movie or critic)

    • Jeffrey Overstreet

      Well, if you keep in mind that *critics* tend to be film enthusiasts who actually love movies so much that they care about quality, I’m more concerned about what those stats say about the wisdom of audiences…

      • Anonymous

        I’m not saying that the critics’ thoughts/opinions/etc are invalid or wrong. But a large number of critics have totally lost touch with the movie-going audience, also known as “the people who employ the filmmakers — and, it follows, the critics.” ;-)

        The *best* light that the 29/95 difference can be put in is that it speaks to that disconnect.

        • Jeffrey Overstreet

          I’m not sure what it means to “lose touch with the moviegoing audience.” Does this mysterious process of critics “losing touch” happen when they writing about movies? By caring? By focusing on excellence?

          Have mechanics “lost touch” with drivers because they have more experience and dedication to what separates an excellent car from a decent one?

          Let’s look at it in the realm of food criticism. I suspect no more than 29% of discerning food critics — food-lovers who care about flavor, quality, nutrition, art — would give Denny’s or KFC a thumb’s up. But if you served an average American neighorhood food from Denny’s or KFC, I can easily imagine at least 90% saying they liked it.

          Have food critics “lost touch” with the average diner because they have developed more discerning preferences?

          So the question is this: Should critics give good reviews to what the majority of the audience likes? If they prefer to save their high ratings for the delicious, nutritious, beautifully presented meal at the hole-in-the-wall French restaurant down the street, aren’t they doing what we would hope critics would do… point us toward what is best?

          • Anonymous

            See, Jeff, you (thankfully) distinguish yourself from many critics by the mere fact that you acknowledge that there are circumstances in which the 90% are happy with the KFC meal without talking down to them like they were a bunch of idiots that wouldn’t know good food if IT bit THEM. ;-)

            The fact that you acknowledge such a circumstance means that you haven’t lost touch. And yes, keep pointing out the best stuff, by all means. Just throw the masses a frickin’ bone now and then. ;-)

          • Anonymous

            I suspect that if good food bites somebody, it’s not good food. :)

            Thanks for the comments. If I figure out how to throw a bone to the masses, I’ll do so. :)

          • Anonymous

            Here’s a link for those “masses”: http://www.avclub.com/articles/just-how-many-explosions-have-michael-bays-movies%2C64455/

          • Anonymous

            LOL! That’s awesome!  Bay throws the entire frickin’ skeleton.

            I’ve seen exactly one Bay movie; but in my defense, it *did* star Sean Connery. ;-)

          • http://filmchatblog.blogspot.com Peter T Chattaway

            The problem with food analogies here, of course, is that the Kendricks never pretended to have any interest in making fine cuisine. The films they make are meant as a form of ministry first, and any entertainment value they have is intended primarily to serve that end.

            So restaurants are the wrong analogy here; think food banks instead. You can critique the food on offer at a food bank if you want to, but that would be kind of missing the point, wouldn’t it?

          • Anonymous

            I will definitely critique the food at a food bank, not to condemn the givers, but to try to draw attention to the fact that if we really wish to serve the “hungry,” we’ll pay more attention to the kind of things that truly nourish. Others may disagree, but I think that beauty and art would make much more nourishing “food bank food” than “fast food.” I would argue that if the Kendricks wish to offer a form of ministry in the form of storytelling or cinema that they learn more about the actual craft of storytelling and cinema. I’d love to give a community that lack good water a well, but all the good intentions in the world won’t help them if I don’t also learn how to build a deep, lasting well.

          • Peter T Chattaway

            Do food critics really concern themselves with “nourishment”? Are they dietitians? Or are they more concerned with, say, “taste” (a concept which, of course, has all sorts of aesthetic and cultural baggage)? There are two different kinds of analysis in play here, and it’s not always clear which kind you are advocating. In any case, as some of the critics you cite have noted, the Kendricks *have* been improving as storytellers and filmmakers — but it doesn’t change the fact that their first priority is the ministry aspect. So if you want to mount a proper critique of their films, you need to approach them on that level.

          • Anonymous

            But that’s just the thing:

            I believe art *does* minister. I don’t differentiate between “art” and “ministry.” There is no “ministry aspect” to art. Art is ministry.

            I believe that when we try to turn art and entertainment into a utilitarian ministry “tool”, shelving our concerns of aesthetics and storytelling and the poetic imagination so we can “get down to the business of ministry,” we end up with… well… the last century of less-than-inspiring, didactic “Christian art.”

            In other words, if the Kendricks want to preach sermons, let them preach great, eloquent sermons. If they want to tell stories, let them tell great stories. But don’t come as a preacher disguised as storyteller. That short-circuits “ministry.”

            I find myself incapable of going to what you call “that level.” I grew up there, and I have no desire to return.

          • Peter T Chattaway

            That’s a fascinating response, because, on the one hand, you blur the categories of “art” and “ministry” to the point where you cannot distinguish between them any more, but then, on the other hand, you say sermons ought to stay in this corner over here while stories have to stay in that corner over there. First you say you make no distinction between chocolate and peanut butter, and then you say you don’t want your peanut butter coming to you disguised as chocolate.

            Well of *course* you differentiate between art and ministry. Everybody does: that’s why we have two different words for two different things. The person who works at the soup kitchen is ministering to people, but isn’t doing “art”. And the person who paints a portrait for someone to hang in their office is making a work of art, but isn’t doing “ministry”. There are obviously all sorts of overlaps and grey areas in between those two points, but those points are real, and the “aspects” defined by those words are real and *can* be distinguished by careful, discerning critics.

            At the same time, we don’t have to keep these categories entirely separate. We are bodies and we are souls, but no one would deny that there is a “physical aspect” to us as well as a “spiritual aspect”.

            Likewise, no one said we have to “shelve” aesthetic and cultural concerns when evaluating a work of ministry. But we do have to prioritize, and to respond to a work of art for what it is, rather than what we want it to be. “There’s nothing harder than learning how to receive,” and all that.

          • Anonymous

            Your response tells me that you have not understood my distinction, which may be my own fault. 

            Take two:
            “Ministry” is a big word. As the Scriptures constantly remind us, it has to do with what we *are* and *do* as much as anything else. Art is a ministry — it is an expression, a reflection, of beauty and truth. Preaching is a different kind of ministry, but yes, also is a ministry. Just as exercise and medicine are two ways of ministering to the body and making it stronger, we need both. But if you invite people to a gym, grant them access, give them a water bottle and a locker and some sweats, and then give them medicine instead of exercise, that’s a problem.Where I see a problem in what the Kendricks are doing is this: They are trying to use the promise of one to deliver the other… and I’ve never seen that work well. Remember the high school principal’s ploy to “bait people” in with music that sounds like secular music and then WHAM! hit ‘em with the gospel? That’s still a popular tactic with people who have a notion of “Christian art.” It makes for bad music and bad evangelism.If you serve Folgers instant coffee to someone who has ordered espresso, it’s going to be an unpleasant experience… even if you serve it in an espresso cup in a fine espresso cafe. That’s not to say Folgers instant coffee isn’t useful, or that it doesn’t have its place. But when I go to an espresso cafe, and something is served to me in an espresso cup, I’m going to give the barista a bad review if he’s filled my cup with instant coffee. If you load a refrigerator on the front of a bicycle, the bicycle is not going to be a very useful form of transportation. Are refrigerators bad, then? No, of course not. Both bicycles and refrigerators are useful and essential. Most “Christian movies” … and much of “Christian art” … feels to me like a ride on a bicycle with a refrigerator in its basket. 

            Or, to put it another way, we’ve been invited on a sightseeing tour, and we end up in a seminar room being given brochures about services for sale.

            With that overload off metaphors, I hope I’ve been clearer. You say you want me to respond to a film for what it is… well, that’s exactly my point. This is a movie we’re talking about. And in my opinion, a film that is all dressed up as cinema but that delivers something else is a problem. I don’t remember seeing anything on the posters or in the PR for the film that says, “By the way, Friday night moviegoers, be aware… this is actually a “Christian Message Delivery Device”. It’s a bait-and-switch.

          • Mark

            Are you familiar with the folgers crystals coffee commercial done in the New York restaurant in the 80′s.

          • http://piercedtotheheart.org Randy Heffner

            Peter – maybe try putting the pieces together like this: To the extent that critics or partakers (film or food) focus on craft to the exclusion of nourishment, they have left goodness behind, as well as some amount of truth. When filmmakers sacrifice craft for the sake of nourishment, they have left behind aesthetics that feed our hearts (“beauty” in a small sense), often distorting truth (the same for food bank chefs if they just throw food together instead of doing the best with what they have).

            The greatest Glory (“Beauty” in its completeness, a la Hans Urs von Balthasar) comes when an artist achieves a profound fusion of goodness, truth, and beauty. The best critics will fuse consideration of all three — they will dig to find these in a film, and they will aim to help the masses value both craft and nourishment.

            Jeffrey’s post highlights that some critics indeed have very important nourishment critiques that the masses seem to have missed. But also many of the critic one-liners on Rotten Tomatoes show a good bit of failure to dig and show a discounting of what nourishment there is in Courageous.

  • Jesse Gaytan

     
     
    As is usually the case when my wife and I (We are both Christian) go to see movies like this that are called “Christian based”, it usually ends up in an argument. Why? Because she liked it and I didn’t.
     
    What did she like about it? She liked everything about it, especially the last few scenes of “a call to arms” to all men who confess the Lord Christ Jesus as their savoir. That scene reminded me of the movie “Braveheart” that had the same basic scene in its call to arms to dedicate your lives to the love of “Freedom”!
     
    What did I dislike? I disliked just about everything it. Although, I very much liked and agreed with the essence of the message, “Be the Godly man that God intends for you to be as revealed in Holy Scripture”, however that message gets blurred and takes an oblique turn toward self-centered righteousness that ultimately negates the sufficiency of Christ and the Holiness of God.
     
    I had a deep urge to puke during the last scene when the call went out to Godly men to resolve to be heads of their homes and families that will assuredly be accomplished by the signing of a “Resolution” to do just that.
     
     The fact of the matter (and our condition even after being born-again) is that we are “Promise Breakers” and not “Promise Keepers”. The signing of a resolution to be something other than what God continuously reveals to us that we are, is in effect slapping the face of God in disgust that He would think that we needed a redeemer that is sufficient to do what we are most capable of doing by ourselves.

  • AsinusSpinasMasticans

    The big problem with the sermonic material in this movie is that is only possible to be a strong, spiritual leader in your home with your wife’s permission.  If she ever cashes out, she can make one phone call to the DCFS and you go from strong, spiritual leader to deadbeat dad pleading for weekend visits.

    I don’t know if the same thing obtains for women.  A man would have to have a lot of disposable income if he had children and wanted to get rid of a wife.

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