Religion remains the one cinematic taboo. As it should be: developing belief systems to create order in a world that, to some, appears chaotic is as human as eating and breathing. To say it is the territory of the idle-minded is to neglect the healing power of a belief system, theistic or otherwise. But more often than not, it allows the eloquent and duplicitous an opportunity to capitalize on those that seek guidance.
Pastor Dan Day may be one of those people. In “Salvation Boulevard,” he is the head of a small community beholden to a megachurch. With a handsome demeanor, a million dollar smile and a common-man salt-and-pepper stubble, Day wields considerable influence over the strong majority of the town’s inhabitants that take his word as The Word. As played by Pierce Brosnan, he’s somewhat snake-skinned, but also fairly humane — this doesn’t seem like a man out to profit or manipulate. The best types of con man performances trick you into wondering whether someone is conning someone else or not, despite any evidence to the contrary.
Despite his status, one of his lambs appears to be having second thoughts. Converted Deadhead Carl (Greg Kinnear) may have married a hot-to-trot Holy Roller himself in Gwen (Jennifer Connelly), but he doesn’t appear to be at home in his own skin. Perhaps part of that has to do with her father Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a former general turned-bumpkin with unyielding religious philosophies. Maybe it’s just how he can’t shake the feeling that rock and roll wasn’t meant to be replaced in his heart.
In a somewhat implausible show of tolerance, Day’s megachurch is hosting a debate, between Day and his religion and best-selling author Dr. Blaylock (Ed Harris) and his public atheism. Naturally, both sides merely mock each other and go for cheap shots over content, the crowd never once allowing Blaylock to speak over them. Unfortunately for Blaylock, things go awry during a post-debate cigar break and Blaylock takes an inadvertent bullet to the temple from Day, with Carl watching.
Day’s first inclination is self-preservation, so he takes the steps necessary to make it look like a suicide. Carl reacts as if this is the final straw in his diminished religious tolerance, deciding to strike at Day by revealing the truth. As is in most of these small towns, with people’s open faith corroded by unthinking cynicism, no one, not even his wife, believes his story. Slowly being ostracized from the community, Carl falls in with a local pot-smoker (Marisa Tomei) and a vengeful cartel drug runner (Yul Vasquez).
Carl’s story is humorous in nature, but it never seems clear what is being parodied. The lame-o who grows cajones is a part he’s played before, and Kinnear finds new wrinkles to his character. But as the web of events continues to grow, the movie allows him to take a back seat. More compelling is Brosnan as Day, though they compliment each other as well here as they did in “The Matador.” As Day retreats home after the shooting, he replays the events in his head, only to get a mysterious phone call as his cell turns red. Appropriately, that’s Tim Curry as the devil on television, in select scenes from “Legend.” It’s both a funny and pop culturally savvy way of illustrating the arc of this Man of God, now reduced to believing in the Devil thanks to cheap cable TV. Despite his BS-fueled sermons and his self-serving Gandalf-like demeanor in the third act, he’s someone we’ve felt like we’ve known and encountered many many years. Like “Salvation Boulevard,” Brosnan is at his best when the multi-talented actor-producer gets to plumb the audience’s sympathies without ever having a wink and a node. It’s a testament to how waterlogged the premise ends up and how strong Brosnan is that there isn’t much ‘Salvation’ when he isn’t onscreen. [C+]